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.

Sep 13

Help with WordPress

This is a request for help from my readers. I’m trying to find out how to hack WP so that it will never insert <br> tags in my entries. I want it to ignore hard newlines, treating them as soft.

Sep 11

WordPress theme designers annoy the crap out of me

Having discovered that my WordPress 1.5 upgrade broke the CSS and
customized template I had designed for WordPress 1.2, I’ve been
shopping for a new theme at the WRC Theme
site. I’m looking for something clean and simple that I
can customize to my taste.

Having browsed through over a hundred and fifty themes, I’m left with one
burning question in my mind: why are 90% of these themes designed by
utter pinheads who don’t understand basic Web concepts like letting the
viewer control the presentation?

I’ve ranted about the drooling idiocy of pixel-sized fonts before.
Many of these themes not only make that mistake (which hoses anyone in
a screen with a DPI different from the designer’s), they cram the
content into boxes or vertical bands that don’t resize when you
widen or narrow the browser

There are a handful of honorable exceptions: Clasikue. Anarchy.
Curtains up. Dixie Belle. Elvgren. Flex. Fullwidth. Gentle
Calm. Gila. Greenwood. Ice. The three “Journalized” themes. Man-ja.
Operate. Placidwide. Psycho. Rampart. RohitKumar.org.
Sixties. Steam. But by and large, almost all of the more than 250
themes at this site (and elsewhere I’ve looked) make the same basic,
unforgiveable error. They treat the display like fancy paper under
the control of the theme designer rather than allowing the
user’s preferences to control font sizes and the width of the
display area.

It’s the web, you morons! Stop wasting readers’ screen
space with frames and diapered borders. They have better use for
their pixels than all that frou-frou crap.

Sep 08

Microsoft’s Worst Nightmare?

A commenter writes, in reference to my letter to the Microsoft

BTW, I think abrogating to yourself the status of MS’s worst
nightmare might be seen as presumptious, considering that FLOSS
depends on a big community, and a lot of what FLOSS is about precedes
your 97 work, but far be it from me to try to teach ESR strategy.

Um. You meant “arrogating”, I think. A few words about that…

Continue reading

Sep 16

CBS and SCO Charge: Bush stole Unix!

OREM, UTAH — In a startling and unexpected joint press conference, CBS
and SCO, Inc. charged today that President George W. Bush had
conspired with IBM to steal Unix code while Linus Torvalds was AWOL
from the Finnish army.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the podium, Dan Rather and Darl McBride
flourished what they said was documentary proof, in the form of source
code listings found in a wastebasket at Texas Air National Guard

Open-source hackers and bloggers immediately questioned the report. “In
1972 Linus was like, three years old!” one Slashdotter commented. “I could
be wrong, but I don’t think they let toddlers into the Finnish army”. Others
pointed out that the listings were laser-printed on sheet-fed paper
using a technology not available in any form until 1978 and not deployed
by the Texas Air National Guard until after 1984. The Linux operating
system was launched in 1991.

“We at CBS have consulted numerous experts and believe these to be accurate,”
Dan Rather said, “but it doesn’t really matter whether or not they are
authentic. George W. Bush’s role in flouting the intellectual-property laws
of this country must be fully investigated. It’s not the nature of the
evidence, it’s the seriousness of the charges!”

“SCO is seeking additional discovery from IBM,” added Darl McBride.
“We have confidence that if we can just get our hands on every IBM
code listing from the dawn of time and depose every IBM employee
living or dead, we will be able to drag this case out long enough to
swing not just the the 2004 elections but the 2008 ones as well!”

In related news, the Kerry campaign — still struggling to rebut
charges of computer illiteracy raised by the Swift Vets’ searing
expose “Unfit for COMMAND.COM” — is rumored to have received a
donation from Bill Gates that included both a large wad of cash and
all known remaining copies of “Microsoft Bob”. Spokepersons could not
be reached for comment.

Dec 06

Da Big Snow

Yup, the blizzard is big. Here in eastern Pennsylvania we’ve had over a foot of snow and
a lot of drifting today. I shoveled my driveway. I’m going to be stiff tomorrow.

Nov 21

The Prudential interview

I’ve spent a lot of time and effort since 1997 developing effective propaganda tactics for
reaching the business world on behalf of the hacker community — among other things, by
popularizing the term ‘open source’. If you want to grok how this is done, read
my October 15 interview with a bunch of Prudential Securities investors.

Pay attention to style as well as content. This is the language you have to learn to speak
to reach the people who write big checks. It’s not very complicated, if you just bear in mind
that these people are obsessed with two things: risk management and return on investment. As they should be — it’s their job.

May 05

The Delusion of Expertise

I learned something this weekend about the high cost of the subtle delusion that creative technical problem-solving is the preserve of a priesthood of experts, using powers and perceptions beyond the ken of ordinary human beings.

Terry Pratchett is the author of the Discworld series of satirical fantasies. He is — and I don’t say this lightly, or without having given the matter thought and study — quite probably the most consistently excellent writer of intelligent humor in the last century in English. One has to go back as far as P.G. Wodehouse or Mark Twain to find an obvious equal in consistent quality, volume, and sly wisdom.

I’ve been a fan of Terry’s since before his first Discworld novel; I’m one of the few people who remembers Strata, his 1981 first experiment with the disc-world concept. The man has been something like a long-term acquaintance of mine for ten years — one of those people you’d like to call a friend, and who you think would like to call you a friend, if the two of you ever arranged enough concentrated hang time to get that close. But we’re both damn busy people, and live five thousand miles apart.

This weekend, Terry and I were both guests of honor at a hybrid SF convention and Linux conference called Penguicon held in Warren, Michigan. We finally got our hang time. Among other things, I taught Terry how to shoot pistols. He loves shooter games, but as a British resident his opportunities to play with real firearms are strictly limited. (I can report that Terry handled my .45 semi with remarkable competence and steadiness for a first-timer. I can also report that this surprised me not at all.)

During Terry’s Guest-of-Honor speech, he revealed his past as (he thought) a failed hacker. It turns out that back in the 1970s Terry used to wire up elaborate computerized gadgets from Timex Sinclair computers. One of his projects used a primitive memory chip that had light-sensitive gates to build a sort of perceptron that could actually see the difference between a circle and a cross. His magnum opus was a weather station that would log readings of temperature and barometric pressure overnight and deliver weather reports through a voice synthesizer.

But the most astonishing part of the speech was the followup in which Terry told us that despite his keen interest and elaborate homebrewing, he didn’t become a programmer or a hardware tech because he thought techies had to know mathematics, which he thought he had no talent for. He then revealed that he thought of his projects as a sort of bad imitation of programming, because his hardware and software designs were total lash-ups and he never really knew what he was doing.

I couldn’t stand it. “And you think it was any different for us?” I called out. The audience laughed and Terry passed off the remark with a quip. But I was just boggled. Because I know that almost all really bright techies start out that way, as compulsive tinkerers who blundered around learning by experience before they acquired systematic knowledge. “Oh ye gods and little fishes”, I thought to myself, “Terry is a hacker!”

Yes, I thought ‘is’ — even if Terry hasn’t actually tinkered any computer software or hardware in a quarter-century. Being a hacker is expressed through skills and projects, but it’s really a kind of attitude or mental stance that, once acquired, is never really lost. It’s a kind of intense, omnivorous playfulness that tends to color everything a person does.

So it burst upon me that Terry Pratchett has the hacker nature. Which, actually, explains something that has mildly puzzled me for years. Terry has a huge following in the hacker community — knowing his books is something close to basic cultural literacy for Internet geeks. One is actually hard-put to think of any other writer for whom this is as true. The question this has aways raised for me is: why Terry, rather than some hard-SF writer whose work explicitly celebrates the technologies we play with?

The answer now seems clear. Terry’s hackerness has leaked into his writing somehow, modulating the quality of the humor. Behind the drollery, I and my peers worldwide have accurately scented a mind like our own.

I said some of this the following day, when I ran into Terry surrounded by about fifty eager fans in a hallway. The nature of the conference was such that about three-quarters of them were hackers, many faces I recognized. I brought up the topic again, emphasizing that the sort of playful improvisation he’d been describing was very normal for us, and that I thought it was kind of sad he’d been blocked by the belief that hackers need to know mathematics, because about all we ever use is some pieces of set theory, graph theory, combinatorics, and Boolean algebra. No calculus at all.

Terry then admitted that he had at one point independently re-invented Boolean algebra. I didn’t find this surprising — I did that myself when I was about fifteen; I didn’t mention this, though, because the moment was about Terry’s mind and not mine. I think reinventing Boolean algebra is probably something a lot of bright proto-hackers do.

“Terry,” I said, fully conscious of the peculiar authority I wield on this point as the custodian of the Jargon File, the how-to on How To Become A Hacker and several other related documents, “you are a hacker!

The crowd agreed enthusiastically. Somebody handed Terry one of the “Geek” badge ribbons the convention had made for attendees who wanted to identify themselves as coming from the Linux/programming side. Much laughter ensued when it was discovered that the stickum on the ribbon had lost its virtue, and a nearby hacker had to ceremonially affix the thing to Terry’s badge holder with a piece of duct tape.

Terry actually choked up a little while this was going on, and I don’t think there was anyone there who didn’t understand why. To the kind of teenager and young man he must have been — bright, curious, creative, proud of his own ability — it must have been very painful to conclude that he would never cut it as the techie he so obviously wanted to be. He ended up doing public-relations work for the British nuclear-power industry instead.

The whole sequence of events left me feeling delighted that I and my friends could deliver the affirmation Terry had deserved so long ago. But also — and here we come to the real point of this essay — I felt very angry at the system that had fed the young Terry such a huge load of cobblers about the nature of what programmers and hardware designers do.

I’m not referring to the obvious garbage about needing a brain-bending amount of mathematics. No; they fed Terry something much subtler and more crippling, a belief that real techies actually know what they’re doing. The delusion of expertise.

The truth is that programmers only know what they’re doing when the job is not very interesting. When you’re breaking new ground in any technical field, exploration and improvisation is the nature of the game. Your designs are going to be lash-ups because you don’t yet know any better and neither does anyone else. Systematization comes later, with the second system, during the re-write and the re-think. Einstein had it right; imagination is more valuable than knowledge, and people like Terry with a demonstrated ability to creatively wing it make far better hackers than analytically smart but unimaginative people who can only follow procedures.

The thought that Terry may have spent thirty years of working days grinding out press releases for the Central Electricity Generating Board because he didn’t know this, rather than following his dreams into astronomy or programming or hardware design, bothers the crap out of me. If Terry was bright enough to invent Boolean algebra, he was bright enough to cut it in any of these fields. The educational system failed him by putting artificial requirements in his way and making him believe they were natural ones. It failed him even more fundamentally by teaching him a falsehood about the nature of expertise.

In doing this, it failed all of us. How many bright kids with first-class minds, I wonder, end up under-employed because of crap like this? How much creative potential are we losing?

OK, some might answer, so we got the Discworld fantasies instead…that ain’t exactly chopped liver. The thing is, I’m not sure that was actually a trade-off. I’m enough of a writer myself to believe that you can’t block a writing talent like Terry’s merely by dropping him into a more demanding day job. It will come out.

On the other hand, one thing I am sure of is that you don’t need intelligence or talents like Terry’s just to do PR. One way or another, this man was going to do something with more lasting effects than soothing British farmers about radiation leaks. Inventing one of the funniest alternate worlds of the last hundred years during your free time is nice, and I devoutly hope he will get to keep doing it for decades to come — but in a society that valued and nurtured genius properly, I think Terry might have helped re-imagine the real world just as radically during his day job.

But he didn’t. Tot it up to the cost of taking creativity too seriously, of undervaluing improvisation and play and imagination. And wonder how much else that error has cost us.

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