Josef “Jeff” Sipek


Smart Clock: A New Time — Using three inexpensive wrist watches to achieve 1 second accuracy over an extended period of time.

Repairing the card reader for a 1960s mainframe: cams, relays and a clutch

The 555 Timer IC an Interview with Hans Camenzind—The Designer of the Most Successful Integrated Circuit Ever Developed

High-level Problems with Git and How to Fix Them — A Mercurial developer’s view of Git’s shortcomings.

Mailing lists vs Github

GDL 90 Data Interface Specification — Definition of the serial protocol used by Wikipedia article: UAT receivers to feed the received data to Wikipedia article: MFDs.

GDL 90 Extended SpecificationForeFlight’s extension to GDL 90.


This post is part of a series named “Europe 2017” where I share photos from my adventures in Europe during the summer 2017.

In late June 2017, Holly and I did a day trip to Wikipedia article: Tallinn. This wasn’t the first time I was in Tallinn, so I knew what the interesting parts of the old town were. As always, there is a gallery with more photos.

Tallinn’s old town is a medieval pocket in a otherwise modern city. In some of the photos you can see the modern civilization right behind a medieval tower.

A view of the Wikipedia article: Alexander Nevsky Cathedral from the tower of Wikipedia article: St. Mary’s Cathedral:

The tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral:

A section of the fortification wall that remains:

I’ve been to Tallinn twice and all my time there was spent in the old town. This makes me far from an expert about what there is to do. With that said, I enjoyed my time there and I recommend a day trip to anyone visiting nearby.


This post is part of a series named “Europe 2017” where I share photos from my adventures in Europe during the summer 2017.

When I attended the Kaivopuisto Air Show in early June last year, I learned about the existence of the Finnish Aviation Museum. It took me a month and a half, but eventually I found a free day to go check it out.

The museum itself is packed with all sorts of aircraft on static display. While they were interesting (and I certainly took plenty of photos of them), they aren’t what this post is about. This post is about Lokki—a retired Wikipedia article: DC-3 (registration OH-LCD) on display outside of the museum.

As luck would have it, the folks from the DC Association were there that day trying to see if they could start up Lokki’s engines—after 12 years of inactivity. After a lot of preparation, they managed to start them!

Without further ado, here are a few photos of Lokki (more photos can be found in the gallery).

Wikipedia article: Aero OY was the original name of Finnair:

One of the mechanics working on the left engine:

One of the people from the DC Association, seeing that I was obviously excited about the plane, asked me if I’d like to climb inside. I said yes, of course.

The inside was pretty bare-bones (which is to be expected of a static display that’s normally closed to public). I took a couple of photos inside, but most weren’t that interesting.

Throttle quadrant (note: most of the instrument panel was removed long ago):

It runs!

The livery is pretty simple—polished aluminum with dark blue lettering and a stripe:

I’m not really sure why they wanted to see if they could start the engines, but I’m happy that it worked out. Radial engines just have a unique roar to them.

Anyway, that’s it about Lokki. Hopefully I’ll get around to post processing the photos from the museum itself soon.

Modern Mercurial - Phases

This post is part of a series named “Modern Mercurial” where I share my realizations about how much Mercurial has advanced since 2005 without me noticing.

Last year, I had a realization that I haven’t been using Mercurial to its full potential. In this post, I’d like to share my thoughts about and usage of Mercurial Phases.

Phases are not a new feature. They made their first appearance back in 2012 as part of Mercurial 2.1, which makes them a little over 6 years old.

What are phases?

While there is a description of phases on the Mercurial wiki, I’ll take a stab at a short intro.

Each commit belongs to one of three phases (public, draft, or secret) which implies a set of allowed operations on the commit. Furthermore, the phase dictates which other phase or phases the commit can transition to.

You can think of the phases as totally ordered (secretdraftpublic) and a commit’s phase can only move in that direction. That is, a secret commit can become either a draft or a public commit, a draft commit can become a public commit, and a public commit is “stuck” being public. (Of course if you really want to, Mercurial allows you to force a commit to any phase via hg phase -f.)

The allowed operations on a commit of a particular phase are pretty self-explanatory:

Public commits are deemed immutable and sharable—meaning that if you try to perform an operation on a commit that would modify it (e.g., hg commit –amend), Mercurial will error out. All read-only operations as well as pushing and pulling are allowed.

Secret commits are mutable and not sharable—meaning that all modifications are allowed, but the commits are not pullable or pushable. In other words, a hg pull will not see secret commits in the remote repository, and a hg push will not push secret commits to the remote repository.

Draft commits are mutable and sharable—a phase between public and secret. Like secret commits, changes to commits are allowed, and like public commits, pushing and pulling is allowed.

Or in tabular form:

Phase Commits Sharing
public immutable allowed
draft mutable allowed
secret mutable prevented

By default, all new commits are automatically marked as draft, and when a draft commit is pushed it becomes public on both ends.

Note that these descriptions ignore the amazing changeset evolution features making their way into current Mercurial since they can blur the “not yet shared” nature of draft commits. (Perhaps I should have titled this post Modern Mercurial (2012 edition) — Phases.)

A note about hg log

Unfortunately, the default hg log output does not display phases at all. I think this is rather unfortunate (but understandable from a backwards compatibility point of view).

Last year, I dedicated a whole post to how I template hg log information including my reasoning for why I display phases the way I do.

How do I use phases?

Now that we have the basic introduction to phases out of the way, let me describe how I mapped them to my workflow.

First of all, I make all new commits start in the secret phase (instead of the default draft) with a quick addition to .hgrc:

new-commit = secret

This immediately prevents an accidental hg push from pushing commits that I’m still working on. (Recall that secret commits cannot be pushed.) In at least one repository, this allowed me to regularly have more than 6 heads with various work-in-progress feature ideas without the fear of accidentally messing up a public repository. Before I started using phases, I used separate clones to get similar (but not as thorough) protections.

Now, I work on a commit for a while (keeping it in the secret phase), and when I feel like I’m done, I transition it to the draft phase (via hg phase -d). At that point, I’m basically telling Mercurial (and myself when I later look at hg log) that I’m happy enough with the commit to push it.

Depending on what I’m working on, I may or may not push it immediately after (which would transition the commit to the public phase). Usually, I hold off pushing the commit if it is part of a series, but I haven’t done the last-chance sanity checks of the other commits.

Note: I like to run hg push without specifying a revision to push. I find this natural (and less to type). If I always specified a revision, then phases wouldn’t help me as much.

“Ugly” repos

I have a couple of repositories that I use for managing assorted data like my car’s gasoline utilization. In these repositories, the commits are simple data point additions to a CSV file and the commit messages are repetitive one-liners. (These one-liners create a rather “ugly” commit history.)

In essence, the workflow these repositories see can be summarized as:

$ echo "2018-04-05,12345,17.231," >> data.csv
$ hg commit -m "more gas"
$ hg push

In these repositories, I’ve found that defaulting to the secret phase was rather annoying because every commit was immediately followed by a phase change to allow the push to work. So, for these repos I changed new-commit back to draft.

Edit: I reworded the sentence about Mercurial giving you a way to force a commit to any phase based on feedback on

Kaivopuisto Air Show 2017

This post is part of a series named “Europe 2017” where I share photos from my adventures in Europe during the summer 2017.

In early June 2017, we attended an air show in Wikipedia article: Kaivopuisto. Unfortunately, we found out about it last minute, and so we missed the beginning which included a Finnair Airbus A350 flyby. Pity.

The show included a number of trainers and combat aircraft performing various maneuvers. Here are the highlights (for more photos visit the gallery).

Wikipedia article: Red Arrows:

A seagull joining in:

Wikipedia article: Finnish Coast Guard’s Wikipedia article: Turva nearby with Wikipedia article: Suomenlinna visible behind it:

Wikipedia article: Eurofighter Typhoon:

Wikipedia article: Saab 35 Draken:

Wikipedia article: Saab Gripen:

During one of the passes, I took a burst of images and then assembled them into a Southwest 737 “Airportrait”-style image.

Finnish Air Force Wikipedia article: F-18 Hornet:

A Finnish aerobatics team Wikipedia article: Midnight Hawks flying Wikipedia article: BAE Systems Hawk:

Even though this post has more photos than I typically share, there are many more in the gallery. So, if you are into airplanes, I suggest you peruse it.

Juhannus 2017

This post is part of a series named “Europe 2017” where I share photos from my adventures in Europe during the summer 2017.

You may have noticed that I was a bit quiet during the last summer. I have a really good reason for it: I spent five months in Helsinki for work. On weekends, Holly and I got to explore, which led me to accumulate approximately 12000 photos. Sadly, I am quite behind on post processing them all, but I will get through them eventually.

This post is about how I spent Wikipedia article: Juhannus last year.

Juhannus is the name of the Finnish summer solstice holiday. It is a time to relax, spend time with friends and family, and enjoy oneself. Every year, a nearby island, Wikipedia article: Seurasaari, has an afternoon and evening with an assortment of traditional events and bonfires.

There is of course a gallery of my photos.

Every year, one couple is selected to have their wedding on Seurasaari during Juhannus. Here is 2017’s lucky couple:

Before about half a dozen bonfires are set ablaze, a number of “can fires” is lit:

The largest bonfire gets lit by the newlyweds—from a boat:

I’m not sure how exactly the big bonfire pile was constructed, but it didn’t take long for it to grow:

So, that was Juhannus on Seurasaari in 2017. It was a nice and relaxing afternoon and evening, and if I happen to be in Helsinki around Juhannus in the future, I’ll likely spend the day on Seurasaari.

I’m going to end this post with a bit of Finnish (from because languages can be fun:

– Kokoo koko kokko kokoon!
– Koko kokkoko?
– Koko kokko.


– Assemble the Midsummer bonfire!
– The whole Midsummer bonfire?
– Yes, the whole Midsummer bonfire.

(I’m told that kokoo is a dialect form of kokoa.)

Rust Pointers for C Programmers

I’ve been eyeing Rust for about a year now. Here and there, I tried to use it to make a silly little program, or to implement some simple function in it to see for myself how ergonomic it really was, and what sort of machine code rustc spit out. But last weekend I found a need for a tool to clean up some preprocessor mess, and so instead of hacking together some combination of shell and Python, I decided to write it in Rust.

From my earlier attempts, I knew that there are a lot of different “pointers” but I found all the descriptions of them lacking or confusing. Specifically, Rust calls itself a systems programming language, yet I found no clear description of how the different pointers map to C—the systems programming language. Eventually, I stumbled across The Periodic Table of Rust Types, which made things a bit clearer, but I still didn’t feel like I truly understood.

During my weekend expedition to Rust land, I think I’ve grokked things enough to write this explanation of how Rust does things. As always, feedback is welcomed.

I’ll describe what happens in terms of C. To keep things simple, I will:

  • assume that you are well-versed in C
  • assume that you can read Rust (any intro will teach you enough)
  • not bother with const for the C snippets
  • not talk about mutability

In the following text, I assume that we have some struct T. The actual contents don’t matter. In other words:

struct T {
	/* some members */

With that out of the way, let’s dive in!

*const T and *mut T

These are raw pointers. In general, you shouldn’t use them since only unsafe code can dereference them, and the whole point of Rust is to write as much safe code as possible.

Raw pointers are just like what you have in C. If you make a pointer, you end up using sizeof(struct T *) bytes for the pointer. In other words:

struct T *ptr;

&T and &mut T

These are borrowed references. They use the same amount of space as raw pointers and behave same exact way in the generated machine code. Consider this trivial example:

pub fn raw(p: *mut usize) {
    unsafe {
        *p = 5;


pub fn safe(p: &mut usize) {
    *p = 5;

A rustc invocation later, we have:

    raw:     55                 pushq  %rbp
    raw+0x1: 48 89 e5           movq   %rsp,%rbp
    raw+0x4: 48 c7 07 05 00 00  movq   $0x5,(%rdi)
    raw+0xb: 5d                 popq   %rbp
    raw+0xc: c3                 ret    

    safe:     55                 pushq  %rbp
    safe+0x1: 48 89 e5           movq   %rsp,%rbp
    safe+0x4: 48 c7 07 05 00 00  movq   $0x5,(%rdi)
    safe+0xb: 5d                 popq   %rbp
    safe+0xc: c3                 ret    

Note that the two functions are bit-for-bit identical.

The only differences between borrowed references and raw pointers are:

  1. references will never point at bogus addresses (i.e., they are never NULL or uninitialized),
  2. the compiler doesn’t let you do arbitrary pointer arithmetic on references,
  3. the borrow checker will make you question your life choices for a while.

(#3 gets better over time.)


These are owned “pointers”. If you are a C++ programmer, you are already familiar with them. Never having truly worked with C++, I had to think about this a bit until it clicked, but it is really easy.

No matter what all the documentation and tutorials out there say, Box<T> is not a pointer but rather a structure containing a pointer to heap allocated memory just big enough to hold T. The heap allocation and freeing is handled automatically. (Allocation is done in the Box::new function, while freeing is done via the Drop trait, but that’s not relevant as far as the memory layout is concerned.) In other words, Box<T> is something like:

struct box_of_T {
	struct T *heap_ptr;

Then, when you make a new box you end up putting only what amounts to sizeof(struct T *) on the stack and it magically starts pointing to somewhere on the heap. In other words, the Rust code like this:

let x = Box::new(T { ... });

is roughly equivalent to:

struct box_of_t x;

x.heap_ptr = malloc(sizeof(struct T));
if (!x.heap_ptr)

*x.heap_ptr = ...;

&[T] and &mut [T]

These are borrowed slices. This is where things get interesting. Even though it looks like they are just references (which, as stated earlier, translates into a simple C-style pointer), they are much more. These types of references use fat pointers—that is, a combination of a pointer and a length.

struct fat_pointer_to_T {
	struct T *ptr;
	size_t nelem;

This is incredibly powerful, since it allows bounds checking at runtime and getting a subset of a slice is essentially free!

&[T; n] and &mut [T; n]

These are borrowed references to arrays. They are different from borrowed slices. Since the length of an array is a compile-time constant (the compiler will yell at you if n is not a constant), all the bounds checking can be performed statically. And therefore there is no need to pass around the length in a fat pointer. So, they are passed around as plain ol’ pointers.

struct T *ptr;

T, [T; n], and [T]

While these aren’t pointers, I thought I’d include them here for completeness’s sake.


Just like in C, a struct uses as much space as its type requires (i.e., sum of the sizes of its members plus padding).

[T; n]

Just like in C, an array of structs uses n times the size of the struct.


The simple answer here is that you cannot make a [T]. That actually makes perfect sense when you consider what that type means. It is saying that we have some variable sized slice of memory that we want to access as elements of type T. Since this is variable sized, the compiler cannot possibly reserve space for it at compile time and so we get a compiler error.

The more complicated answer involves the Sized trait, which I’ve skillfully managed to avoid thus far and so you are on your own.


That was a lot of text, so I decided to compact it and make the following table. In the table, I assume that our T struct is 100 bytes in size. In other words:

/* Rust */
struct T {
    stuff: [u8; 100],

/* C */
struct T {
	uint8_t stuff[100];

Now, the table in its full glory:

Rust C Size on
let x: T;
struct T x;
Raw pointer
let x: *const T;
let x: *mut T;
struct T *x;
let x: &T;
let x: &mut T;
struct T *x;
let x: Box<T>;
struct box_of_T {
	struct T *heap_ptr;

struct box_of_T x;
Array of 2
let x: [T; 2];
struct T x[2];
Reference to
an array of 2
let x: &[T; 2];
struct T *x;
A slice
let x: [T];
struct T x[];
unknown at
compile time
A reference
to a slice
let x: &[T];
struct fat_ptr_to_T {
	struct T *ptr;
	size_t nelem;

struct fat_ptr_to_T x;

A word of caution: I assume that the sizes of the various pointers are actually implementation details and shouldn’t be relied on to be that way. (Well, with the exception of raw pointers - without those being fixed FFI would be unnecessarily complicated.)

I didn’t cover str, &str, String, and Vec<T> since I don’t consider them fundamental types, but rather convenience types built on top of slices, structs, references, and boxes.

Anyway, I hope you found this useful. If you have any feedback (good or bad), let me know.

CBOR vs. JSON vs. libnvpair

My blahg uses nvlists for logging extra information about its operation. Historically, it used Sun libnvpair. That is, it used its data structures as well as the XDR encoding to serialize the data to disk.

A few months ago, I decided to replace libnvpair with my own nvlist implementation—one that was more flexible and better integrated with my code. (It is still a bit of a work-in-progress, but it is looking good.) The code conversion went smoothly, and since then all the new information was logged in JSON.

Last night, I decided to convert a bunch of the previously accumulated libnvpair data files into the new JSON-based format. After whipping up a quick conversion program, I ran it on the data. The result surprised me—the JSON version was about 55% of the size of the libnvpair encoded input!

This piqued my interest. I re-ran the conversion but with CBOR (RFC 7049) as the output format. The result was even better with the output being 45% of libnvpair’s encoding.

This made me realize just how inefficient libnvpair is when serialized. At least part of it is because XDR (the way libnvpair serializes data) uses a lot of padding, while both JSON and CBOR use a more compact encoding for many data types (e.g., an unsigned number in CBOR uses 1 byte for the type and 0, 1, 2, 4, or 8 additional bytes based on its magnitude, while libnvpair always encodes a uint64_t as 8 bytes plus 4 bytes for the type).

Since CBOR is 79% of JSON’s size (and significantly less underspecified compared to the minefield that is JSON), I am hoping to convert everything that makes sense to CBOR. (CBOR being a binary format makes it harder for people to hand-edit it. If hand-editing is desirable, then it makes sense to stick with JSON or other text-based formats.)

The Data & Playing with Compression

The blahg-generated dataset that I converted consisted of 230866 files, each containing an nvlist. The following byte counts are a simple concatenation of the files. (A more complicated format like tar would add a significant enough overhead to make the encoding efficiency comparison flawed.)

Format Size % of nvpair
nvpair 471 MB 100%
JSON 257 MB 54.6%
CBOR 203 MB 45.1%

I also took each of the concatenated files and compressed it with gzip, bzip2, and xz. In each case, I used the most aggressive compression by using -9. The percentages in parentheses are comparing the compressed size to the same format’s uncompressed size. The results:

Format Uncomp. gzip bzip2 xz
nvpair 471 MB 37.4 MB (7.9%) 21.0 MB (4.5%) 15.8 MB (3.3%)
JSON 257 MB 28.7 MB (11.1%) 17.9 MB (7.0%) 14.5 MB (5.6%)
CBOR 203 MB 26.8 MB (13.2%) 16.9 MB (8.3%) 13.7 MB (6.7%)

(The compression ratios are likely artificially better than normal since each of the 230k files has the same nvlist keys.)

Since tables like this are hard to digest, I turned the same data into a graph:

CBOR does very well uncompressed. Even after compressing it with a general purpose compression algorithm, it outperforms JSON with the same algorithm by about 5%.

I look forward to using CBOR everywhere I can.


Doug Engelbart Institute — Online exhibits, historic videos, texts, archive photos, and stories about Doug Engelbart, the inventor of the mouse, hypertext, and GUIs…all in the 1960s

Flight recorders data inspection by Airbus

Parsing JSON is a Minefield

Completely Painless Programmer’s Guide to XYZ, RGB, ICC, xyY, and TRCs — Brain-hurting amount of information about color profiles, etc.

darktable — A Lightroom-like open source software

World plugs — Info about every electric plug form factor in the world

Google Traffic, iOS edition

Several years ago, I wrote about how Google gets traffic information and how to turn off this location reporting on Android phones. Since then I’ve switched to iPhones. While I normally use the built-in Maps app, I keep Google Maps installed as a fallback—just in case.

I upgraded my phone recently and so I spent some time going through all the apps and making sure they worked and didn’t have more access than necessary. This is when I discovered that the Google Maps app for iOS defaults to collecting location information and sharing it with Google. Given my previous post, this isn’t really surprising.

Turning it off

Anyway, as with the Android post, here are the steps to limit Google’s collection of location information.

First of all, in Settings → Privacy → “Location Services”, I changed Google Maps’s permission to “While Using the App”. If I’m not using the app, then it doesn’t need to know where I am.

Second, in the app itself, go to: Settings → “About, terms & privacy” → “Location data collection”. That’s right, this setting is buried in what appears to be a page with the boring legal notices.

And then turn off the the toggle:

That should do it…at least assuming that Google honors the settings in its own app.

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