Aug 19

GPSD 3.0 finally ships. It’s been a long epic.

Protocol transitions are hard.

Yeah, I know the experienced software developers reading that are thinking “Well, duh!“. Shut up already, I’m venting here. I’ve just spent the better part of two years – actually, if you include design time and false starts it could be closer to five years – designing a new application protocol for my gpsd service daemon, implementing it, getting it deployed, dealing with problems and course-correcting.

For those of you in the cheap seats, an “application protocol” is a kind of language that a program uses to communicate with other programs. Normally humans never see these, but there’s one big example that non-geeks have often seen bits of. HTML, the Web’s markup language, is an application protocol. Designing these is not easy. There are difficult issues and tradeoffs around flexibility, economy, expressiveness, and extensibility for uses we haven’t imagined yet.

When you have a whole bunch of programs written by different people communicating with a particular application protocol, changing that entire ecology to use a different one is not easy. A good analogy in the physical world is the difficulty of changing an entire country’s railroad gauge. The long-term benefits may be huge, but the short-term cost in capital and service disruption is daunting.

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Jul 10

I’ve joined Google+

Google+ is interesting. I was persuaded to try it by three things: (1) Circles, so I can structure my contacts rather than having an undifferentiated blob of “friends”, (2) I’m fairly confident that Google’s Data Liberation Front won’t let it turn into a jail, and (3) my best geeky friends seem to be joining en masse.

I begin to think Facebook might actually have a fight on its hands. I’m getting the feel of tremendous demand for something that’s full-boat social networking but not Facebook finding an outlet, because it’s not just my geeky friends that are signing up.

This will bear watching.

Jul 07

Recreating the Nutty Buddy

This is a happy story about how, sometimes, you can go home again.

When I was a small child (this would have been a good 45 years or so in the mid-1960s), there was a style of ice cream cone with a sort of top cap of solidified chocolate and chopped peanuts on it. They were sold under the brand name Nutty Buddy, but I think it had imitators as well. I didn’t care; I was barely aware of the brand and I liked them all. Ice cream trucks were more common then than they are now, and when I heard the bell on one of them ringing I knew what I wanted. A Nutty Buddy if I could get one, or an ice-cream sandwich if I couldn’t.

About a year ago my wife and I were out in Michigan for sword training, and one fine day we and Heather the swordmistress rustled up some cold sandwiches and drinks and went for a picnic lunch in a local park. It was a lovely sunny afternoon, and the food was good, and the company was good and – what was that? I heard what could only be the bell of an ice-cream truck! I think it had been literally decades since my last one; I instantly gave chase.

Now, Eric in hot pursuit of an ice cream truck is doubtless a rather comical sight. I have cerebral palsy and don’t run well, tending to galumph across the landscape in what I’m sure looks like a ludicrously slow and inefficient manner. Fortunately, I am fast enough to catch up with an ice-cream truck that doesn’t actually want to outrun its potential clientele. I caught it about a block away.

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Apr 04

Stolen jewels

Our cat, Sugar, is getting old. The final, swift decline one tends to see in aging cats is not yet upon her; she’s still the lovely creature we’ve known for nearly two decades – eyes bright, coat soft and glossy, purr ready and resonant. Our friends marvel at her apparent health at over 18 years…but we know her kidney function is slowly degrading, on bad days days the arthritis makes her walk stiffly and slowly, and some of the wartlike growths beneath that plush fur are becoming disturbingly large.

My wife Cathy and I have been bracing ourselves. We know Sugar can’t have much time left. She’s already beaten the 15-year average for well-cared-for indoor cats by more than three years; if she makes it to 20, that would be statistically quite exceptional. But she could slide into final senescence tomorrow and be dead within a month; on the odds, actually, that should have happened already.

Neither my wife nor I can avert our eyes from these facts. We don’t talk about them much, though. We don’t have to. When Sugar is interacting with both of us, we can see the shadow of anticipated sorrow on each other all too clearly.

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Jan 16

True Grit times two

I just got back from seeing the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. I had prepared by watching the classic 1969 John Wayne film. The similarities and contrasts have some interesting messages about how audience tastes and filmmaking styles have changed in the last 40 years.

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Nov 16

Three cheers for Daniel Radcliffe, geek

When the photographer from People magazine showed up to do a spread on me in 1996 (yes, 1996 – pre-open-source, it’s from my first 15 minutes of fame as a lexicographer), he taught me a useful term – “face people”. Face people are people who are famous for being famous, the vacant icons of celebrity narcissism who throng the pages of magazines like, well, People. The photographer observed that he found dealing with someone who is not a face person refreshing.

In a similar way, I always find it heartening when I discover someone who by position ought to be a mere face person but is in fact one of us. And by ‘us’, I mean a geek. Er. Reads science fiction, likes computers, enjoys challenging games, is generally into bright-person stuff. This is especially nice on the rare occasions when the putative face person has made a show-biz reputation acting like a bright geeky sort.

And today I learned that Daniel Radcliffe, the kid who played Harry Potter, went on British TV, described Tom Lehrer as the cleverest and funniest man of the 20th century and his hero, and then sang The Elements. Badly, but with feeling..

Now I’m not going to say that I know Radcliffe has the whole constellation of geek traits. But after seeing that YouTube clip, I know which way to bet.

Nov 16

INTERCAL justifies its existence

(This is a repost. The original went of on 2010-11-14, a few hours before the spambot rape.)

Last night I made a classic n00b mistake. I was in a rush to get a test finished because my wife had just gotten home and it was time for us to haul off for the weekly Friday night with the regulars at our friendly local game store. I typed the rm -fr * to clear a scratch directory in the wrong window.

“Huh…” I thought, “that’s taking longer than it should have…” then realized with horror that it was clobbering my home directory and hastily interrupted it. Fortunately, I had a full backup on my laptop. Unfortunately, the full backup was ten days old; I stood to lose a lot of recent email and work.

Instead of gaming, I spent the next couple of hours recovering from this. I pulled the backup onto a scratch directory on my main machine, made file lists of the damaged $HOME and the backup with find(1), diffed them, and braced myself to discover how much I had irretrievably lost.

Nothing, as it turns out. I interrupted the rm -fr as it was still chewing through the alphabetically low directories under $HOME. The big one was dead.projects, my archival graveyard of superannuated stuff. When I killed it, it was busily munching on the huge directory full of tarballs and archives that I pulled together during the great INTERCAL Reconstruction Massacree.

Yes, that’s right. INTERCAL saved my butt, preoccupying the grim reaper rm just long enough

In the end, no harm done except Cathy and I didn’t get our weekly gaming debauch – I urged her to go without me but she went all wifely and supportive and stuff.

Lessons: Make backups early and often. And instead of throwing old code away, archive it where rm -fr will hit it first – because you never know, someday it might interpose its body between you and the deadliest typo.

Oct 17

Retired, Extremely Dangerous

It’s not giving much away to tell you that the title of the new action comedy “RED”, stands for “Retired – Extremely Dangerous”. My wife uttered the most succinct possible praise of this movie when she said, as we were leaving the theater, “This was the movie The Expendables should have been.”

Indeed it was. This fun flick about theoretically-superannuated Spec-Ops assassins forced back into the game is light where The Expendables was leaden, moving where The Expendables was preachy, and funny where The Expendables was plain stupid. Who knew Bruce Willis could do comedy from inside his action-star persona? OK, to be fair, a certain amount of wry deadpan humor has always been part of the man’s shtick, but in this movie he gracefully crosses over into spoofing all his previous tough-guy characters, with genuinely hilarious results.

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Sep 20

Terry Pratchett ascends to the pantheon, alive!

Some years ago, in The Delusion of Expertise, I wrote about the memorable occasion in 2003 on which some friends and I were able to bestow on author Terry Pratchett the accolade of hacker, recognizing him as what he had always been: one of us.

Now comes the news that as part of his preparations to be formally knighted by the Queen of England, Terry made his own sword – smelted the iron, and helped hand-forge it. Including, as he says, “several pieces of meteorites — thunderbolt iron, you see — highly magical, you’ve got to chuck that stuff in whether you believe in it or not”.

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Sep 17

Needling Haystack

In mid-2009, just after Neda Soltan was shot down on a Tehran street, I was working with a group of hackers attempting to provide covert communications support to the Iranian dissident movement. I blogged about it at the time, received my second death threat as a result, and had a couple of interesting conversations with the FBI. Eventually I stopped working with the group; they made what I considered some serious mistakes of direction, and I was anyway beginning to doubt the principal’s claims of having an extensive contact network on the ground in Iran.

The group I was working with was deploying stealthed HTTP proxies and Tor nodes; my main technical contribution was a Squid configuration tuned to the purpose in ways I won’t discuss because the techniques might be useful against another tyranny someday. We knew of other groups using different technology; one seemed to be organized around a program called Haystack and its designer, a guy named Austin Heap.

I had brief contact with Heap during that period. Now I learn that he may have been a fraud. The Great Internet Freedom Fraud all but accuses him of this.

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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

Expended

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!”