May 28

Don’t do svn-to-git repository conversions with git-svn!

This is a public-service warning.

It has come to my attention that some help pages on the web are still recommending git-svn as a conversion tool for migrating Subversion repositories to git. DO NOT DO THIS. You may damage your history badly if you do.

Reminder: I am speaking as an expert, having done numerous large and messy repository conversions. I’ve probably done more Subversion-to-git lifts than anybody else, I’ve torture-tested all the major tools for this job, and I know their failure modes intimately. Rather more intimately than I want to…

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May 18

Zeno tarpits

There’s a deeply annoying class of phenomena which, if you write code for any length of time, you will inevitably encounter. I have found it to be particularly prevalent in transformations to clean up or canonicalize large, complex data sets; repository export tools hit variants of it all the time, and so does my doclifter program for lifting [nt]roff markup to XML-DocBook.

It goes like this. You write code that handles a large fraction (say, 80%) of the problem space in a week. Then you notice that it’s barfing on the 20% remaining edge cases. These will be ugly to handle and greatly increase the complexity of your program, but it can be done, and you do it.

Once again, you have solved 80% of the remaining cases, and it took about a week – because your code is more complex than it used to be; testing it and making sure you don’t have regressions is about twice as difficult. But it can be done, at the cost of doubling your code complexity again, and you do it. Congratulations! You now handle 80% of the remaining cases. Then you notice that it’s barfing on 20% of remaining tricky edge cases….

…lather, rinse, repeat. If the problem space is seriously gnarly you can find yourself in a seemingly neverending cycle in which you’re expending multiplicatively more effort on each greater effort for multiplicatively decreasing returns. This is especially likely if your test range is expanding to include weirder data sets – in my case, older and gnarlier repositories or newer and gnarlier manual pages.

I think this is a common enough hazard of programming to deserve a name.

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May 11

How to Deny a Question’s Premise in One Easy Invention

Now that the Universe Splitter is out, it might be that a lot more people are going to trip over the word “mu” and wonder about it. Or it might be the word only occurs in the G+ poll about Universe Splitter – I don’t know, I haven’t seen the app (which appears to be a pretty good joke about the many-wolds interpretation of quantum mechanics) itself.

In any case, the most important thing to know about “mu” is that it is usually the correct answer to the question “Have you stopped beating your wife?”. More generally, it is a way of saying “Neither a yes or no would be a correct answer, because your question is incorrect”,

But the history of how it got that meaning is also entertaining.

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May 05

Sometimes progress diminishes

It’s not news to long-time followers of this blog that I love listening to virtuoso guitarists. Once, long ago in the 1980s I went to see a guitarist named Michael Hedges who astonished the crap out of me. The guy made sounds come out of a wooden flattop that were like nothing else on Earth.

Hedges died a few years later in a car crash, tragically young, and is no longer very well remembered. But I was on IRC yesterday taking music with a friend who mentioned a harmonica and a whistler doing Jimi Hendrix in a “laid back, measured, acoustic style”, and I brought up Hedges because I remembered his cover of All Along The Watchtower as an utterly amazing thing.

Afterwards, in a mood of gentle nostalgia, I searched YouTube for a recording of it. Found one, from the Wolf Trap festival in ’86, and got a surprise.

It was undoubtedly very similar to the performance I heard at around the same time, but…it just didn’t sound that interesting. Technically accomplished, yes, but it didn’t produce the feeling of wonder and awe I experienced then. His original Because It’s There followed on the playlist, and held up better, but…huh?

It didn’t take me long to figure this out. It’s because in 2015 I’m surrounded by guitarists doing what Hedges was doing in the late 1980s. It even has a name these days: “percussive fingerstyle”, Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour, Erik Mongrain, Tommy Emmanuel; players like these come up on my Pandora feed a lot, intermixed with the jazz fusion and progressive metal.

Sometimes progress diminishes its pioneers. It can be difficult to remember how bold an artistic innovation was once we’ve become used to its consequences. Especially when the followers exceed the originator; I must concede that Andy McKee, for example, does Hedges’s thing better than Hedges himself did. It may take memories like mine, acting as a kind of time capsule, to remind us how special the moment of creation was.

(And somwhere out there, some people who made it to Jimi Hendrix concerts when they were very young are nodding at this.)

I’m here to speak up for you, Michel Hedges. Hm..I see Wikipedia doesn’t link him to percussive fingerstyle. I think I’ll fix that.

Apr 16

A belated response to “A Generation Lost in the Bazaar “

Back in 2012, Poul-Henning-Kamp wrote a disgruntled article in ACM Queue, A Generation Lost in the Bazaar.
scatology
It did not occur to me to respond in public at the time, but someone else’s comment on a G+ thread about the article revived the thread. Rereading my reaction, I think it is still worth sharing for the fundamental point about scaling and chaos.

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Apr 11

Penguicon 2015!

I’ve been sent my panel schedule for Penguicon 2015.

Building the “Great Beast of Malvern” – Saturday 5:00 pm

One of us needed a new computer. One of us kicked off the campaign to
fund it. One of us assembled the massive system. One of us installed the
software. We were never all in the same place at the same time. All of us
blogged about it, and had a great time with the whole folderol. Come hear
how Eric “esr” Raymond got his monster machine, with ‘a little help from
his friends’ scattered all over the Internet.

Dark Chocolate Around The World – Sunday 12:00 pm

What makes one chocolate different from others? It’s not just how much
cocoa or sugar it contains or how it’s processed. Different varieties of
are grown in different parts of the world, and sometimes it’s the type of
beans make for different flavor qualities. Join Cathy and Eric Raymond for
a tasting session designed to show you how to tell West African chocolate
from Ecuadorian.

Eric S. Raymond: Ask Me Anything – Sunday 3:00 pm

Ask ESR Anything. What’s he been working on? What’s he shooting?
What’s he thinking about? What’s he building in there?

We do also intend to run the annual “Friends of Armed & Dangerous” party, but don’t yet know if we’re in a party-floor room.

“Geeks With Guns” is already scheduled.

Apr 04

I have been nominated for a John W. Campbell Award

Last Sunday I was informed by email that I have been nominated for the 2015 John W. Campbell award for best new science-fiction writer. I was also asked not to reveal this in public until 4 April.

This is a shame.. I had a really elaborate April Fool’s joke planned where I was going to announce my nomination in the style of a U.S. presidential campaign launch. Lots of talk about a 50-state strategy and my hopes of appealing to swing voters disaffected with both the SJW and Evil League of Evil extremists, invented polling results, and nine yards of political bafflegab.

The plan was to write it so over-the-top that everyone would go “Oh, ha ha, great AFJ but you can’t fool us”…and then, three days later, the other shoe drops. Alas, I checked in with the organizers and they squelched the idea.

It is, of course, a considerable honor to be nominated, and one I am somewhat doubtful I actually deserve. But after considering the ramifications, I have decided not to decline the nomination, but rather to leave the decision on the merits up to the voters.

I make this choice because, even if I myself doubt that my single story is more than competent midlist work, and I want no part of the messy tribal politics in which I seem to have become partly swept up, there is something I don’t mind representing and giving people the opportunity to vote for.

That something is the proud tradition of classic SF, the Golden Age good stuff and its descendants today. It may be that I am among the least and humblest of those descendants, but I think both the virtues and the faults of Sucker Punch demonstrate vividly where I come from and how much that tradition has informed who I am as a writer and a human being.

If you choose to vote for Sucker Punch as a work which, individually flawed as it may be, upholds that tradition and carries it forward, that will make me happy and proud.

Apr 02

My Gitorious projects have moved.

Gitorious – which I preferred to GitHub for being totally open-source – is shutting down sometime in May. I had no fewer than 26 projects on there, including reposurgeon, cvs-fast-import, doclifter, and INTERCAL.

Now they’ve moved. This won’t affect most of my users, as the web pages and distribution tarballs are still in their accustomed locations at catb.org. If you’re a committer on any of these Gitirious repos, of course, the move actually matters.

Temporarily the repositories are on thyrsus.com; here’s the entire list. They may not stay there, but moving them to thyrsus.com was 90% of the work of moving them anywhere else and now I can consider options at my leisure.

Mar 23

On the duties of a geek-cred certification authority

Earlier today I was in an email exchange with a Tier 1 tech support guy at a hardware vendor who makes multiport serial boards. I had had a question in as to whether a particular board supported the Linux TIOCMIWAIT ioctl. Tier 1 guy referred the question to an engineer in their Linux development group, and Tier 1’s reply to me happened to include his email chain with the engineer.

The engineer wrote to Tier 1 “Is that Eric Raymond ‘ESR’? He’s a big deal in open-source circles.” This made me smile, because when I get made that way it usually means the engineer’s going to work rather harder to make me happy than he would for some random. This is helpful to get my work done!

But there is a duty which is the flip side of that privilege, and that’s what I’m here to write about today. Because if you are reading this at all, your odds of becoming a geek-cred certification authority someday are higher than average, and if that happens, it’s better if you consciously understand what you ought to be doing.

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Mar 15

Remembering Terry Pratchett

I think Terry Pratchett’s death finally hit home for me today. I’ve been kind of numb about it before now, but today I learned abut this proposal for GNU Terry Pratchett. And as I was commenting about it on G+ I found myself crying.

Here’s a very slightly improved version of what I said on G+. I don’t think I knew Terry well enough to give him the tribute he really deserved, so this will have to do.

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Mar 11

The Great Beast is armored!

All my readers should be aware of the Rowhammer attack by now.

It gives me great pleasure to report that thanks to our foresight in specifying ECC memory for the design, the Great Beast of Malvern has armor of proof against this attack. The proof being over a thousand runs of the Rowhammer test.

Thank you, everyone who threw money into the Beast’s build budget. If y’all hadn’t been so generous, the build team might have had to make compromises. One of the most likely items to be cut would have been ECC…because registered ECC DRAM at the Beast’s speeds is so freaking expensive that the memory was about a third of the entire build budget. And now we’d have a vulnerable machine.

As it is, the Beast roars in triumph over the Rowhammer.

Oh, and what I’m currently doing with the Beast? Why, I’m repairing the very fabric of time..itself! Explanation to follow, probably early next week.

Mar 08

Why I won’t mourn Mozilla

An incredibly shrinking Firefox faces endangered species status, says Computerworld, and reports their user market share at 10% and dropping. It doesn’t look good for the Mozilla Foundation – especially not with so much of their funding coming from Google which of course has its own browser to push.

I wish I could feel sadder about this. I was there at the beginning, of course – the day Netscape open-sourced the code that would become Mozilla and later Firefox was the shot heard ’round the world of the open source revolution, and the event that threw The Cathedral and the Bazaar into the limelight. It should be a tragedy – personally, for me – that the project is circling the drain.

Instead, all I can think is “They brought the fate they deserved on themselves.” Because principles matter – and in 2014 the Mozilla Foundation abandoned and betrayed one of the core covenants of open source.

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Feb 25

Beware cut-price Korean monitors!

There have been a flood of big, cheap monitors (2560×1440 and up) becoming available on TigerDirect and other similar sites recently. But I’m here to tell you that these should come with warning labels, and explain why.

I’ve had some dolorous experiences with the no-name pair of big flatscreens I bought back in 2013 – the things called Aurias that I described in The Agony, the Ectasy, the Dual Monitors. Very recently I finally got both to finally work with enough stability that I’m sure I’ll be keeping them for a while.

But the troubleshooting process was arduous. Along the way I learned some important things, mainly because two friends who are unusually capable hardware troubleshooters actually took the suckers apart in my presence and explained things about the internals and the surrounding market.

Here are some of the things I learned…

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Feb 22

GPSD 3.12 has shipped – bulletproofed from below

I’ve been radio silent the last couple of weeks mainly because I’ve been concentrating furiously on getting a GPSD release out the door. This one is a little more noteworthy than usual because it may actually have fixed a well-hidden flaw or vulnerability of some significance.

Regular readers may recall from back in 2013 that I published a heads-up titled No, GPSD is not the battery-killer on your Android! addressing a power-drain bug reported from a handful of Android phones.

I believed at the time that the proximate cause of the bug was in the kernel serial device-drivers somewhere specific to particular hardware on those phones. I still believe that, because if it had been a purely GPSD problem the error would likely have been much more widespread and I’d have been flooded with complaints.

However, I’ve been concerned ever since that GPSD might not have been doing everything it could to armor itself against bugginess in the layers below it. And a couple of weeks ago I found a problem…

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Feb 02

Me for a Campbell Award? Huh?

It has come to my attention that the Evil League of Evil is attempting to get me shortlisted for the John W. Campbell award.

For those of you not in the know, this is an annual award intended to go to the most promising new writer in SF. It is taken pretty seriously. And my reaction to hearing that I’m being promoted for this is…consternation.

OK, I will stipulate that I think my one published work of SF, the short story Sucker Punch, isn’t bad. If it were someone else’s and I was wearing my reviewer hat, I’d probably say something encouraging about it being a solid, craftsmanlike first effort that delivers what its opening promises and suggests the author might be able to deliver quality work in the future.

But, Campbell Award material? A brilliant comet in the SF firmament I am not. I don’t really feel like I belong on that shortlist – and if I’m wrong and I actually do, I fear for the health of the field.

What bothers me more is the suspicion that my name has been put forward for what amount to political reasons. So here’s what I have to say about that

I’m not going to object to anyone voting for me. But by the Great God Ghu and the shade of Robert Heinlein, please don’t do it because you think I have the right politics, or to get up the nose of people you think have the wrong politics. Vote for me only if you think the actual work merits it.

It’s not that I necessarily object to politically-focused awards in principle. If I were to write an excellent libertarian SF novel and get nominated for a Prometheus partly because libertarians liked the politics, that would be OK. It won’t happen, because I’m one of the judges for that award, but in an alternate universe I wouldn’t mind.

But I didn’t write Sucker Punch as a political argument. I wrote it as a way of beginning to give something back to the SF field for all it has given me, and I want it to be judged on its merits as part of that tradition, not as a counter in a tribal political scrum.

To push the point further…I have, as it happens, an unfinished SF novel set in a libertarian future in my trunk. But, supposing I finish and publish Shadows and Stars, I won’t want to have it judged more by its politics than by its quality as a work of SF in the classic style. S&S isn’t a political argument, and I would therefore be disappointed if it were received as one.

If you vote for a Campbell award nominee, or a Hugo, or any other award, this is my plea: screw the partisanship. Vote on merit. And if I get any votes I promise to be pleasantly shocked.