Sep 11

Eminent Domains: The First Time I Changed History

In a day or two I plan to do a blog post on the way engineering decisions can be critically important at cusp points in the history of society. In order for part of the argument in that post to make sense, my readers need to hear a story I’ve been hinting at in comments for some time: the first time that I personally made a difference in the world at what I believe was history-changing scale, and how that happened.

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Aug 23

Organic guilt

I have a confession to make. I buy “organic” food, and I feel rather guilty about it.

My wife and I were in the local Wegman’s the other day (Wegman’s is worth a rant by itself; I’ll get back to Wegman’s) poking around in the “Nature’s Market” section where they keep the organic food. “Aha!” says my wife, “here’s something you’d like,” and held up a small bag labeled “Gone Nuts: Cilantro Lime Mojo” with, underneath it in smaller type, “Pistachios and Pepitas”.

I seized the bag and looked on the back. “Pure food ingredients” it trumpeted.
“No weird stuff added. INGREDIENTS: Raw Pistachios, Sprouted Organic Pumpkin Seeds, Organic Lime Juice, Organic Fresh Cilantro, Organic Spices, Organic Jalapeno, Organic Cold Pressed Olive Oil, Himalayan Crystal Salt and Lime Oil.” My mouth watered. “Oh Goddess,” I muttered in her direction, “it’s packaged crack for me…”

Ah, but then came the deadly disclaimers. “VEGAN GLUTEN-FREE NO GMOs NO TRANS FAT.” and “We support local and fair-trade sources growing certified organic, transitional, and pesticide-free products.” Aaaarrrgggh! Suddenly my lovely potential snack was covered with an evil-smelling miasma of diet-faddery, sanctimony, political correctness, and just plain nonsense. This, I find, is a chronic problem with buying “organic”.

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Aug 22


I saw The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone’s I-want-to-be-a-blockbuster action flick, just after it opened. I found it a curiously listless affair, considering all the star power and special-effects money lavished on it, but it’s taken me a week to realize why. Stallone, who wrote and directed and stars in the film, misses his target by a mile. Or, more likely, he couldn’t decide where to aim.

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Aug 13

I cast a wish into the air

Being admired by lots of open-source geeks can be useful in unexpected ways. Probably the most extreme example I can recall is the Linux user group that once asked me to speak at a conference in Kansas City and rewarded me by paying for the ammunition at a local gun range where I got to fire fully-automatic weapons for the first and so far only time in my life. Though, come to think of it, the Korean LUG that gave me a tour of the DMZ complete with a trip down a captured North Korean infiltration tunnel was up there, too.

I was thinking about some of the more unusual experiences I’ve had of the road earlier today and it occurred to me that there’s one that almost happened, at Linucon 1, but didn’t because some insurance or municipal-health bureaucrat forced the conference to cancel the event. I’ve regretted it ever since.

So here it is. I don’t do a lot of road trips any more, but if your LUG or university is thinking about how to get me to give a talk, I have an unfulfilled wish…

Someday, I want to help judge a chili cook-off.

Hey, I like chili. I have some foodie tendencies and a good nose; I’d probably do the judging thing as competently as anybody who isn’t a professional cook. There it is; maybe some geek in a chiliaceous part of the U.S. will see this and go “Yeah. We could do that…” And a good time would be had by all.

A barbecue cook-off would also be quite acceptable :-)

Aug 13

Oracle sues Google over Java implementation methods.

Oracle has just sued Google over implementation methods used in the Dalvik virtual machine at the heart of the Android operating system. The complaint alleges knowing and willful infringement of seven patents originally issued to Sun Microsystems.

Oracle has retained Boies, Schiller & Flexner. One wonders if they’ll be any more competent than they were on the SCO lawsuit…

Results of a quick skim of the patents follow.

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Aug 10

Shameless name-dropping

I hold in my hand an extract of a draft manuscript paper-mailed to me by Donald Knuth.

It is titled “TPK in INTERCAL” and it has a handwritten note from Don offering a bug bounty of 0x$1.00.

In it, I am quoted three times.

If my grin were any wider, it would hurt.

I believe the proper item of contemporary slang for me to utter would be “Squee!”

Aug 08

Android the Inexorable

CNET reported a few days ago (while I was busy at the World Boardgaming Championships, or I’d have blogged on this sooner) that Android hits top spot in U.S. smartphone market.

There’s a boatload of bad news in the numbers for Apple fans, but no surprises for anyone who has been following my strategic analyses for the last seven months. In the first quarter Android new sales passed Apple’s but ran second behind Blackberry sales; in the second quarter, Android has passed Blackberry and opened up an 11% gap in front of iPhone sales.

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Jul 28

Sometimes, ancestry matters

I’ve written before, on several occasions, about solving the problem of racism by strict individualism – a studied refusal to allow what we know about genetic population differences and differing means in measures like IQ to distort our judgment of individuals. The bell curve is not the point; the mass is not the individual. Ancestry is not destiny. Sanity demands that we recognize the difference.

But ancestry may matter after all. I’m going to tell you a personal story now about one of the most powerful moments in my life. I’m not sure what it meant, or if it meant anything at all. But it was certainly interesting to live through.

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Jul 27

How not to sign NDAs

If you’re any kind of consultant or contract programmer, and you’re an open-source person, one of the persistent minor (and sometimes not-so-minor) irritations of doing business is NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements). Your client will often want you to sign one. About 1% of the time they’re protecting actual business-critical information; the other 99% they’re suffering from an unfounded delusion that they’re protecting business-critical information – but the rigamarole is 100% annoying 100% of the time. Besides, even if (like me) you consider it a point of personal honor not to blab things you’ve been told in confidence, you probably have a philosophical objection to being gagged.

I haven’t signed an NDA in least the last 12 years of active consulting, and over my entire 27 years of such I’ve maybe signed a grand total of two NDAs, and I’ll never sign one again. Herewith, a short course in how to evade them.

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May 28

I am twitter-enabled, mainly for gaming purposes

Those of you who wish to follow me on Twitter can now do so.

You’ll find much of my Twitter content a bit strange, as I am using it mainly to play an on-line game called EchoBazaar. All the tweets labeled #ebz are game stuff.

EchoBazaar has an interesting business model: you play for free, but can buy Fate Points useful in game. I understand this has been done before, but it’s the first time I’ve encountered it.

(Someone else has twitter ID “esr”, alas.)

Mar 02

Cocoa party! Yeah!

First there was the Tea Party movement. Which I’ve been keeping my distance from because while some of the small-government talk appealed to my libertarian instincts, it seemed to have a whiff of grouchy-old-fart social conservatism about it. While I’ve nearly achieved the calendar age required for grouchy-old-fart status, I don’t want anything to do with that mindset thank you very much.

Then there was the Coffee Party movement, which smelled of astroturf and humbug even before the founder was outed as a Democratic political operative and former New York Times staffer (but I repeat myself).

Now, there’s…the Cocoa Party movement! Yeah. Sign me up!

This satire is especially personally funny to me because in sober fact I am a cocoa-drinker by choice. I don’t like coffee, and while I enjoy tea well enough, I’d rather have a big mug of Godiva Dark Chocolate any day – extra strong, piping hot, no sugar or cream but a few shakes of cinnamon for sure.

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Feb 28

Plug for a worthy project: Softbound

When I do my ESR-the-famous-geek road show, I get two kinds of questions: the public ones from my auduence, and the private ones from people who buttonhole me afterwards because they politely don’t want to burden the audience with their particular concerns. Of these, the single most common one is probably “How do I attract developers to my project?”

Last Wednesday I was giving a talk at University of Pennsylvania, which I do once in most years because it’s near me and one of the professors there, Dr. David Matuszek, is an old friend who likes to have me in once a year as a treat for his students.

One of his colleagues approached me with the familiar question. There isn’t a good general answer to this one, because how you attract developers depends in subtle and complicated ways on which developers you actually want. But this particular pitch interested me because it could be part of a significant change in the open-source tools infrastructure that I see coming down the pike.

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Feb 10

The Great Blizzard of 2010: It’s Baaaack!

So, if you entertained any thought the Great Blizzard of 2010 was Gaia dancing a mocking reel on the heads of the AGW crowd…she’s back to tread out a hornpipe, a polka, and a rigadoon. The mid-Atlantic coast is now experiencing a second record-setting snowstorm just five days after the first one. Once again: we are snowed in, we are OK, the fridge is still well supplied, and the cat is still fuzzy.

Washington D.C. is now long past seeing its seasonal record for snow shattered. City authorities appear to have plain given up. The Federal government is shut down. (Yay!) Philadelphia is pretty much shut down too and nobody thinks it’s going to be any better off tomorrow. As I write we’ve got three feet on the ground in Malvern and more coming down fast; the trench I dug from our door to the driveway this morning has already filled in.

Last time around Malvern was 30-50 miles north of the worst-hit areas. This time, if I can go by what I saw on the weather maps, we had the bull’s-eye painted on us. The wind’s not as stiff as it was in Round One, but I think the snow is actually accumulating faster this time. Between the weekend’s snow and the new stuff I think we might crack the five-foot mark here.

The serious-damage threshold has already been crossed. Some friends of ours about a mile and a half away own a hot tub that sits under a light wooden-and-plexiglass gazebo. Used to sit under it, I should say; the roof collapsed today. Internet service is getting slow and flaky; I’ve had a couple episodes of being unable to reach even Google today. Pandora Radio is, unsurprisingly and with no blame to them, dropping out a lot. I’m thinking some of the core routers in the D.C./Baltimore area have probably crapped out.

I made another ginormous pancakes-and-bacon breakfast for us this morning. Wasn’t as much fun this time. And had to do almost all the shovelling myself, as Cathy slightly pulled something in her right hip over the weekend and I was not about to let her re-injure herself. Not that shovelling’s done a lot of good, anyway; as I noted, the snow has filled already in this morning’s trench to the driveway, Getting all the way to the road isn’t going to be pleasant.

Overall, this is starting to suck. Not seriously, yet, but the trend is not good. Um, about that global warming, could I actually have some, please? The cocoa is holding out, but we’re down to our last slice of pumpkin pie here, man!

Feb 06

The Great Blizzard of 2010

This is a bulletin for those of my regulars who know that I live smack-dab in the middle of the mid-Atlantic-coast region of the U.S. that’s just been hit by epic snowfall. We’re OK. It’s dangerous outside and we’re not planning on stirring out of sight of the house until the blizzard is over, but we’re OK.

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Jan 14

The Devil in Haiti

There’s a great deal of ridicule being aimed at Pat Robertson for describing the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti as God’s retribution on the country for a deal with the Devil supposedly made by the leaders of the 1791 slave revolt in which they threw off French control. And Robertson is a foaming loon, to be sure…but when I dug for the source of the legend I found a curiously plausible account:

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Nov 09

Ego is for little people

When I got really famous and started to hang out with people at the top of the game in computer science and other fields, one of the first things I noticed is that the real A-list types almost never have a major territorial/ego thing going on in their behavior. The B-list people, the bright second-raters, may be all sharp elbows and ego assertion, but there’s a calm space at the top that the absolutely most capable ones get to and tend to stay in.

I’m going to be specific about what I mean by “ego” now, because otherwise much of this essay may seem vague or wrongheaded. I specifically mean psychologial egotism, not (for example) ethical egoism as a philosophical position. The main indicators of egotism as I intend it here are are loud self-display, insecurity, constant approval-seeking, overinflating one’s accomplishments, touchiness about slights, and territorial twitchiness about one’s expertise. My claim is that egotism is a disease of the incapable, and vanishes or nearly vanishes among the super-capable.

It’s not only scientific fields where this is true. For various reasons (none of which, fortunately, have been legal troubles of my own) I’ve had to work with a lot of lawyers. I’m legally literate, so a pattern I quickly noticed is this: the B-list lawyers are the ones who get all huffy about a non-attorney expressing opinions and judgments about the law. The one time I worked with a stratospherically supercompetent A-list firm (I won’t name them, but I will note they have their own skyscraper in New York City) they were so relaxed about recognizing capability in a non-lawyer that some language I wrote went straight into their court filings in a lawsuit with multibillion-dollar stakes.

This sort of thing has been noted before by other people and is almost a commonplace. I’m bringing it up to note why that’s true, speaking from my own experience. It’s not that people at the top of their fields are more virtuous. Well…actually I think people at the top of their fields do tend to be more virtuous, for the same reason they tend to be be more intelligent, less neurotic, longer-lived, better-looking, and physically healthier than the B-listers and below. Human capability does not come in nearly divisible chunks; almost every individual way that humans can excel is tangled up with other ways at a purely physiological level, with immune-system capability lurking behind a surprisingly large chunk of the surface measures. But I don’t think the mean difference in “virtue”, however you think that can actually be defined, explains what I’m pointing at.

No. It’s more that ego games have a diminishing return. The farther you are up the ability and achievement bell curve, the less psychological gain you get from asserting or demonstrating your superiority over the merely average, and the more prone you are to welcome discovering new peers because there are so damn few of them that it gets lonely. There comes a point past which winning more ego contests becomes so pointless that even the most ambitious, suspicious, external-validation-fixated strivers tend to notice that it’s no fun any more and stop.

I’m not speaking abstractly here. I’ve always been more interested in doing the right thing than doing what would make me popular, to the point where I generally figure that if I’m not routinely pissing off a sizable minority of people I should be pushing harder. In the language of psychology, my need for external validation is low; the standards I try hardest to live up to are those I’ve set for myself. But one of the differences I can see between myself at 25 and myself at 52 is that my limited need for external validation has decreased. And it’s not age or maturity or virtue that shrunk it; it’s having nothing left to prove.

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Oct 21

Public Space in Cyberspace

Following my post Condemning Censorship, Even of Werewolves, a great many people took me for task for trying to make a principled distinction between public space and private space, and tangled that up with a lot of confusion about the distinction between “public” and “state-owned” space. Here I’ll attempt to shed some light on the matter. In doing so, I will not actually be retailing a private theory of mine, but touching on principles with a long history in ethics and Anglo-American common law.

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