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


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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