Sep 30

Underestimate Terry Pratchett? I never have.

Neil Gaiman writes On Terry Pratchett, he is not a jolly old elf at all.. It’s worth reading.

I know that what Neil Gaiman says here is true, because I’ve known Terry, a little. Not as well as Neil does; we’re not that close, though he has been known to answer my email. But I did have one experience back in 2003 that would have forever dispelled any notion of Terry as a mere jolly elf, assuming I’d been foolish enough to entertain it.

I taught Terry Pratchett how to shoot a pistol.

(We were being co-guests of honor at Penguicon I at the time. This was at the first Penguicon Geeks with Guns event, at a shooting range west of Detroit. It was something Terry had wanted to do for a long time, but opportunities in Britain are quite limited.)

This is actually a very revealing thing to do with anyone. You learn a great deal about how the person handles stress and adrenalin. You learn a lot about their ability to concentrate. If the student has fears about violence, or self-doubt, or masculinity/femininity issues, that stuff is going to tend to come out in the student’s reactions in ways that are not difficult to read.

Terry was rock-steady. He was a good shot from the first three minutes. He listened, he followed directions intelligently, he always played safe, and he developed impressive competence at anything he was shown very quickly. To this day he’s one of the three or four best shooting students I’ve ever had.

That is not the profile of anyone you can safely trivialize as a jolly old elf. I wasn’t inclined to do that anyway; I’d known him on and off since 1991, which was long enough that I believe I got a bit of look-in before he fully developed his Famous Author charm defense.

But it was teaching Terry pistol that brought home to me how natively tough-minded he really is. After that, the realism and courage with which he faced his Alzheimer’s diagnosis came as no surprise to me whatsoever.

Sep 29

Shellshock, Heartbleed, and the Fallacy of False Prominence

In the wake of the Shellshock bug, I guess I need to repeat in public some things I said at the time of the Heartbleed bug.

The first thing to notice here is that these bugs were found – and were findable – because of open-source scrutiny.

There’s a “things seen versus things unseen” fallacy here that gives bugs like Heartbleed and Shellshock false prominence. We don’t know – and can’t know – how many far worse exploits lurk in proprietary code known only to crackers or the NSA.

What we can project based on other measures of differential defect rates suggests that, however imperfect “many eyeballs” scrutiny is, “few eyeballs” or “no eyeballs” is far worse.

I’m not handwaving when I say this; we have statistics from places like Coverity that do defect-rate measurements on both open-source and proprietary closed source products, we have academic research like the UMich fuzz papers, we have CVE lists for Internet-exposed programs, we have multiple lines of evidence.

Everything we know tells us that while open source’s security failures may be conspicuous its successes, though invisible, are far larger.

Sep 11

Review: Infinite Science Fiction One

Infinite Science Fiction One (edited by Dany G. Zuwen and Joanna Jacksonl Infinite Acacia) starts out rather oddly, with Zuwen’s introducton in which, though he says he’s not religious, he connects his love of SF with having read the Bible as a child. The leap from faith narratives to a literature that celebrates rational knowability seems jarring and a bit implausible.

That said, the selection of stories here is not bad. Higher-profile editors have done worse, sometimes in anthologies I’ve reviewed.

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Aug 28

Mysterious cat is mysterious

Our new cat Zola, it appears, has a mysterious past. The computer that knows about the ID chip embedded under his skin thinks he’s a dog.

There’s more to the story. And it makes us think we may have misread Zola’s initial behavior. I’m torn between wishing he could tell us what he’d been through, and maybe being thankful that he can’t. Because if he could, I suspect I might experience an urge to go punch someone’s lights out that would be bad for my karma.

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Aug 04

My first SF sale!

One of the minor frustrations of my life, up to now, is that though I can sell as much nonfiction as I care to write, fiction sales had eluded me. What made this particularly irksome is that I don’t have only the usual ego reasons for wanting to succeed. I love the science fiction genre and owe it much; I want to pay that forward by contributing back to it.

It therefore gives me great satisfaction to announce that I have made my first SF sale, a short (3.5kword) piece of military SF titled Sucker Punch set on a U.S. aircraft carrier during the Taiwan Straits Action of 2037. Some details follow.

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Aug 02

Tolkien and the Timeless Way of Building

Before you read the rest of this post, go look at these pictures of a Hobbit Pub and a Hobbit House. And recall the lovely Bag End sets from Peter Jackson’s LOTR movies.

I have a very powerful reaction to these buildings that, I believe, has nothing to do with having been a Tolkien fan for most of my life. In fact, some of the most Tolkien-specific details – the round doors, the dragon motifs in the pub – could be removed without attenuating that reaction a bit.

To me, they feel right. They feel like home. And I’m not entirely sure why, because I’ve never lived in such antique architecture. But I think it may have something to do with Christopher Alexander’s “Timeless Way of Building”.

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Jul 03

UPS I did it again

I had to buy a new UPS for my desktop machine yesterday after the old one succumbed to battery death, so Cathy and I made a run to the local MicroCenter.

UPS designers have been pissing me off since forever with designs that require you to throw away the entire device when the battery craps out, unless you’re willing to go to great length to avoid this – finding the exact right replacement battery from a specialty supplier, then taking the unit apart and reassembling it yourself.

This is never practical under time pressure, and I’ve never had the luxury of no time pressure when trying to cope with a dead UPS. Sure didn’t this time; my area was under a severe-thunderstorm watch.

Imagine my pleased surprise when I found a big stack of varied models branded APC that are not just significantly less expensive and with longer dwell times than when I was last UPS-shopping, but designed with removeable and replaceable batteries, too.

Progress does get made. Dunno whether this is a standard feature on all UPS brands yet, but doubtless it will be within a few years.

Some of you may find my UPS HOWTO of interest. I’ve shipped a 3.0 update with the glad news of replaceable batteries and a few other minor updates; it may be up by the time you read this.

Jul 01

Feline behavioral convergence

The new cat, Zola has been with us for about a month now. My wife and I observe an interesting convergence; as he feels increasingly secure around us, his behavior is coming to resemble Sugar’s more and more, to the point that it sometimes feels like having her back with us.

What makes this a surprising observation is that Sugar was not your behaviorally average cat. She was up against the right-hand end of the feline bell curve for sociability, gentleness, and good manners. Having Zola match that so exactly is a little startling even if we did improve our odds by keeping an eye out for a Maine Coon that liked us on sight. It still feels rather like having 00 come up twice in succession on a roulette wheel.

This is ethologically interesting; it suggests some things about how the personalities of cats – and even specific behavioral propensities – are generated. In the remainder of this post I will use detailed observations to explore this point.

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Jun 21

Replacing freecode: a proposal

“Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…” Three days ago freecode.com abruptly shut down, claiming “low traffic”, but there has been enough public mourning since to make me pretty sure it fills a need that’s still there. There was nowhere else you could go that was quite so good for getting a cross-sectional view of what the open-source world is doing, independently of any given forge site or distro.

Web frameworks have gotten much more powerful since the original Freshmeat was built 17 years ago; today, I think building a replacement wouldn’t be a huge project. It is not, however, something I am willing to try to do alone. Whether or not this goes forward will depend on how many people are willing to step up and join me. I figure we need a team of about three core co-developers, at least one of whom needs to have some prior expertise at whatever framework we end up using.

In the remainder of this post I’m going to sketch a set of project goals, including both some trimming away of freshmeat/freecode features I thought were unnecessary and some new ideas to address problems in its design.

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Jun 20

Why VA bought Slashdot

Jeff Covey has responded to the demise of freshmeat/freecode by reminiscing about his past at Freshmeat. He reports a rumor that VA bought Andover just because the CEO thought it would be cool to own Slashdot.

I set the record straight in a comment on the post. No, that’s not why it happened; Larry Augustin never would have made a business decision for a reason that flimsy. In fact, buying Slashdot was my idea, and I had a solid reason for proposing it. The rest of my comment explaining this follows.

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Jun 19

freecode-submit is dead – because freecode.com is

Well, that’s annoying. The freecode.com release-announcement site stopped accepting updates yesterday. The site says it shut down due to low traffic.

Accordingly, I’ve issued a final archival version of freecode-submit and shipped a version of shipper that no longer tries to do freecode notifications, issuing a complaint instead.

Had to revise the How to Become a Hacker, too. I used to advise newbs to watch that site for projects they might want to join. Can’t do that any more.

With this site gone, where can people go for a cross-sectional view of what open source is doing? Bummer….

May 29

New cat soon to arrive here

Cathy and I signed papers to adopt a cat from a rescue network last night. It would be here already, but it’s being treated for a mild ear infection picked up at the pet store.

“It” is actually a he, a golden-eyed ginger-and-cream Maine Coon about two years old. The name is “Gorgonzola”, which we’ll probably shorten to “Zola”.

Why this cat? Because we’re of the school of thought that believes you should let a cat choose you rather than trying to choose a cat. Of all the ones we met, it seemed to take to Cathy the most strongly, and we viewed this as the more important compatibility check because we both know I have stronger cat-fu than she does. If a cat doesn’t take an active dislike to me (which is so unusual I can’t remember when it last happened) I will charm it eventually; this one likes me well enough to begin with that I’m sure we’ll do just fine.

It’s hard to avoid making comparisons with Sugar. First impression is that Zola is almost as human-friendly as Sugar was (which sounds like faint praise but is really like saying “almost as deep as the Pacific Ocean”) with a more placid, less active temperament. I’m not expecting him to be quite as outgoing with our houseguests, but I don’t think he’ll hide behind the furniture either. Likely he’ll just hang out nearby being mellow and making nice at anyone who approaches him. That’s typical behavior for Coon toms and he seems quite typical that way. He seems to be very gentle and un-clawful even by Coon standards, which is going some. I’d bet he’s great with small children.

We’re a little nervous, for all the obvious reasons. What if Zola has un-obvious behavior problems? Ill health? But it’s time. Our home feels a bit empty without a cat in it. Not for much longer!

Apr 23

Sugar has passed on

Sugar’s NYT appearance last week was her last hurrah. We had to have her euthanized today. She died peacefully about an hour ago.

Her decline had been extremely rapid. Three weeks ago, even, Sugar barely looked aged and it was still possible to believe she might live another year. But the chronic nephritis, and possibly other organ failures, caught up with her. She started losing weight rapidly and her legs (already affected by arthritis) weakened. Her appetite waned, and her frequency of self-grooming diminished.

The signs were clear, but we hoped that she would bounce back – she was a very tough cat and had surprised us and our veterinarians that way before. Over the weekend she showed serious problems walking. When I saw her fall partway down the basement stairs Saturday evening because she couldn’t keep her footing, I suspected it was time. Sunday she almost couldn’t walk, and began sounding distress calls a few times an hour – stopped eating and drinking. Then I knew it was time. So did Cathy.

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Apr 13

Sugar’s health may finally be failing

This is an update for friends of Sugar only; you know who you are.

Sugar may not have much time left. She’s been losing weight rapidly the last couple weeks, her appetite is intermittent, and she’s been having nausea episodes. She seems remarkably cheerful under the circumstances and still likes human company as much as ever, but … she really does seem old and frail now, which wasn’t so as recently as her 21st birthday in early February.

We’re bracing ourselves. If the rate she’s fading doesn’t change I think we’re going to have to euthanize her within six weeks or so. Possibly sooner. Possibly a lot sooner.

Sugar’s had a good long run. We’ll miss her a lot, but Cathy and I are both clear that it is our duty not to see her suffering prolonged unnecessarily.

If you’re a friend of Sugar and have any option to visit here to say your farewells, best do it immediately.

If you’ve somehow read this far without having met Sugar: I don’t normally blog about strictly personal things, but Sugar is a bit of an institution. She’s been a friend to the many hackers who have guested in our storied basement; I’ve seen her innocent joyfulness light up a lot of faces. We’re not the only people who will be affected by losing her.

Apr 10

Does the Heartbleed bug refute Linus’s Law?

The Heartbleed bug made the Washington Post. And that means it’s time for the reminder about things seen versus things unseen that I have to re-issue every couple of years.

Actually, this time around I answered it in advance, in an Ask Me Anything on Slashdot just about exactly a month ago. The following is a lightly edited and somewhat expanded version of that answer.

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