November 2007

If you haven’t read The Feud in this Tuesday’s New York Times “Science Times” section, do have a look. It’s worth it just for the unintentionally self-damning quotes from the two heart surgeons involved, Dr. Denton A. Cooley (now 87) and Dr. Michael E. DeBakey (now 99), who have apparently been engaged in a 38-year-long feud over the circumstances surrounding the first implantation of a fully artificial heart in a human.

However, my favorite part of the article had nothing to do with the feud:

Dr. Cooley recalled that a lawyer had once asked him during a trial if he considered himself the best heart surgeon in the world.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Don’t you think that’s being rather immodest?” the lawyer asked.

“Perhaps,” Dr. Cooley responded. “But remember I’m under oath.”

The New York Times probably didn’t fact-check that, since they’re just transcribing a quote: for the purposes of the piece, the important thing is that Cooley told the story, not whether it’s true. But court documents are public records, and it would be nice if someone were to track this one down. If it’s real, then it’s a verifiable instance of an anecdote I first read years ago in The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, edited by Clifton Fadiman (a wonderful book that is, oddly enough, neither little nor brown — it’s just published by Little, Brown & Company):

ROWLAND, Henry Augustus (1848-1901), US physicist, professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University (1875-1901). He laid the foundation for modern spectroscopy.

1. Professor Rowland was summoned as an expert witness at a trial. During cross-examination a lawyer demanded, “What are your qualifications as an expert witness in this case?”

“I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion,” replied the professor quietly.

Later a friend, well acquainted with the professor’s modest and retiring disposition, observed that he had been amazed to hear him praise himself in this way; it was completely out of character. Rowland asked, “Well, what did you expect me to do? I was under oath.”

(This anecdote is also told of others.)

I have to admit, my instinct is that Cooley just appropriated this old chestnut for himself, and that it never actually happened (to him). After all, what expert wouldn’t fantasize about finding themselves under oath for such a question? But I’d be pleased to discover that I’m wrong and that it really took place.

Last July, at OSCON in Portland, Oregon, I put a whiteboard in the main conference hallway (with help from the indefatigable Vee McMillen), and wrote

Call For Software: Tools We Wish We Had

across the top, dividing the rest of the board into a grid of blank cells. Our hope was to get an ad hoc brainstorm on what tools open source developers feel the world is missing — anything at all, not necessarily just development tools.

By the end of the conference, the board looked like this:

OSCON CFS whiteboard, at the end of the conference.

(One reason I waited so long to post this image was that I’d wanted to transcribe the board first, but of course never found the free hour or two… Then I got sane and realized that if it were posted, either I could transcribe it or anyone else could. Duh. At Eric Hanchrow’s suggestion, I set up a wiki and a bunch of people pitched in to finish the transcription (thanks everyone!). Then at some point after that that whole wiki installation got completely spam-bombed and had to be taken offline. Then years later, in late 2015, I recovered the entry from the still-offline wiki’s database, converted it to HTML, and posted it here:

  • HIERARCHICAL CHECKLIST MANAGER: X-PLATFORM, PYTHON IF POSSIBLE [someone wrote “This is an OPML editor” on the side later]

  • LDAP auth that matches Distos & Samba [addition: commercially from Centrify]

  • GUI builder for XUL [addition: +2]

  • Ultra light-weight memcache style queue, with cross language client libraries [addition: twitter wrote one, ask them for it]

  • dtrace for Linux or something similar
    [addition 1: (LIKE SYSTEMTAP? — jdub)]
    [addition 2: (NO, LIKE dtrace — VLAD)]
    [addition 3:(like systemtap, but not crap)]

  • Unified blog/wiki/forums mailing list publishing system [addition 1 (partly illegible): it’s called su??two ] [addition 2: trac] [addition 3:]

  • Online readonly running example machines
    ps, cat, etc just no writes
    look at a well setup “fiesty” for example [addition: (See FreeOSZoo live)]

    [addition 1 : read the swe books from ms press. yes, really!] [addition 2: all of them?]

  • Greasemonkey plugin for untrusted (conference) wifis that warns about sending passwords in clear. [addition: If you don’t mind being warned for all forms, in Firefox set: security.warn_submit_insecure to ‘true’ in about:config]

  • A URL syntax that lets me deep link to specific text in a page without an anchor there. E.g.: http://…/foo.html@”string” would jump to “string” in foo.html (& highlight it?). [first note says: “Do as Firefox plugin, other browsers will copy…”] [second note: “It’s called XPointer”] [third note: seems to say “jqFrag”, maybe?]

  • Shared calendaring that doesn’t suck! [note at bottom: “Don’t count on it. This is a deceptively hard problem.” Follow up says “Chandler06 solves this”] [around the original proposal, a chorus of four “+1″s has been written] [there’s a pointer to a domain, but it’s hard to read: something like “” or “” or “” or … ? None of the domains I tried resolved to anything interesting. If anyone knows what this is, please clarify.]

  • Open sensor / actuator code [line break] start with good camera capture [line break] need to move robotics along

  • Mailing list software that lets you subscribe to individual threads instead of just to the list. [many follow up notes: “!”; “It’s called USENET” (respondent asks “??? How?”); “Or Google Alerts” (respondent says “not reliable”, further respondent says “But I want to _post_ too… real subscription”); “gmane news gateway”]

  • Free / Open Source Music Typesetting Software that non-technical people can use (e.g., like Finale or Sibelius) [later addition: “Lilypond?”] [still later response: “Last time I tried Lilypond, it was not ready for non-geek users. Has that changed?”] [further response: “No :-(“]

  • A tool to surf Band and Myspace sites (w/o RSS 🙁 ) for tour date info. Bonus points for filtering on city!

  • CLIENT AND SERVER INTEROPERABLE WITH M$ EXCHANGE TO RECLAIM ENTERPRISE SHARED CALENDARING AND MESSAGING [entire entry has been cleverly surrounded with an HTML anchor tag whose href points back to row 2, column 4 “Shared Calendaring that doesn’t suck”]

  • Document management workflow systems — XML based [someone has added “JBEM?” after this]

  • Blog reflector: A blog entry is just a post with comments — a thread. Let that thread be displayed at as many sites (in as many themes) as people want, & let it ”accept comments” from all those display sites. When I write a blog entry, I don’t want to be forced to choose where to run it, nor risk dividing comments among multiple sites. ”One Thread, Many Doors” should be the way the world is. (Can RSS do this?) [someone has scrawled a “+1” in the upper left corner of this entry]

  • Image processing sw to clean up camera pics of whiteboards (how much will you pay me to write it?) [transcriber’s note: hah hah, very funny]

  • configfile + parsefile(OAwiki?); load html file with links for keywords; “in situ config explainer” coar{_AT_}

  • TESLA power transmission wireless 801c

  • Stable kernel DDI for Linux

  • ADDRESS BOOK IN MOZILLA/Thunderbird [someone has written “Tools⇒Addressbook”, but then someone else crossed that out in green ink and drew an arrow pointing over to row 5, column 4, which simply says “that doesn’t suck”, presumably a generic destination qualifier for many of the entries on this whiteboard!]

  • Good open source schematic capture/layout tool

  • OSS CAD PROGRAMS [begin bulleted list] CAD, PCB, OSS Spice [end bulleted list] … that’s better than gEDA. [someone has written “+1” for this whole entry]

  • A proper MPEG GUI editor [someone has written “+1” for this whole entry]

  • Universal compress/decompress tool that doesn’t make me remember “xjvf” and stuff. Call it “expand-dammit”.
    [$50 bounty added by Jacob jacob@…something-unreadable… (suspect Jacob Kaplan-Moss, though)] [Later note says: “Archive::Extract — just wrap a CLI around it”] [Last note: “Contact gerv{_AT_} for a suitable script. I claim the $50 :-)” ]

  • Test case mgmt/tracking, repository, coverage reports [line break] SVN commit ⇒ bug ⇒ feature ⇒ requirements tracking. [someone has written “Maybe Trac? Or ReleaseMonkey?”] [someone else responded “Maybe Teotopia for the Mozilla project?”]

  • Something to make you zealots less f-ing religious about Linux. [someone has added in different ink “and Git!”]

  • [drawn heart symbol]

  • [the first word is clearly “virtual”, the second seems to be a pair of words, but I can’t quite tell what they are. “man slaves”? “main staves”? “man sraves”?]

  • [an asterisk followed by the phrase “that doesn’t suck”; this is a form of whiteboard compression, whereby a common phrase from other cells has been abstracted to this cell and referred to from elsewhere. Except that many of the other cells still say it too.]

  • Webmail that doesn’t suck and isn’t tied to a specific provider. [people have added: “Zimbra?” and what looks like “Bongo” or “Bovgo”]

  • A MOBILE PHONE APP THAT DOESN’T SUCK. [addition in green ink: “Yes!”]

  • OCR software that can take a digital image of all the shelves in a bookstore or library and read the titles/authors off the spines. Then you not only have a catalog of the books, you have a locator and theft-detector as well.

If you’re considering starting an open source project, there are a lot of good ideas on that board; have a look. Even if none of them quite fits the bill, one might push your thinking in a new direction.

Of course, earlier in the conference, the board wasn’t quite as… shall we say… constructive:

OSCON CFS whiteboard, at the beginning of the conference.


What finally motivated me to make this post was receiving the following mail from Greg Wilson, reprinted here with his permission:

From: Greg Wilson
Subject: student projects
To: Karl Fogel
Date: Sun, 4 Nov 2007 13:52:12 -0500 (EST)

I'm running a combined grad/undergrad course on software 
consulting next term (Jan-May'08), and need to find projects
for 25 to 35 bright, hard-working programmers, each of whom
will spend about 120 hours on it. I want students to work in
pairs or triples (so that they have someone local to bounce
ideas off); I also want the projects to be open source (so
that students can talk about/show off their work) and to have
real customers (people outside the CS department); it's a
bonus if those customers are in Toronto for face-to-face
meetings, but not essential.  If you have something, please
let me know.


So: anyone need some eager student programmers for an open source project?