Feb 14

Penguicon Party Preannouncement

No details yet, but this is a heads-up: I will be at Penguicon 2013, 26-28 April in Pontiac Michigan…and there will be a second annual paty for friends of Armed & Dangerous (or FOAD – now where have I seen that before?)

Convention info at http://2013.penguicon.org/

Feb 03

Sugar turns twenty

This is a bulletin for Sugar’s distributed fan club, the hackers and sword geeks and other assorted riff-raff who have guested in our commodious basement. The rest of you can go about your business.

According to the vet’s paperwork, our cat Sugar turned 20 yesterday. (Actually, the vet thinks she may be 19, but that would have required her to be only 6 months old when we got her which we strongly doubt – she would have had to have been exceptionally large and physically mature for a kitten that age, which seems especially unlikely because her growth didn’t top out until a couple of years later.)

Even 19 would be an achievement for any cat – average lifespan for a neutered female is about 15, and five years longer is like a human hitting the century mark. It’s especially remarkable since this cat was supposed to be dead of acute nephritis sixteen months ago. Instead, she’s so healthy that we’ve been letting the interval between subcutaneous hydrations slip a little without seeing any recurrence of the symptoms we learned to associate with her kidney troubles (night yowling, disorientation, poor appetite).

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Jan 28

Coding Freedom: a review

My usual audience is well aware why I am qualified to review Gabriella Coleman’s book, Coding Freedom, but since I suspect this post might reach a bit beyond my usual audience I will restate the obvious. I have been operating as the hacker culture’s resident ethnographer since around 1990, consciously applying the techniques of anthropological fieldwork (at least as I understood them) to analyze the operation of that culture and explain it to others. Those explanations have been tested in the real world with large consequences, including helping the hacker culture break out of its ghetto and infect everything that software touches with subversive ideas about open processes, transparency, peer review, and the power of networked collaboration.

Ever since I began doing my own ethnographic work on the hacker culture from the inside as a participant, I have keenly felt the lack of any comparable observation being done by outsiders formally trained in the techniques of anthropological fieldwork. I’m an amateur, self-trained by reading classic anthropological studies and a few semesters of college courses; I know relatively little theory, and have had to construct my own interpretative frameworks in the absence of much knowledge about how a professional would do it.

Sadly, the main thing I learned from reading Gabriella Coleman’s new book, Coding Freedom, is that my ignorance may actually have been a good thing for the quality of my results. The insight in this book is nearly smothered beneath a crushing weight of jargon and theoretical elaboration, almost all of which appears to be completely useless except as a sort of point-scoring academic ritual that does less than nothing to illuminate its ostensible subject.

This is doubly unfortunate because Coleman very obviously means well and feels a lot of respect and sympathy for the people and the culture she was studying – on the few occasions that she stops overplaying the game of academic erudition she has interesting things to say about them. It is clear that she is natively a shrewd observer whose instincts have been only numbed – not entirely destroyed – by the load of baggage she is carrying around.

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Nov 28

English is a Scandinavian language?

Here’s the most interesting adventure in linguistics I’ve run across in a while. Two professors in Norway assert that English is a Scandinavian language, a North Germanic rather than a West Germanic one. More specifically, they claim that Anglo-Saxon (“Old English”) is not the direct ancestor of modern English; rather, our language is more closely related to the dialect of Old Norse spoken in the Danelaw (the Viking-occupied part of England) after about 865.

The bolster their claim by pointing at major grammatical traits which English shares with Old Norse rather than West Germanic languages – notably, consistent SVO (subject-verb-object) word order rather than the SOV (subject-object-verb) or V2 (verb-second) orders that dominate in languages like German, Dutch and Anglo-Saxon. The practical consequence they point out (correctly – I’ve experienced this myself) is that English and Norwegian or Swedish are quite a bit closer in mutual intelligibility than any of this group is with German or Dutch or Anglo-Saxon. I had actually noticed this before and been puzzled by it.

The professors think the reason for this is that rather than evolving into Modern English, Anglo-Saxon actually died out during the two centuries between the invasion of the Great Army in 865 and the defeat of Harold Godwinsson in 1066. They propose that Anglo-Saxon influenced, but was largely replaced by, the Norse dialect of the Anglo-Danish Empire. Which, SVO North Germanic grammar and all, then collided with Norman French and evolved into English as we know it.

This isn’t crazy. It may be wrong, but it isn’t crazy. Two centuries is plenty of time for an invading language to reduce a native one to a low-status argot and even banish it entirely; we’ve seen it happen much faster than that when the invaders are as culturally and politically dominant as the Anglo-Danes were in England at the time of Cnut (1016-1035).

Even in the conventional account of the evolution of English, modern English is supposed to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon spoken in the East Midlands – which, as the professors point out, was the most densely settled part of the Danelaw!

All of this gave me an idea that may go beyond the professors’ hypothesis and explain a few other things…

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Nov 19

The wages of secrecy

One of my regulars, contemplating the increasingly pathetic series of clusterfucks that have passed for exciting new products at Microsoft, wonders why a company with all its advantages – more money than $DEITY to hire the best developers, lots of experience, dominant position in a major technology market – can’t seem to release a decent product any more.

The answer is simple and deep. It’s because evil is inefficient.

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Nov 17

A secret of game-fu

Last night I utterly trounced three opponents at the slick new Fantasy Flight reissue of a classic interstellar trade and exploration game, Merchants of Venus. My end score was nearly three times that of the runner-up, and I had acquired so many fame points (which each become 10 victory points at game end) that we ran out of fame tokens.

One of the other players half-humorously protested that I had gotten incredibly lucky. “Nonsense”, I said, “it was planning”. He sputtered that I had frequently had the victory conditions for lucrative missions apparently drop in my lap. Which was true, and he was right to view those individual occurrences as luck. But it was also true that I planned my way to victory.

I made chance work for me. Pay attention, because I am about to reveal why there is a large class of games (notably pick-up-and-carry games like Empire Builder, network-building games like Power Grid, and more generally games with a large variety of paths to the win condition) at which I am extremely difficult to beat. The technique is replicable.

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Oct 28

Storm warning

By now you’ve doubtless heard about Hurricane Sandy; the record-breaking superstorm hype has been pretty hard to miss. Well, I just got a look at the latest NOAA track projection, and it looks like the storm center is going to pass directly over my house sometime Tuesday night. The center track on that map couldn’t hit me more accurately if it had been aimed.

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Sep 27

An emergency replacement for the CIA service is coming.

A few hours ago I learned that, due to a virtual-server mishap, the cia.vc notification service is dead. And not coming back.

This was not entirely unexpected. The CIA codebase was a shambles, the service has been flaky and subject to outages, and the server-site operator who inherited it has for some time been muttering darkly that the end was probably nigh.

I’ve been sitting on a lightweight replacement for CIA since late August, holding off shipping until it was clear whether or not a salvage effort on the codebase was going to succeed. That option is off the table now, so I’m going into emergency overdrive to get a release out.

The main thing that still needs to be done is for me to finish and test a hook script for git repos, so that when I ship the admins at places like SourceForge and GitHub will be able to drop in both a server instance and the correct hook code. This script will also be a model for hooks serving other VCSes such as Mercurial, Subversion, and (ugh) CVS.

I’m working on that now and expect to ship within 48 hours. Watch this space.

Sep 24

Practical prophecy

Inspired by Dave Logan’s keynote on tribal leadership at AgileCultureCon, I did a breakout session and then an open-space followup on “Practical Prophecy 101″.

Recall that in Logan’s terms a “prophet” is a person who moves the behavior of his tribe towards greater cooperation and creativity by (his words) “preaching the inevitability of values-based change”.

Venessa Miemis took notes on my talk. Here’s a lightly edited and expanded version of those notes. In each item I have replayed a quote of mine that she recorded; where appropriate I have expanded a little on the thinking behind it.

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Sep 06

A shout to the world’s technical journals

So, after my post on ground-truth documents, one of my commenters argued eloquently that I ought to clean it up and submit it to a journal read by people who manage programming projects. He suggested Software Practice and Experience.

This seemed like a pretty good idea, until I read SP&E’s submission procedures and was reminded that (like most journals) they want me to assign the copyright of my submission to the publisher.

My instant reaction was this: Fuck. That. Noise. I’m certainly willing to cede publication rights when I want to be published, but copyright assignment ain’t going to happen. Ever. Nobody gets to own my work but me. (Yes, I insist on this with my book publishers too.)

I have a message to all you technical journal publishers out there…

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Sep 03

This is a tease.

Yesterday I applied for allocation of a new public port number from IANA. It’s 6659. When the allocation is confirmed, I’ll publish the source code for a reference implementation of the server. It’s a bit over 300 lines of Python.

Let the speculation begin. :-)

Jul 19

Saga Iceland and “thar”

In the comments on my previous post, someone linked to Steven Dutch’s essay The World’s Most Toxic Value System, in which he discusses the many evils that flow from a complex of values that he labels with the Arabic word “thar” (blood vengeance).

Dutch’s essay is in many ways insightful, and a welcome corrective to the mush-minded notion that all cultures have equally valid ethical claims. But it suffers a bit from the author’s lack of anthropological breadth – while he is commendably clear-eyed about what he has seen, there is much he has not seen that bears on and could be used to improve his thesis.

I think it is particularly instructive to apply Dutch’s criteria to the culture of saga Iceland, which we may take as a literate representative of the pre-Christian Norse and more generally of old tribal Germanic culture. This tradition should be especially interesting to English-speakers, as the Anglo-Saxon version of it was foundational to Anglo-American common law and notions of liberty.

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Jun 25

Abusing Alan Turing

The centennial of Alan Turing’s birth brings us the news that Alan Turing probably did not commit suicide by eating a poisoned apple, was not depressed at the time of his death, and that the hormone treatments intended to suppress his homosexual urges had been discontinued a year before he died. I am not in the least surprised by any of this; in fact I have been half-expecting such inversions ever since I began noticing, twenty years or so ago, the increasing mythologization of Turing’s life.

This centennial seems a good time to consider how we re-invent – and sometimes abuse – the great figures of our past to suit the needs of the present. When biography turns into a packaged morality play, it is always wise to suspect that the actual facts and complexities of the subject’s life are being lost. When that morality play satisfies obvious propaganda needs for political or cultural factions in the present, we should be even more suspicious. And when certain recurring mythological themes – such as holy martyrdom – develop increasing prominence in interpretation of the subject’s life over time, it’s a red flag signalling that contact with the facts and the subject is probably being lost.

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