Monday, October 12, 2009

World's Largest What?

I take an airline flight to Edmonton. The guys unloading the airplane are wearing toques. Sigh. Summer is officially over. They were probably wearing shorts last week. Fortunately it's not really that cold out, because I have to rent a car, and for some reason the terminal is designed so you have to go outside and then back in to get to the rental cars. Perhaps there is a tunnel that I can use when it's thirty below and blowing.

The reason I have to rent a car is that we're not working in Edmonton, but at an airport four hours away on the Saskatchewan border, with no airline service. I now know to rent from Avis, because they have a hassle-free policy allowing any fellow employee to drive the car without further payments or paperwork. They offer me a GPS unit at the rental counter, but I have Google maps directions printed off, and it's pretty hard to get lost leaving Edmonton, so I decline.

It was a Ford compact of some sort. It looked boxy with a high side profile but I should have written down what sort, because if you're any taller than me, don't rent this car. At the lowest possible seat setting my head was so close enough to the roof that my hair kept static clinging to the ceiling. Is this some kind of dodge by American car companies to get people to buy larger cars? I've been in plenty of smaller Japanese and European cars and never had head versus roof issues before.

The exit from Edmonton International Airport leads right onto highway 2 north, which ends at an opportunity to get onto 216 and then the Yellowhead Highway eastbound. I do all that, and then settle in for the drive. I don't like driving as much as flying. It's not as comfortable and you keep having to turn for arbitrary reasons. After a very short while I realize I forgot to refill my waterbottle at YEG, and I don't want to drive all that way without water, so I exit at a signed rest stop.

It's the worst designated highway rest stop ever. It has parking. No shade, warmth, vending machines, tourist information, toilets or potable water. That's right, a highway rest stop with no toilets. It doesn't even have any sizable bushes. I assume the truckers are just going in the bushes behind their big rigs. The only facility at the place is a couple of large garbage cans. I move on.

The next town on the highway big enough to be on the Google Maps printout is called Vegreville and the highway signs promise all services, plus the world's largest pysanka. I have no idea what a pysanka is, so I imagine it belongs to the family of edible dough things called names like perogie and pyroshky, depending on who is making and pronouncing it. I exit at the town and shortly see that I am on 50th Avenue at 52nd Street (or possibly on 50th Street at 52nd Avenue, I forget). Because this is Alberta, I know I'm two blocks from the downtown, and if you're going to have a World's Largest Something in your town, isn't that where it would be. There's a plaza there, and a parking space, but no large thing. A nearby store offers "pysanki" for sale, and I know enough of Slavic languages to recognize that as plural of pysanka. I am disappointed to see that it's a pottery store, so a pysanka is unlikely to be food, and she is disappointed I don't want to buy pottery. She does fill my water bottle for me and direct me to the world's largest, and explains that it's a Ukrainian Easter egg. She has some pottery replicas.

The World's Largest Pysanka was constructed for the centennial of the RCMP. It looks to me like a pretty savvy move on the part of the town to use federal horse force money to build themselves a giant tourist attraction, but their little blurb about it symbolizing the safety of their town thanks to the brave Mounties was so convincing that they were awarded extra money for their project. It is an interesting meld of an old fashioned handicraft with the high tech (in 1973 anything using a computer was high tech) construction. I love the line "required the development of new computer programs," as though writing code was an earthshattering breakthrough. Apparently no one had ever modelled an egg before. Hmm, 1973: does that predate Fortran? What would they have written it in?

It was worth exiting the highway for. Giant decorated egg on stick, rotates with the wind, and it's always windy there, so it kept moving as I was photographing it. I decided not to eat in Vegreville, but save my hunger and dine with my colleagues when I arrived. Apparently there is a World's Largest Pyrogy somewhere along that drive, and I missed it.


Anonymous said...

Fortran actually dates back to 1957. As far as programming languages go it's ancient, practically prehistoric, and it's amazing (and slightly depressing) that it still sees so much use today.

Icebound said...

The perogy is at Glendon, about 80k north of your drive..., but you did miss the world's largest kovbasa at Mundare on your way by.

However, neither compares to the elegance of the pysanka, and I am thrilled that you got to see it up close.

You did not mention whether you saw any real ones at the store at which you you didn't buy pottery.

The workmanship can range from amateurish to exquisite.

sorry for the link probs. pls delete my other posts...

Geekzilla said...

I sure hope that egg is securely mounted on its stand. I'd be fearful of it coming loose and flattening me.

Kinetian said...

Alberta has the worst roadside rest stops! However, maybe in Ontario they are too far apart?

Re: "I assume the truckers are just going in the bushes behind their big rigs."

Driving the Trans Canada in Ontario a couple years ago I saw long stretches where the ditches were heavily littered with plastic jars and pop bottles. I was told that these are used by the long-haul truckers for pee-relief while driving, then tossed out the windows for someone else to clean up. Ewww!!

Could that be the trucker's reaction to too-few rest stops with toilets?

Aviatrix said...

Geekzilla, the egg and the stand it rotated on were engineered with much expense and effort, and appeared to be well maintained, so I turned my back on it without fear during the photo op.

Icebound, the ones in the pottery shop were made of pottery, not egg, and had been painted with a brush. They had pictures on them, not the delicate geometrical designs I associate with the eggs.

I have seen beautiful Ukrainian Easter eggs before, in fact I bought a kit meaning to try making some of my own, and even bought some white eggs to try it out on, but then I had to go to work and missed Easter. Perhaps I will make Remembrance Day pysanki, before I lose the kit.

Is there something not clear about the link-making instructions above the comment box, or was it just a case of finger trouble? Thanks for persevering: those are exquisite eggs. I think my efforts will be rather more squiggly.

Anonymous, I think Fortran is like a 1957 Ford tractor: sure you can get a newer one with air conditioning and GPS and all, but the old one still does a perfectly good job of towing the airplanes into the hangar.

arf said...

Proper rest stops were done away with sometime in the early 90s by Ralph Klein's government. For some reason, the logic was that private operators (e.g., roadside restaurants and gas stations) would be happy to provide the service, but of course so many of Alberta's highways have long stretches with no roadside services at all and, oddly, restaurateurs weren't that happy with endlessly having to clean their toilets for people who did not end up buying anything.

Ward said...

I'm happy to know that Real Aviatrices Don't Use Pascal!

MikeB said...

By 1973, they could conceivably even have been using the 'c' programming language.
Not only is Linux implemented using 'C', but also as I understand it, vast tracts of MS Windows is still written in 'C'.

Ed said...

I'd already been using Fortran IV for a year or two in 1973. It was very well established.

If it wasn't in Fortran then there are a few more likely alternatives than C. Some flavour of Basic would probably have been the first choice for something of a "one-off" program: a language which would have been available most time sharing systems at the time. Think 300 baud acoustic couplers and the like.

But, yes, it's depressing that Fortran is still in use and, in my moderately recent experience, rather frustrating to have to clear up the mess when taking over a program written supposedly in C by somebody who still thinks in Fortran.

rw2 said...

Fortran: 1954

It's the first real programming language. There were *tons* of languages available by the time 1973 came around.

More than you ever wanted to know can be found:

SwL_Wildcat said...

I was out in Mundare and Vegreville all weekend for turkey & fixins. Had I known you were passing through I would have offered to treat you to some free home cookin...

Sarah said...

Well, I'm impressed. The world's largest pysanka is quite pretty, and it's a nice touch that it doubles as a wind indicator. ( Only the DC3 on a stick would better at an airport for that purpose. )

Down here, we have to be satisfied with mundane things like the worlds largest ball of twine (collected by one man)

There's nothing wrong with Fortran, old as it is. I use it every day. It's just a tool, and appropriate for matrix/vector dominated engineering and scientific programs. You can write bad code in any language, though it is easier to write bad code in complex languages (cough c++ough).

MikeB said...

I agree that a language is just a tool: Different languages suit different problem domains, but software developers often don't recognise this.
It reminds me of the old adage: To a child with a hammer, every problem is a nail.

dpierce said...

To a child with a hammer, every problem is a nail. ...

This is very true, although the realities of modern software production often require you to do whatever is needed to get the job done and make something work quickly and economically.

I might need to break up some ice. If my hammer is nearby and I'm good with it, whereas the icepick hasn't been dusted off in months and it would take me four days to find and get competent with it again, I might just crack that ice with my hammer.

It's not elegant, but it might produce a serviceable result and allow the customer to move on and allow me to get paid. Sometimes finding a balance between software elegance and business efficiency is a useful tool, too.

mattheww50 said...

Most likely the computer code was in FORTRAN, which as others have pointed out, dates from the 1950's. In the early 1970's FORTRAN was the language of choice for brute force calculations.

BASIC dates from the mid 1960's,
C in 1973 was possible only if you were at or connected with Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey USA (and you probably needed access to a GE-635 as well).

ALGOL-60 or ALGOL-68 are also possible, but not very likely.

Anonymous said...

Tunnel to the rental spot? There is no tunnel. There is the overhead bridge, however it is not heated, nor is directly connected to the terminal. I guess you are expected to enjoy the -5c weather at the beginning of october.

Aviatrix said...

I did enjoy the -5 degree weather at the beginning of October. I was just thinking of how much one might not enjoy the -35 degree weather at the beginning of February. I guess if you can`t take that, you have no business renting a car in Edmonton in February anyway.

Anonymous said...

@Sarah re:

"... matrix/vector dominated engineering..."

Careful! You'll lose this blog's 'FAMILY" rating!

Michael5000 said...

It ~rotates with the wind~?!? I LOVE it!

Also, your blog is awesome.

Anonymous said...

re: Fortran or algol68 -

If someone has access to ACM's portal
then Ronald D. Resch's 1973 paper "The topological design of sculptural and architectural systems" may clarify which language he used.

Anonymous said...

Actually, there are much better languages for array and matrix work; APL derivatives such as J are just one example.

Fortran's main strength is that it has (mainly due to its age) very good numerical libraries that would be expensive and somewhat risky to try to replace (although some C numerical libraries may be starting to catch up, after a quarter century). A parallel from aviation might be the continued lack of use of FADEC technology in piston airplanes: you may end up with something better, but you're opening yourself up to a whole host of expensive revalidation getting there.

And, of course, this idea extends to any existing program, even if somewhat buggy, that's already written in Fortran and needs to be modified; the code has to be pretty bad before it's worth redeveloping the whole thing from scratch in another language.

The last part of the issue is simply a sad lack of rigour in the software engineering and even computing science side of most of the industry: doing things right and well is difficult, and the vast majority of managers and developers will fight hard against it. But that's too big a topic to pursue here.

But there are interesting connections between this and the aviation industry, as a perusal of the last couple of decades of the RISKS digest will show.