Aug 03

How to get a reliable home router/WiFi box in 2018

My apprentice and A&D regular Ian Bruene had bad experiences with a cheap home router/WiFi recently, and ranted about it on a channel where I and several other comparatively expert people hang out. He wanted to know how to get a replacement solid enough to leave with non-techie relatives.

The ensuing conversation was very productive, so I’m summarizing it here as a public-service announcement. I’ve put the year in the title because some of the information in it could go stale quickly. I will try to mark each element of the advice with an expected-lifetime estimate.

Even before seeing any of the comments on this post I’m going to say you should read them too. Some of my regulars are more expert than I am about this area.

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Jul 05

A Century of Findings on Intellectual Precocity: some highlights

The paper From Terman to Today: A Century of Findings on Intellectual Precocity does a lot of mythbusting.

The recently popular notion that IQ > 120 has little incremental utility is dead false. Even small differences in IQ predict significant differences in creative output and odds of having a top-tier income.

Gifted children (and adults) are not fragile creatures with chronic emotional problems, they are “highly effective and resilient” individuals.

Not stated, but implied: IQ measurement in the upper ranges (above 137) is measuring something precisely enough to justify real-world predictions that differ significantly even over single-digit spans.

Not stated, but implied: Multifactor theories of intelligence are bunk. To a good first approximation there is only g. Otherwise the shapes of the bottom four outcome curves in Figure 3 would have to be more divergent than they are.

“g, fluid reasoning ability, general intelligence, general mental ability, and IQ essentially denote the same overarching construct”

“if graduation from college were based on demonstrated knowledge rather than time in the educational system, a full 15% of the entering freshmen class would be deemed ready to graduate.”

“Failure to provide for differences among students is perhaps the greatest source
of inefficiency in education.”

“Overall, there does not seem to be an ability threshold [even] within the top 1% beyond which more ability does not matter.”

A marked characteristic of the profoundly gifted is “willingness to work long hours.”

Jul 03

Survival mode

I spent 20 minutes under general anesthesia this morning, and had an odd memory afterwards.

It was nothing serious – my first screening colonoscopy, things looked OK, come back in five years – but I hadn’t been under general anesthesia in 40 years (since having molars removed as a teen) and I was self-monitoring carefully.

When I came out of it, I brought with me two memories. One was that I had been aware of people talking around me. The anesthesiologist had told me that might happen, and I wouldn’t have been surprised by it anyway; I’ve read of that effect.

This tells you human beings are really social animals – so much so that we’re partially alert to people-talk even when we’re knocked out. After all (gasp!) our status might change…

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Jun 25

How to make The Breakfast

I wouldn’t have posted this if the comment thread on “The sad truth about toasters” hadn’t extended to an almost ridiculous length, but…

I dearly love classic American breakfast food. I delight in the kind of cheap hot breakfast you get at humble roadside diners. I think it’s one of the glories of our folk cuisine and will cheerfully eat it any time of the day or night.

I posted a fancy breakfast-for-two recipe a while back (Eggs a la ESR). What follows is the slightly plainer breakfast I make for myself almost every morning. It’s the stable result of a decades-long optimization process – I haven’t found a way to improve it in years.

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Jun 24

The sad truth about toasters

I bought a toaster today.

I didn’t want to buy a toaster today. About ten years ago I paid $60 for what appeared to be a rather high-end Krups model in accordance with my normal strategy of “pay for quality so you won’t have to replace for a good long time”, an upper-middle-class heuristic that I learned at my mother’s knee to apply to goods even as mundane as light kitchen appliances.

I had reason for hope that I would get a well-extended lifeline for my money. I recalled the toasters of my childhood, chrome and Bakelite battleships one just assumed would last forever, being passed down generations. “Luke, this toaster belonged to your father…an elegant weapon from a more civilized age.”

Alas, it was not to be.

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Jun 23

Respect can be hard

I had a good sword class today. There was much sparring with many different weapons.

At one point, Sensei Varady and I faced off, him with paired shortsword simulants, me with a longsword simulant. It went pretty well for me; sensei is bigger, faster, at least 20 years younger, and more skilled than I am (he runs the school), but he kept letting his guard fall just a _little_ bit too low and I got in three or four good clean kill shots on his left neck-and-shoulder pocket – a favorite target of mine at any blade length.

Understandably this adrenalizes him some and the next time my block is not quite fast enough he fetches me a whack on the ribs that he immediately realizes was way overpowered. Starts apologizing, grins, and says something like “You’re a good, tough fighter, I tend to power up automatically to deal with it.” (Sense exact, words not.)

I said “I am very happy that you treat me with that respect.”

And absolutely meant it. Given a choice between taking a bruise occasionally because the instructor has to play hard to beat me and being ineffectual enough that he always has control of the fight…I’ll take the bruises, thanks. And enjoy how I got them. A lot.

Jun 18

The critical fraction

I’ve seen analyses of the long odds the U.S. government would face if it ever attempted to confiscate civilian firearms before. The Mathematics of Countering Tyranny seems like a particularly well done example.

The authors compute that under very generous assumptions there are about 83000 door-knockers available to perform confiscation raids. Dividing that into the estimated number of semiautomatic rifles in the U.S. and assuming that each raid would net three rifles confiscated (which I think is optimistic in the raiders’ favor) each doorknocker would have to execute and survive 864 raids in order for the entire stock of rifles to be seized.

Notice that we’re not even addressing the far larger stock of handguns and other weapons yet. But I’m willing to tilt the conditions of the argument in the confiscators’ favor, because that makes the conclusion more difficult for them to rebut.

There’s a different way to slice these numbers. Applying the 3:1 force ratio military planners like to assume, this means the number of violently resistant gun owners – people willing to shoot a doorknocker rather than watch their country sink into tyranny – needs to be about 249000.

Is this a plausible number?

The NRA has about 5.2 million members. That’s about 1 in 20 NRA members.

According to the General Social Survey in 2013, about 1 in 4 Americans owned guns. That’s 79 million gun owners, and probably an undercount because gun owners are chronically suspicious of the intention behind such questions. But we’ll go with it as an assumption that’s best-case for the doorknockers.

That means that in order to stop attempted gun confiscations dead on a purely force-on-force level, only one in 317 American gun owners needs to remember that our first American Revolution began as spontaneous popular resistance to a gun-confiscation order. Only one in 317 American gun owners need to remember their duty under the U.S. Constitution as members of the unorganized militia – “the body of the people in arms”. Only one in 317 American gun owners need to shoot back.

Is that a plausible fraction? Yes. Yes, I think it is. Count me as one of them.

Why am I publishing these numbers? To persuade the would-be confiscators that their enterprise is doomed to fail in fire and blood, so freedom-loving people never actually have to take on the moral burden of killing them. The fact that we’re ready to do so if we have to does not mean we want that terrible day to arrive.

But eternal vigilance is not the only price of liberty. Eternal deterrence against would-be tyrants – including the threat and in extremis the use of revolutionary violence – is part of that price too. The Founding Fathers understood this. The question is whether a critical fraction of American gun owners today know our duty and would do it.

Here is why I am optimistic on that score: every estimate in this back-of-the envelope calculation has been pushed to the end of the plausible range that favors the confiscators. In fact, the stock of weapons that would need to be confiscated is much larger. The number of gun owners is pretty certainly underestimated. Even getting full compliance with confiscation orders from the agents and local police is unlikely, reducing the effective number of doorknockers.

Correspondingly, the critical fraction of American gun owners that would have to be hard-core enough to resist confiscation with lethal violence in order to stop the attempt is lower than 1 in 317. Probably much lower.

Especially if we responded by killing not merely the doorknockers but the bureaucrats and politicians who gave them their orders. Which would be more efficient, more just, and certain to follow.

May 30

Defect attractors

There’s a phrase I’ve used on this blog more than once that I had reason to Google just now and found that (to my surprise) the top hits are mostly my writings. It is “defect attractor”.

In this post I’m going to explain why I think this is an important concept that needs to be in the toolkit of every software engineer, and talk about the practice it implies.

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May 28

The new science of Indo-European origins

I’ve had a strong amateur interest in historical linguistics since my teens in the early 1970s.

Then, as today, a lot of the energy in that field was focused in the origins and taxonomy of the Indo-European family – the one that includes English and the Latin-derived and Germanic languages and Greek and also a large group of languages in northern India and Persia. This is not only because most linguists are Europeans, it’s because there’s a massively larger volume of ancient literature in this family than can be found anywhere else in the world – there’s more to go on.

People have been trying to pin down the origin of the Indo-European language family and identify the people who spoke its root language for literally centuries. Speculations that turn out not to have been far wrong go back to the 1600s(!) and serious work on the problem, some of which is still considered relevant, began in the late 1700s.

However, until very recently theory about Indo-European origins really had to be classed as plausible guesses rather than anything one could call well-confirmed. There were actually several contending theories, because linguistic reconstruction of the root PIE (Proto-Indo-European) language was sort of floating in midair without solid enough connections to archaeological and genetic evidence to be grounded.

This has changed – dramatically – in the last five years. But there isn’t yet any one place you can go to read about all the lines of evidence yet; nobody has written that book as of mid-2018. This post is intended to point readers at a couple of sources for the new science, simply because I find it fascinating and I think my audience will too.

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May 25

A touch in the night

Occasionally I have dreams that seem to be trying to assemble into the plot of an SF novel – weird and fractured as dreams are, but with something like a long-form narrative struggling to develop.

Occasionally I have nightmares. I don’t know how it goes for anybody else – and one reason I’m posting this is to collect anecdotal data in the comments – but if I wake up from a nightmare and then fall asleep shortly afterwards, it may grab hold of me again.

Yesterday morning I woke up about 5AM remembering one I’d just had. This is how it went, and how it ended…

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May 23

Review: The Fractal Man

The Fractal Man (written by J.Neil Schulman, soon to be available on Amazon) is a very, very funny book – if you share enough subcultural history with the author to get the in-jokes.

If you don’t – and in particular if you never met Samuel Edward Konkin – the man known as known as “SEKIII” to a generation of libertarians and SF fans before his tragically early death in 2004 – it will still be a whirligig of a cross-timeline edisonade, but some bits might leave you wondering how the author invented such improbabilities. But I knew SEKIII, and if there was ever a man who could make light of having a 50MT nuclear warhead stashed for safekeeping in his apartment, it was him.

David Albaugh is a pretty good violinist, a science-fiction fan, and an anarchist with a bunch of odd and interesting associates. None of this prepares him to receive a matter-of-fact phone call from Simon Albert Konrad III, a close friend who he remembers as having been dead for the previous nine years.

His day only gets weirder from there, as SAKIII and he (stout SF fans that they are) deduce that David has somehow been asported to a timeline not his own. But what became of the “local” Albaugh? Before the two have time to ruminate on that, they are both timeshifted to a history in which human beings (including them) can casually levitate, but there is no music.

Before they can quite recover from that, they’ve been recruited into a war between two cross-time conspiracies during which they meet multiples of their own fractals – alternate versions of themselves, so named because there are hints that the cosmos itself has undergone a kind of shattering that may have been recent in what passes for time (an accident at the Large Hadron Collider might have been involved). One of Albaugh’s fractals is J. Neil Schulman.

It speeds up to a dizzying pace; scenes of war, espionage, time manipulations, and a kiss-me/kill-me romance between Albaugh and an enemy agent (who also happens to be Ayn Rand’s granddaughter), all wired into several just-when-you-thought-it-couldn’t-go-further-over-the-top plot inversions.

I don’t know that the natural audience for this book is large, exactly, but if you’re in it, you will enjoy it a lot. Schulman plays fair; even the weirdest puzzles have explanations and all the balls are kept deftly in the air until the conclusion.

Assuming you know what “space opera” is, this is “timeline opera” done with the exuberance of a Doc Smith novel. Don’t be too surprised if some of it sails over your head; I’m not sure I caught all the references. Lots of stuff blows up satisfactorily – though, not, as it happens, that living-room nuke.

May 13

I saw Brand X live a few hours ago

I saw Brand X live a few hours ago. Great jazz-fusion band from the 1970s, still playing like genius maniacs after all these years. Dropped $200 on tickets, dinner for me and my wife, and a Brand X cap. Worth. Every. Penny.

Yeah, they saved “Nuclear Burn” for the encore…only during the last regular number some idiot managed to spill water on Goodsall’s guitar pedals, making it unsafe for him to play. So that blistering guitar line that hypnotized me as a college student in 1976 had to be played by their current keyboardist, Scott Weinberger. And damned if he didn’t pull it off!

Brilliant performance all round. Lots of favorites, some new music including a track called “Violent But Fair” in which this band of arcane jazzmen demonstrated conclusively that they can out-metal any headbanger band on the planet when they have a mind to. And, of all things, a whimsical cover of Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions”.

The audience loved the band – nobody was there by accident, it was a houseful of serious prog and fusion fans like me. The band loved us right back, cracking jokes and goofing on stage and doing a meet-and-greet after the show.

I got to shake Goodsall’s hand and tell him that he had rocked my world when I first heard him play in ’76 and that it pleases me beyond all measure that 40 years later he’s still got it. You should have seen his smile.

Gonna wear that Brand X cap next time I go to the pistol range and watch for double-takes.

“Nuclear Burn” by Brand X

May 12

Draining the manual-page swamp

One of my long-term projects is cleaning up the Unix manual-page corpus so it will render nicely in HTML.

The world is divided into two kinds of people. One kind hears that, just nods and says “That’s nice,” having no idea what it entails. The other kind sputters coffee onto his or her monitor and says something semantically equivalent to “How the holy jumping fsck do you think you’re ever going to pull that off?”

The second kind has a clue. The Unix man page corpus is scattered across tens of thousands of software projects. It’s written in a markup – troff plus man macros – that is a tag soup notoriously resistent to parsing. The markup is underspecified and poorly documented, so people come up with astoundingly perverse ways of abusing it that just happen to work because of quirks in the major implementation but confuse the crap out of analysis tools. And the markup is quite presentation oriented; much of it is visual rather than structural and thus difficult to translate well to the web – where you don’t even know the “paper” size of your reader’s viewer, let alone what fonts and graphics capabilities it has.

Nevertheless, I’ve been working this problem for seventeen years and believe I’m closing in on success in, maybe, another five or so. In the rest of this post I’ll describe what I’m doing and why, so I have an explanation to point to and don’t have to repeat it.

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May 09

Embrace the SICK

There’s a very interesting article just out, C Is Not a Low-level Language;. in which David Chisnall punctures the comforting illusion that C is really a “close-to-the-metal” language and relates this illusion to the high costs of Spectre and other processor-level bugs.

Those of us who think seriously about language design have long been aware that C’s flat-address-space model is increasingly at odds with the real world of memory-caching hierarchies. Chisnall’s main contribution is to notice that speculative execution, the feature at the bottom of the Spectre and Meltdown bugs, is essentially a hack implemented to allow C programmers to maintain the illusion that they’re running on a really fast serial machine.  But he has other interesting points as well.

I recommend reading Chisnall’s article before you go further with this post.

It’s no news to my regulars that I’ve been putting increasing investment into the Go language and now believe it a plausible candidate to replace C and C++ over most of C/C++’s range – that is, outside  of kernels and hard realtime.  So the question that immediately occurred to me upon reading the article was: Is Go necessarily productive of the same kind of kludge that Chisnall is calling out?

Because if it is – but something else isn’t – that could be a reason not to overcommit to Go.  The twin pressures of demand for lower security defects and the increasing complexity costs of speculative execution are bound to toll heavily against Go if it does demand massive speculative execution and there’s any realistic alternative that does not. Do we need something much more divergent from C (Erlang? Ocaml? Even perhaps Haskell?) for systems programming to follow where the hardware is going?

So let’s walk through Chisnall’s discussion points, bounce Go off each one, and see what we can see.  What we’ll find implies, I think, some more general conclusions about what will and won’t work in matching language design to real-world workloads and processor architectures.

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May 05

Friends of Armed & Dangerous gathering 2018

The 2018 edition of the annual Friends of Armed & Dangerous FTF will be held in room 821 of the Southfield Westin in Southfield, MI between 9 p.m. and 12 p.m. this evening.

If you are at Penguicon, or in the neighborhood and can talk yourself yourself in, come join us for an evening of scintillating conversation and mildly exotic refreshments.

May 02

Review: The Mutineer’s Daughter

I greatly enjoyed Thomas Mays’s first novel, A Sword Into Darkness, and have been looking forward to reading the implied sequel. His new collaboration with Chris Kennedy, The Mutineer’s Daughter, isn’t it.

Instead, we get a crossover YA/space-opera that is a bit cramped by having been written to the conventions of the YA form. Also because, if a reliable source is reliable, it was Mays writing to an outline by Kennedy. Where Mays’s heart is – in the space-opera parts – the result has some sparkle and a bit of originality. In the YA parts it is competently executed but strictly from tropeville.

For a plot and setting teaser see its Amazon page -accurate enough, if empurpled. It is also worth noting that this is another book in which the author(s) carefully studied the Atomic Rockets website and gained much thereby.

This is not a bad book; Mays gave it craftsmanlike attention. If you like things going boom in space, you will probably enjoy it even if you are ever so slightly irritated by the insert-plucky-girl-here plot. It proceeds from premise to conclusion with satisfactory amounts of tension and conflict along the way. As long as you don’t set your expectations much above “genre yard goods” it is an entertainment worth your money.

But I’m left thinking that not only can Mays do better on his own, but in fact already has. I want that sequel.

Apr 23

The UPSide state diagram

I think this diagram is now stable enough to put on the record.

UPSide state diagram

UPSide state diagram

Both this diagram and the Go code for the policy logic are generated from this pseudocode:


    render.state("DaemonUp", "Daemon running") 
    render.action("DaemonUp", "ChargeWait", CHARGING)
    render.state("ChargeWait", "Charge wait")
    render.action("ChargeWait", "MainsUp", CHARGED)
    render.action("ChargeWait", "OnBattery", MAINSDROP)
    render.state("MainsUp", "On mains power")
    render.action("DaemonUp", "OnBattery", MAINSOFF)
    render.state("OnBattery", "On battery power")
    render.action("MainsUp", "OnBattery", MAINSDROP)
    render.action("OnBattery", "Overtime", DWELLWARNING)
    render.state("Overtime", "User warned of shutdown")
    render.action("Overtime", "PreShutdown", DWELLTIMEOUT)
    render.state("PreShutdown", "Awaiting power drop")
    render.action("PreShutdown", "ChargeWait", RESTORED)
    render.state("UPSCrash", "UPS goes dark")
    render.state("HostDown", "Host has shut down")
    render.action("PreShutdown", "HostDown", HOSTDOWN)
    render.action("PreShutdown", "UPSCrash", BATTERYDRAIN, unreachable=True)
    render.action("OnBattery", "ChargeWait", RESTORED)
    render.action("Overtime", "ChargeWait", RESTORED)
    render.action("HostDown", "MainsUp", RESTORED_LATE)
    render.action("HostDown", "UPSCrash", BATTERYDRAIN, unreachable=True)

To see the full context of this, clone git@gitlab.com:esr/upside.git and explore the docs/ directory.