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.

Jan 15

Love is the simplest thing

There’s an idea circulating that two people who want to be in romantic love can get there by performing a simple procedure that steps them through asking and answring 35 questions and ends with staring into each others’ eyes for 4 minutes.

I don’t know if these reports are true or not. But I’m writing to oppose the gut reaction I think most people have on hearing them, which is that it can’t possibly be that easy because romantic love is this tremendously complex mysterious mystery thing. And if it is that simple, it’s wrong.

I don’t think so. Even if this procedure doesn’t actually have a high success rate, there will be one that does, given certain basics. The basics are: the participants must be of mutually compatible sexual orientations and must smell good to each other.

Why do I believe this? Because of what romantic love is for.

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Jan 12

Review: Gun Control in the Third Reich

Stephen P. Halbrook’s Gun Control in the Third Reich is a book that every advocate of “gun control” in the modern U.S. and elsewhere should read – but almost certainly never will.

Most other historians have ignored or outright suppressed the role of weapons law and weapons confiscations in the Nazi imposition of totalitarianism on Germany before World War II. Thus it is forgotten that the legal pretext for the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938 was the confiscation of all firearms from Jewish owners. And that most of the first major wave of Jews sent to the concentration camps went there on charges of illegal possession of weapons.

Gun control was not an incidental feature of Nazi tyranny, it was one of the central tools of totalitarian repression and genocide. If Halbrook’s book had no other virtues, the reminder of this stark fact would be enough to recommend it.

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Jan 05

How do we explain the nonstandard nerd?

I spent parts of the the last couple of days reading the archives of the very thought-provoking blog Slate Star Codex. Two posts on it, Untitled and Why No Science Of Nerds? have reawakened my interest in the question of what exactly we mean when we describe someone as a “nerd” or a “geek”.

I’ve been applying the techniques of anthropological fieldwork to hackers and various allied subcultures such as SF fandom for more than a quarter century now. I think I can fairly claim to know a geek or nerd when I meet one. I’ve written before about Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers: on language boundaries. Yet what Slate Star Codex reminds me of is that all we have to explain about why this population and its cluster of linked subculture exists is a cloud of not-very-well-confirmed folk theory.
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Which is maybe a problem, because geeks and nerds matter. Modern civilization couldn’t function without them – its tech infrastructure would collapse. Might be nice if we could optimize these people – help them be happier and more productive.

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Dec 27

Pave the rainforests!

For decades – and I do mean decades – I’ve been saying that any environmentalist who is really serious about reducing fossil-fuel use and CO2 emission should be agitating to switch the power infrastructure to using nuclear plants for the baseload as fast as possible.

But when the facts change, I change my mind. I was wrong. There is new, direct, observational evidence that the most effective thing we could do to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere is pave over the tropical rainforests.

Don’t believe me? Look at this map of CO2 emissions by region. It’s brand-new data from NASA’s just-lofted Orbiting Carbon Observatory.

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Dec 24

Self-sacrifice as hacker-culture glue

I’ve just had an insight I find a bit disturbing. Though perhaps I shouldn’t.

Occasionally I visit Scott Alexander’s excellent and thoughtful blog, Slate Star Codex. Today’s entry reminded me of Laurence Iannaccone’s research on Sacrifice and Stigma, which argues that onerous religious requirements are effective ways of building in-group trust because they are commitment signals that are difficult to fake.
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It occurred to me to wonder: do hackers do this? And…I think we do.

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Dec 22

The temptation to choose sides

One of the most unfortunate social behaviors of human beings is that in the presence of any dispute, they feel a strong need to choose a side. And then stick with it, even when their chosen side behaves very badly.

I’m reminded of this with particular force in the aftermath of Ismaayil Brinsley’s revenge assassination of two policemen in New York. The facts couldn’t really be any clearer here; Brinsley planned to murder police in retaliation for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, announced what he planned, did it, and then shot himself through the head to avoid capture.

Since then, reactions to the incident have divided along predictable lines – made more predictable by Brinsley’s being nearly as perfect a real-life nexus of evil as one could ask for. Marxist? Check. Koran-spouting jihadi? Check. Violent felon? Check. Nutcase? Check? (I think we can stipulate that shooting his own girlfriend in the stomach establishes the last.)

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Dec 19

Open source theory is rooted in evolutionary psychology

Yesterday I realized, quite a few years after I should have, that I have never identified in public where I got the seed of the idea that I developed into the modern economic theory of open-source software – that is, how open-source “altruism” could be explained as an emergent result of selfish incentives felt by individuals. So here is some credit where credit is due.

Now, in general it should be obvious that I owed a huge debt to thinkers in the classical-liberal tradition, from Adam Smith down to F. A. Hayek and Ayn Rand. The really clueful might also notice some connection to Robert Trivers’s theory of reciprocal altruism under natural selection and Robert Axelrod’s work on tit-for-tat interactions and the evolution of cooperation.

These were all significant; they gave me the conceptual toolkit I could apply successfully once I’d had my initial insight. But there’s a missing piece – where my initial breakthrough insight came from, the moment when I realized I could apply all those tools.

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Dec 14

“Riding the Red Horse” is out

Step right up for my first SF sale, the lead story in Riding The Red Horse. That’s the Amazon link; it’s also available as DRM-free epub direct from Castalia.

Also included, my nonfiction analysis of the effect of battlefield lasers on military airpower, a development likely to transform warfare in the coming century as radically as the deployment of automatic weapons did around the beginning of the last one.

Dec 13

Progress towards the extinction of CVS

The Great Beast, designed for converting large CVS repos, is now in full production. It hasn’t killed off any specimens in the wild yet (and I’ll explain why in a bit), but it’s doing spectacularly well on our test repositories.

As a representative large example, the entire Emacs CVS history, 1985-2009, 113309 CVS commits, lifts clean in 37 seconds at a sustained rate of 3K CVS commits a second. Yes, three thousand.

The biggest beast known to us, the NetBSD src repository, converts in 22 minutes. To give some idea of what a speedup this is, the first time I ran a lift on it – on one of Wendell’s Xeon machines – it took a bit under six hours. That’s about a factor of seventeen, there.

Judging by performance on the other project devs’ machines the Beast is good for a 2x to 3x speedup over a conventionally-balanced PC design (that is, one with worse RAM latency, narrower caches, more cores but somewhat lower single-thread speed). That’s a big enough advantage to validate the design and be practically significant on large repositories.

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Dec 12

Another step on the martial path

Cathy and I passed our Level 6 test in kuntao last night.

That’s the hybrid martial art we study, part traditional wing chun and part Philippine kali. The empty hand stuff is mostly wing chun, a South Chinese close-fighting style which … OK, if you don’t know much about martial arts just imagine the fights in The Matrix without the high kicks. The weapons stuff is mostly kali, knife and stick and (relatively short) sword.

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Dec 07

The Great Beast is here!

The good folks from TekSyndicate showed up yesterday with a pile of parts and did final assembly of the Beast in my dining room. A&D regular John Bell remoted in last night to finish the setup. I’m actually blogging on it now as the last of my work environment transfers over from the old snark.

What a beautiful machine it is! The interior of the NZXT case is even more impressive live than it is in photos. It runs whisper-quiet.

During the next several hours we’ll be filming documentary and interview footage. I’ll announce here when and where the video is available.

UPDATE: I have now had a chance to profile performance on some of the benchmark repos. I’m seeing speedups of between a factor of three (on Emacs CVS) and twenty (on groff CVS). The entire NetBSD src repository, 288K commits and 37GB of content, converts in 22 minutes.

Dec 06

Worse than racism

Recently, in New York City, a man named Eric Garner was strangled to death on the street by police. It was all caught on video. It was a nightmare sequence that made me think of George Orwell’s description of the future in 1984: a boot stamping on a human face, forever.

Eric Garner was black. The policeman who choked him to death was white.

Some people want to make this horror about race. I find myself wishing they were right – that just once, the racial grievance peddlers weren’t basically making up inflammatory crap that canonizes thug trash like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Because as bad as violent racism is, I’m afraid that what actually killed Eric Garner was something far worse.

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Dec 04

Me and Less Wrong

I’ve gotten questions from a couple of different quarters recently about my relationship to the the rationalist community around Less Wrong and related blogs. The one sentence answer is that I consider myself a fellow-traveler and ally of that culture, but not really part of it nor particularly wishing to be.

The rest of this post is a slightly longer development of that answer.

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