Apr 24

How to get banned from my blog

It is quite difficult to get banned from commenting on my blog, but some – I think a grand total of about four out of a number of commenters well into the thousands over the last seven years – have managed it. With sufficient hard work and dedication, you too can join this select group.

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Mar 18

Doug McIlroy makes my day

Yeah, that’d be the Doug McIlroy. Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie’s boss when they were inventing Unix, himself one of its early co-designers, and the inventor of the Unix pipe.

He was very helpful when I was doing The Art of Unix Programming in 2003. Hadn’t heard from him since then until he emailed me out of the blue today to say good things about the manual I wrote for GNU PIC. Good Web rendering here; googling may turn up other copies.

He said:

I just read your manual for gnu pic. It’s a great job.
I’ve found that almost invariably follow-on descriptions of
Unix are either (1) too verbose or (2) too incomplete. When I
saw the page count I instinctively assigned this document to
category 1. But I had to read it, for man pic on Linux is
category 2. Only after I had finished and revised my opinion
to “this is a real keeper” did I go back to the title page to
see who wrote it.

Praise from the master is praise indeed. I am a happy Eric today.

I haven’t felt quite like this since Donald Knuth emailed me a bug fix for INTERCAL…

Feb 12

Translation Errors

God Wants You Dead is an entertaining and subversive little book that reminded me of a well-known controversy in the translation of the Judeo-Christian Bible. Most educated people probably know that in Isaiah 7:14 it is prophesied that the Messiah will be born of an ‘almah’ of the House of David — and thereby hangs an ambiguity over which much ink and blood have been spilled.

Reading this, I was reminded of something most people don’t know — that a similar translation problem lurks even nearer the root of Christian theology…

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Jan 09

My comment to the FCC on DRM

This comment is not confidential; I grant unconditional permission to republish it in full.

DRM is a disaster for everyone involved with it, because it cannot do what it claims but imposes large costs in the process of failing. The people who have sold DRM technologies to Big Media are frauds playing on the ignorance of media executives, and both the media companies and the consumer have suffered greatly and unnecessarily as a result.

DRM cannot do what it claims for at least three reasons. First, pirates readily bypass it by duplicating physical media. Second, DRM algorithms cannot “see” any data that the host device does not present to them; thus, they can always be spoofed by a computer emulating an environment in which the DRM algorithm thinks release is authorized. Third, for humans to view or hear the content it must at some point exit the digital realm of DRM to a screen and speakers; re-capturing the data stream at that point bypasses any possible protections.

DRM can make casual copying difficult, but cannot thwart any determined attack. Piracy operations operating on a scale sufficient to affect the revenue streams of media companies laugh at DRM. They know it is sucker bait, injuring ordinary consumers but impeding piracy not one bit.

In the process of failing, the DRM fraud imposes large costs. DRM makes consumer electronics substantially more expensive, failure-prone, and subject to interoperability failures than it would otherwise be. It makes media content less valuable to honest consumers by making that content difficult to back up, time-shift, or play on “unauthorized” devices. All too commonly, technical failures somewhere in a chain of DRM-equipped hardware lock consumers out of access to content they have paid for even in the manner the vendor originally intended to support.

But the worst effect of the DRM fraud is that it generates pressure to cripple general-purpose computers in an attempt to foil emulation attacks. As a society, we can live with silly restrictions on device-shifting the latest blockbuster movie, but we cannot tolerate (for example) attempts to prevent PCs from running software not certified in advance by a consortium of Big Media companies. Yet that – and even more draconian restrictions – is where the logic of the DRM fraud inexorably leads. Such measures have already been advocated under the misleading banner “trusted computing”, and half-attempts at them routinely injure today’s computer users.

I would not ask the FCC to ban DRM, even if that were within its remit. Markets will teach the media companies that DRM is folly, just as markets taught software companies that “copy protection” was a losing game back in the 1980s. What the federal government can and should do is decline to prop up the DRM fraud with laws or mandates.

Specifically, if the “broadcast flag” or any other similar measure is again proposed, the FCC should reject it. To the extent that FCC regulatory or administrative action can mitigate the damage and chilling effects caused by the DMCA’s so-called “anti-circumvention” provisions, that should be attempted. Most generally, the FCC should make policy with the understanding that when media companies claim that DRM is useful and effective, they are not only misleading the FCC but deluding themselves.

Dec 19

From Scythia to Camelot with Thud and Blunder

I am not sure when or where I first encountered it, but the theory that the Arthurian cycle of legends might be rooted in the mythology of Scythia and the Sarmathians instantly struck me as not only plausible but almost certainly correct. The Sarmatians (and the closely-related or identical tribe of Alans) introduced armored heavy cavalry using the shock charge with lance to Europe: the Sarmatian hypothesis would neatly explain several otherwise very peculiar features of the Arthurian material, including the fact that even very early versions insistently describe a style of war gear and knightly combat with slashing swords on horseback that would not become actually typical in Europe until the later Middle Ages.

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Aug 04

On Enjoying a Fight – a Genetic Speculation

Sword Camp 2008 reminded me how much I enjoy fighting. I’m not speaking abstractly, here; by “fighting” I mean physical hand-to-hand combat.

Now, on one level, this revelation shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows what I do for fun. I’ve trained to black belt level in tae kwon do, studied aikido and wing chun kung fu, fought battle-line in the SCA, and achieved considerable proficiency in Sicilian cut-and-thrust swordfighting. One doesn’t do all that unless there’s some pretty hefty primary reward in there.

But I’ve actually had quite an interior struggle with this. It used to bother me that I like fighting. I had internalized the idea that while combat may sometimes be an ethical necessity, enjoying it is wrong — or at least dubious.

So I half-hid my delight from myself behind a screen of words about seeking self-perfection and focus and meditation in motion. Those words were all true; I do value the quasi-mystical aspects of the fighting arts very much. But the visceral reality underneath them, for me, was the joy of battle.

In 2005 I finally came to understand why I enjoy fighting. And — I know this will sound corny — I’m much more at peace with myself now. I’m writing this explanation because I think I am not alone — I don’t think my confusion and struggle was unique. There may be lessons here for others as well as myself, and even an insight into evolutionary biology.

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Jul 21

What D&D character am I?

Most what-kind-of-X-are-you quizzes are superficial jokes. I just found one that seems better constructed than the average, and as an old-time D&D fan I couldn’t resist it. Here’s the paste from my results, with a link:

I Am A: Neutral Good Human Wizard (7th Level)

Ability Scores:

Neutral Good A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do. He is devoted to helping others. He works with kings and magistrates but does not feel beholden to them. Neutral good is the best alignment you can be because it means doing what is good without bias for or against order. However, neutral good can be a dangerous alignment because it advances mediocrity by limiting the actions of the truly capable.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Wizards are arcane spellcasters who depend on intensive study to create their magic. To wizards, magic is not a talent but a difficult, rewarding art. When they are prepared for battle, wizards can use their spells to devastating effect. When caught by surprise, they are vulnerable. The wizard’s strength is her spells, everything else is secondary. She learns new spells as she experiments and grows in experience, and she can also learn them from other wizards. In addition, over time a wizard learns to manipulate her spells so they go farther, work better, or are improved in some other way. A wizard can call a familiar- a small, magical, animal companion that serves her. With a high Intelligence, wizards are capable of casting very high levels of spells.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

The stats seem pretty accurate on the whole, though I wonder which answers made them underestimate my Intelligence. And I’ve never been about limiting the actions of the truly capable.

And here are my results from another interesting quiz auditing for Asperger’s Syndrome traits:

No surprise there, I already knew I wasn’t an Asperger’s Syndrome case; if anything, my neurological bent resembles subclinical Tourette’s Syndrome. But here I come out as a neurotypical with a balance of intellectual and physical talents, which seems about right.

Jul 17

Slang for the Galaxy

It’s no news to any serious strategy gamer that Race For The Galaxy has rapidly become one of the most popular and frequently played designs of recent years. My gaming group plays it often enough that we’ve developed our own slang terms for certain frequently-occurring tactics and situations. In the hope that other players may find these enjoyable and useful, here they are:

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Jul 07

SPAT: How to Save the Music Industry

I think I know how to save the music business. There’s a dead-simple business model that will funnel money to talent, work with the Internet’s capability for zero-cost distribution rather than fighting it, and allow the record companies a role without “intellectual property” protection or DRM.

I call it SPAT for short. This can have either of two expansions: “Strike Price And Timeout” or “Street Performer And Teaser”.

Here’s how it should work:

1: You front the money to produce a song. Or an album. Or whatever marketable unit of music you think you can sell. (It’s the 21st century. Production equipment is cheap. You can do better sound engineering in a basement today than a million-dollar production outfit could have during most of the 20th century.)

2: You make a teaser clip. If you’re selling a single, maybe it’s 15 seconds out of 3:05. If you’re selling an album, maybe it’s a 3-minute audio montage sampled from the album tracks. Maybe it’s a video. Maybe it has voiceovers by the performers on it.

3: Throw the teaser on the Internet. Within months after this model is generally understood, there will be aggregation sites that do nothing but host teasers. Some will make money by selling advertising to people who want to reach music consumers. Others will be fan/hobbyist suites with a mission. Still others will be run by record companies — see below for discussion.

4: The teaser clip has a pitch at the end. “Free this music! When we get X dollars in the tip jar at the specified URL on our fulfillment site URL, we’ll throw the music on the Internet as a free download. Offer expires at time T.”

5: On the fulfillment site, the pledge jar shows how full it is when you look at it. You can add a pledge to the jar there.

6: The payment system on the fulfilment site has to deal gracefully with three cases:

6(a): The timeout expires before the pledge jar is full (“It busted!”). All pledges are returned. All parties lose.

6(b): The timeout expires after the pledge jar is full (“It boomed!”). The pledge jar is emptied and a free download link to the work appears beside it. Subsequently, anybody can do what they like with it — throwing it on a bunch of BitTorrent trackers will probably be a popular option.

6(c): The payment system must fail safely — that is, if the pledge jar fills, but the work does not ship, consumers don’t lose money.

All three cases are important! A large part of the point of this model is to eliminate from consumers’ thinking any perceived risk that they might throw money down a hole.

8. Assuming 6(b), use your profits to produce the next work. Now you can afford more studio time, better equipment, side players, and maybe some extra marketing. You can probably also set a higher pledge threshold, and/or a longer timeout.

For an artist, the single key business decision is what strike price to set for a given work — career-building will consist of earning a reputation that allows you to set a higher strike price than your previous ones. Because consumers are probably less sensitive to the timeout length tan to price , I’m expecting there will be convergence on a fairly small set of standard timeout periods.

Various interesting reputation games could be attached to SPAT to make the pledge jar fill faster. For example, large pledges might earn buyers perks like their name in lights near the download point for the work, or even a mention in some credits.

Record companies still have a role, if only because somebody has to be trusted to refund the pledges if the jar doesn’t fill and to actually ship the album if it does. Of course, they can continue doing conventional record-company stuff; branding, marketing, A&R, running studios. But there will be three big differences. One is bad: the
upside is bounded (you don’t collect ‘extra’ revenue from an unexpectedly successful work).

On the other hand, the other consequences are good. Distribution expenses go as near zero as makes no difference. There is no requirement in the model for DRM or IP protection of any sort; the record companies get to stop spending lots of money on lawyers and lobbyists and (more importantly) get to stop being hated by the people they most want as customers.

There’s no intrinsic reason SPAT couldn’t work for movies and other content as well as music, but it’s better adapted to media where the money you need to front to produce as saleable work is relatively low.

SPAT is, of course, a variant of the well-known Street Performer protocol (SPP). The key difference is that the teaser operates as both marketing and as a plausible promise that the artist already has a deliverable work, changing consumers’ risk assessments and making them more likely to buy. This addresses the most serious weakness of other forms of SPP, which is that the large information asymmetry between buyer and seller acts as a disincentive to buyers.

SPAT could be substantially improved with one piece of technical infrastructure. That is a pledge instrument which would give the receiver the right to a given chunk of the payer’s money, but only if called after a specified future date. Such an instrument would further reduce buyer risk.

Jun 26

I’m unstealthing

Yes,. there is a good reason that I disappeared for two years. As soon as a certain lawsuit now in court wraps up, I’ll even be able to explain it in detail.

But I’m back to blogging. Starting now.

Apr 10

My Comment Policy

I deleted a coment this morning.

This is not something I normally do, except for comments that are both anonymous and content-free — abuse and invective do not count as ‘content’ for this purpose. The comment I deleted this morning was not anonymous, and it could be argued that there was some content in it.

However, the content (if any) was drowned in a sewer-main’s worth of crude insults hurled by one respondent at another. I will not tolerate this, even when the insult-hurler is nominally on ‘my’ side of an issue.

Armed And Dangerous is not a public square and “free speech” standards do not apply here. If you have nothing to contribute to debate over the things I write about, I can and will cut you off at the knees. This applies to those who broadly agree with me as well as those who disagree. (If anything, I give my opponents a little more leeway than my allies.)

In my own small way, I’m trying to defend civilization here. So keep it civil. Or else.