Apr 18

You shall judge by the code alone

I support the open letter by Drupal developers protesting the attempted expulsion of Larry Garfield from the Drupal commmunity.

As a Drupal contributor who has never in any respect attempted to tie the project to his beliefs or lifestyle, Garfield deserves the right to be judged by his code alone. That is the hacker way; competence is all that matters, and no irrelevance like skin color or shape of genitals or political beliefs or odd lifestyle preference should be allowed to matter.

That I even need to say this in 2017 is something of a disgrace. The hacker culture already had judge-by-the-code-alone figured out forty years ago when I was a n00b; the only reason it needs to be said now is that there’s been a recent fashion for “social justice” witch hunting which, inevitably, has degenerated into the sort of utter fiasco the Drupal devs are now protesting.

Thomas Paine said it best: “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

It doesn’t matter how much you dislike Larry Garfield’s personal kinks. If you don’t defend him now, you may have nobody to defend you when some self-declared commissar of political and sexual correctness – or just a censorious project lead like Dries Buytaert – decides that you should be declared an unperson.

You shall judge by the code alone. That is the only social equilibrium that doesn’t degenerate into an ugly bitchfest with expulsions controlled by whatever happens to be politically on top this week. It was the right community norm forty years ago, and remains so today.

Apr 16

The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: the *science* version

My last G+ post reported this:

Something out there kills about one oceangoing ship a week.

It is probably freakishly large waves – well outside the ranges predicted by simple modeling of fluid dynamics and used to set required force-tolerance levels in ship design. Turns out these can be produced by nonlinear interactions in which one crest in a wave train steals energy from its neighbors.

Much more in the video.

So go watch the video – this BBC documentary from 2002 on Rogue Waves. It’s worth your time, and you’ll learn some interesting physics.

As I’m watching, I’m thinking that the really interesting word they’re not using is “soliton”. And then, doing some followup, I learn two things: the solutions to the nonlinear Schrödinger equation that describe rogue waves are labeled “Peregrine solitons”, despite not actually having the non-dissipative property of your classical soliton; and it is now believed that the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was probably wrecked by a rogue wave back in ’75.

In a weird way this made it kind of personal for me. I used to joke, back when people knew who he was, that Gordon Lightfoot and I have exactly the same four-note singing range. It is a fact that anything he wrote I can cover effectively; I’ve sung and played The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald many times.

So, I’m texting my friend Phil Salkie (he who taught me to solder, and my reference for the Tinker archetype of hacker) about this, and we started filking. And here’s what eventually came out: Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the science! version:

The lads in the crew saw that soliton come through
It stove in the hatches and coamings
Her hull broached and tore, she was spillin’ out ore
That rogue put an end to her roamings.

Does anyone know where the Gaussian goes
When the sea heights go all superlinear?
A Schrödinger wave for a watery grave
It’ll drown both the saint and the sinner.

That is all.

Apr 13

From molly-guard to moggy-guard

In ancient lore, a molly-guard was a shield to prevent tripping of some Big Red Switch by clumsy or ignorant hands. Originally used of the plexiglass covers improvised for the BRS on an IBM 4341 after a programmer’s toddler daughter (named Molly) frobbed it twice in one day

The Great Beast of Malvern, the computer designed on this blog for performing repository surgery, sits to the left of my desk. This is Zola the cat sitting on it, as he sometimes does to hang out near one of his humans.

What you cannot quite see in that picture is the Power Switch of the Beast, located near the right front corner of the case top – alas, where an errant cat foot can land on it. Dilemma! I do not want to shoo away the Zola, for he is a wonderfully agreeable cat. On the other hand, it is deucedly inconvenient to have one’s machine randomly power-cycled while hacking.

Fortunately, I am a tool-using sophont and there is an elegant solution to this problem.

Continue reading

Apr 02

Four modes of creole formation

A ‘pidgin’ is a language formed by contact between speakers of different languages. A ‘creole’ is what happens when a pidgin becomes a birth language for children raised where a pidgin is spoken. Pidgins are simple languages, stripped to the running gears, Often creoles re-complexify in later generations, retaining grammar mostly from one parent language and vocabulary mostly from the other.

My interest in the historical linguistics of pidgins and creoles began a very long time ago when I noticed that pidgins, wherever they arise, are usually morphologically a lot like English – analytic (positional) grammar with few inflections, SVO order oftener than can be accounted for by the fact that English is often one of the parent languages. Why should this be?

Nicholas Ostler’s excellent Empires of the Word deepened the question by proposing that analytic SVO grammar is the common factor in languages like English, Chinese and Malay that have been very successful at spreading from their original homelands. In his account, that is because this class of language has the lowest complexity barrier to acquisition for adult speakers.

That would explain pidgins all right – they look like they do because they’re invented by adults as the simplest possible way to establish communication. And English, with similar traits, is a non-pidgin that has spread like crazy because it combines the prestige of the Anglosphere with being exceptionally easy for native speakers of other languages to learn.

Er, but why is English like that in the first place?

Continue reading

Mar 22

When ancient-history geeks go bad

A few minutes ago here at chez Raymond, my friend John Desmond says: “So, have you heard about the new Iraqi national anthem?”

I said “Uh, OK, I’m braced for this. What about it?”

He said “In the good old Sumer time.”

I pointed a finger at him and said “You’re Akkad!”

Yes. Yes, we probably do both deserve a swift kicking.

Feb 20

Things Every Hacker Once Knew: 1.10

And the latest revision:
Things Every Hacker Once Knew.

This time: The Break key. uuencode/uudecode. Why older Internet protocols only assume a 7-bit link. The original meanings of SO/SI. WRU and station ID on teletypes. BITNET and other pre-Internets.

There is one respect in which working on this is changing my historical perspective. The section now titled “WAN time gone: The forgotten pre-Internets” started out just being about UUCP but has gradually expanded to include the BBS scene, commercial timesharing, and academic networks in the period 1978-1996 (and especially 1981-1991).

At the time those of us exposed to more than one of these networks saw mostly differences – differences in capability, differences in addressing schemes, differences in underlying protocols.

Now, twenty years later, I’m finding that it’s the similarities that look more significant. These experiments were all evolving in parallel, offering services that converged over time.

Wide-area TCP/IP was the eventual winner, of course. It’s not hard to see why: being designed for internetworking and not being gated by proprietary IP gave it two insuperable advantages.

Feb 17

Things Every Hacker Once Knew: 1.9

I’ve shipped another revision of Things Every Hacker Once Knew

The pace of suggested additions and corrections has slowed down a lot; I think this thing is stabilizing.

I gave in and added the one bit of paper-tape lore people have been bugging me to include, about why DEL is 0xb1111111. Learning that the NSA still distributed crypto keys on paper tape until last year smashed that one through my relevance filter.

There’s a short addition on the Trek family of games, a mention of xyzzy, and some minor corrections and typo fixes as well.

Feb 14

Things Every Hacker Once Knew: 1.8

Heritage games. The legacy of all-uppercase terminals. Where README came from. What “core” is. The ARPANET. Monitoring your computer with a radio. And more…

Things Every Hacker Once Knew

The response to this document has been nothing short of astonishing. More than half of my non-spam mail over the last three weeks has been people writing to suggest additions and corrections or just to thank me. The count of respondents must be over a hundred by now.

Continue reading

Feb 09

Things Every Hacker Once Knew: 1.7

Did I say Things Every Hacker Once Knew was stabilizing? Silly me…

Here’s the 1.7 version. Substantial new material on the BBS scene – this is my answer to the people who have been bugging me to at least mention XMODEM/YMODEM/ZMODEM.

The expository approach I’m taking is to bin all of UUCP, the BBS scene, and commercial dialup services like AOL as parallel contemporaneous attempts to figure out what kind of store-and-forward messaging people actually wanted.

Feb 08

Things Every Hacker Once Knew: 1.6

The newest version is here.

I think it’s stabilizing. The rate of comments and submissions has been dropping.


     How VDTs explain some heritage programs, and how bitmapped
     displays eventually obsolesced them. Explain why the ADM-3
     was called "dumb" even though it was smart.

There’s also a mention of RS-323 on network gear.

Still nothing about XMODEM/YMODEM/ZMODEM – that’s probably the most requested addition left, but I really don’t see what could be interesting to say about them at this late date.

The reaction to this on my Patreon feed has been impressive. It seems to have driven $300-$400 of new subscriptions.

Feb 06

Things Every Hacker Once Knew: 1.5

The 1.5 revision of Things Every Hacker Once Knew is out.

Alas, I had to drop the reference to the Space Cadet keyboard. Turns out it shipped a 32-bit status word and this had nothing to do with 9-bit bytes at all. The indirect reference to the SAIL extended ASCII keyboard is still in.

Patrick Maupin’s revelation about the AT prefix is summarized.

The fact that UUCP was a hack around the old two-tier structure of phone rates is mentioned.

There’s more about TTL serial. Gary Miller, my very hardware-savvy lieutenant and now acting lead on the GPSD project, thinks this didn’t become a common way to ship data off peripherals and daughterboards until after 2000, with GPS chips leading the way. This matches my recollection, but I was pretty oblivious about that sort of thing until the last decade so I don’t consider my recollection very good evidence. Commentary an correction invited.

I’d like to pin down the year cathode-ray tubes disappeared. I know the leading display vendors ceased production in 2005, but I think the transition might have been as much as two years sooner. Again, corrections welcomed.

Feb 03

Things Every Hacker Once Knew: 1.4

New version 1.4 at:


New content in this one is an expanded section about outboard modems, their descendants in today’s technology, and the curious survival of the Hayes AT command set.

I had actually received a couple of previous requests to add material on the Hayes AT convention, but rejected them on the grounds that it had no relevance to current tech. This turned out to be not quite true!

Once again I emphasize that this document was not written as a nostalgia trip, but rather to assist retrospective understanding by younger hackers so they can make sense of the fossils and survivals still embedded in current technology.

The response to this document has been remarkable. I’ve received a flood of feedback and gratitude in my mailbox, often from people much more sentimental about the old days than I am.

I invite everyone who values this content to contribute at my Patreon page; this is exactly the kind of thing I couldn’t do if I couldn’t pay my Internet bills or had to get a $DAYJOB, and I’m currently in my sixth month of operating without institutional funding. $5 or $10 a month from enough people could fix that.

Your dollars will also go to fixing critical infrastructure, so please give generously – the civilization you save could be your own.

Jan 29

Things Every Hacker Once Knew: 1.2

The response to this piece has been remarkably broad and positive. I have to note, though, that I didn’t write it as a nostalgia trip – I don’t miss underpowered computers, primitive tools, and tiny low-resolution displays.

At least people did notice that it isn’t a you-kids-get-off-my-lawn grumble. I think it’s good for younger hackers to know these things, but it’s no fault of theirs that the technological context has changed so much that they don’t absolutely need to to get work done. In fact it’s a sign of progress.

Yes, you’ll occasionally trip over old tech for which forgotten common knowledge is important – and RS-232, in particular, is still important in niche applications. But the real reason to remember these things is less tangible, and unfortunately difficult for many people to talk about without sliding into sentimentality.

In any kind of craft or profession, I think knowing the way things used to be done, and the issues those who came before you struggled with, is quite properly a source of pride and wisdom. It gives you a useful kind of perspective on today’s challenges.

The real reason I wrote this is to encourage that kind of perspective.

Updated version here. With: more about the persistence of octal, current-loop ASR-33s, 36-bit machines and their lingering influence, ASCII shift, a bit more about ASCII-1963, and some error corrections.

Jan 01

How to educate me about prejudice in the open-source community

Every once in a while I post something just to have it handy as a reference for the next time I have to deal with a galloping case of some particular kind of sloppy thinking. That way I don’t have to generate an individual explanation, but can simply point at my general standards of evidence.

This one is about accusations of sexism, racism, and other kinds of prejudice in the open-source culture.

Continue reading

Dec 02

Some of my blogging has moved

I’ve been pretty quiet lately, other than short posts on G+, because I’ve been grinding hard on NTPsec. We’re coming up on a 1.0 release and, although things are going very well technically, it’s been a shit-ton of work.

One consequence is the NTPsec Project Blog. My first major post there expands on some of the things I’ve written here about stripping crap out of the NTP codebase.

Expect future posts on spinoff tools, the NTPsec test farm, and the prospects for moving NTPsec out of C, probably about one a week. I have a couple of these in draft already.

Mar 27

Evil viziers represent!

Over on G+, Peter da Silva wrote: ‘I just typoed “goatee” as “gloatee” and now I’m wondering why it wasn’t always spelled that way.’ #evilviziersrepresent #muahaha

The estimable Mr. da Silva is sadly in error. I played the evil vizier in the first run of the Arabian Nights LARP back in 1987. No goatee, and didn’t gloat even once, was much too busy being efficiently cruel and clever.

What, you think this sort of thing is just fun and games? Despotic oriental storybook kingdoms don’t run themselves, you know. That takes functionaries. Somebody gotta keep the wheels turning while that overweight good-for-nothing Caliph lounges on his divan smoking bhang and being fanned by slavegirls. Or being bhanged by slavegirls and smoking his divan. Whatever.

A thankless job it is too. You keep everything prosperous and orderly with a bare minimum of floggings, beheadings, castrations, and miscreants torn apart by camels, and your reward is a constant stream of idiot heroes with oversized scimitars trying to slit your weasand. With the Caliph’s daughter looking all starry-eyed as they try it on – now there’s a girl who’s way too impressed by an oversized, er, scimitar.

Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go see a man about a lamp.