Jul 17

A teaching story

The craft of programming is not a thing easily taught. It’s not so much that the low level details like language syntaxes are difficult to convey, it’s more that (as I’ve written before) “the way of the hacker is a posture of mind”.

The posture of mind is more essential than the details. I only know one way to teach that, and it looks like this…

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Jul 05

Gift vs. reputation in hacker culture

A G+ follower pointed me at Note on Homesteading the Noosphere by Martin Sústrik. He concludes saying this:

In short: Labeling open source communities as gift cultures is not helpful. It just muddles the understanding of what’s actually going on. However, given that they are not exchange economies either, they probably deserve a name of their own, say, “reputation culture”.

I’m going to start by saying that I wish I’d seen a lot more criticism this intelligent. It bothers me that in 20 years nobody seems to have refuted or seriously improved on my theories – I see this as a problem, both for the study of hacker culture and in the field of anthropology.

That said, I think Sústrik gets a couple things wrong here. And don’t want them to obscure the large thing he’s gotten right.

First (possible) mistake: I have not observed that, as a matter of language, the term “gift culture” is as hard-edged and specific as he thinks it is. There’s a way we could both be right, though – it might be that terminology has shifted since I wrote HtN. Possibly this came about as part as the revival of interest in the concept that I seem to have stimulated.

But: one piece of evidence that anthropologists are still using “gift culture” in the inclusive sense Sústrik criticizes me for enmploying is that Sústrik himself feels, at the end of the article, that he needs to propose a contrasting term rather than citing one that is already established.

This so far is all about map rather than territory. As a General Semanticist I know better than to get over-invested in it.

Here’s the territory issue: Sústrik is not quite right about expectations of direct reciprocal exchange not being a shaping force. True enough that they aren’t salient at the macrolevel the way they were among the Kwakaka’wakwe. But if I download a piece of open source, and it’s useful to me, and I find a bug in it, I do indeed feel a reciprocal obligation to the project owner (not just an attenuated feeling about the culture in general) to gin up a fix patch if it is at all within my capability to do so – an obligation that rises in proportion to the value of his/her gift.

I should also point out that the cultures Sústrik think are paradigmatic for his strict sense of “gift culture” are mixed in the other direction. There is certainly an element of generalized reputation-seeking in the way individual Kwakaka’wakwe discharged their debts. There, and in the New Guinea Highlands, the “big man” is seen to have high status by virtue of his generosity – he overpays, on the material level, to buy reputation.

In the terms Sústrik wants to use, open-source culture is reputation-driven at both macro-level and microlevel, and also sometimes driven by gift reciprocation in his strict sense at microlevel. The macro-level reputation-seeking and micro-level gift reciprocity feed and reinforce each other.

This brings me to the large thing that Sústrik gets right. I think his distinction between “gift” and “reputation” cultures is fruitful – both testable and predictively useful. While I’m still skeptical about it being in general use among anthropologists, I rather hope I’m mistaken about that – better if it were.

Yes, real-world cultures are probably never pure examples of one or the other. But differentiating the mechanisms – and observing that the Kwakaka’wakwe and hacker culture are near opposing ends of the spectrum in how they combine – that is certainly worthwhile.

As a minor point, Sústrik is also quite right about reciprocal licenses being a red herring in this discussion. But I think he has the reason for their irrelevance mostly wrong. The important fact is they’re not mainly intended to regulate in-group behavior; they’re mainly a lever on the behavior of outsiders coming into contact with the hacker culture.

(It was actually my wife Cathy – a pretty sharp-eyed observer herself, and not coincidentally a lawyer – who brought this to my attention.)

Bottom line, however, is that this was high-quality criticism that got its most central point right. In fact, if I were writing HtN today I would use – and argue for – Sústrik’s distinction myself.

Jun 30

Open Adventure 1.1, and some thoughts on software preservation

Open Adventure 1.1 has shipped. There are a lot more changes under the hood than are readily apparent. In fact there have been no changes in gameplay at all, and only minor changes to the UI (reversible with the -o oldstyle switch).

We (Jason Ninneman, Per Vorpaev, Aaron Traas, Peje Nilsson and I) could have taken the approach of changing the original rather ugly C code (mechanically translated from FORTRAN) as little as possible, simply packaging it for compilation and release in a modern environment.

I elected not to do that, one reason being that I think we honor hacker tradition better by bring the code forward as a dynamic, living artifact that invites being hacked on than museumizing it as a static one. There’s also the fact that the extreme obscurity of the code made it difficult to appreciate what a work of genius Adventure actually was. (The code we inherited had over 350 gotos in it – rather hard to see past those.)

So we’ve taken a different path. We’ve translated the code into (almost) fully idiomatic C (but not trying to introduce pointer idioms; that should make translation to future languages easier). We’ve replaced the rather cryptic custom text database file that used to define the dungeon with a YAML document that is orders of magnitude easier to read and modify. We haven’t hesitated to use technology that wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye when Adventure originated – the YAML is compiled to C structures at build time by a Python script.

The effect (we hope) is Adventure as it would have been written if Crowther & Woods had had today’s tools to do it – the same vision and design logic, expressed in modern coding idioms. Worth doing, because there are still some things to be learned from this design.

Probably the single cleverest thing in it – which pretty much has to go back to Crowther, Woods couldn’t have bolted it on afterwards – is the way movement in the dungeon is handled. The dungeon’s topology is expressed by a kind of pseudocode broadly resembling the microcode found underneath a lot of processor architectures; movement consists of dispatching to the sequence of opcodes corresponding to the current room and figuring out which one to fire depending not only on the motion verb the user entered but also on conditionals in the pseudocode that can test for the presence or absence of objects and their state.

It was hard to fully understand and appreciate this before, because the code was a spaghetti tangle in what looks today like a shockingly primitive style. The abstraction of the dungeon topology into a declarative specification that – in effect – loads microcode into the game engine was a thing you could half-see, but the impact was blunted by the unreadability of both the code and the specification format. Lifting the specification to YAML was like polishing a rough diamond, revealing beauty and brilliance.

And that’s before we even get to Adventure considered as a work of communicative art. It’s had so many successful descendants – like, every dungeon-crawling game ever, and every text adventure ever – that it’s difficult to see with fresh eyes. But if you make the effort, it is astonishing how mature the wry, quirkily humorous, slightly surrealistic style of this very first game seems. The authors weren’t fumbling for an idiom that would be greatly improved by later artists more sure of themselves; instead, they achieved a consistent and (at the time, unique) style that would be closely emulated by pretty much everyone who followed them in text adventures, and not much improved on as style, even though the technology of the game engines improved by leaps and bounds.

I don’t know how they did it, and the authors would probably not be able to explain if we asked. But I think it is damned impressive how well this game has aged – the code may have needed a refresh, but the design still shines. I’m proud to have helped restore it, and hope I have brought it to a state where it can be forward-ported to future languages for as long as programming is a living art.

May 14

The advent of ADVENT

A marvellous thing has just occurred.

Colossal Cave Adventure, the original progenitor of the D&D-like dungeon-crawling game genre from 1977 and fondly remembered as ADVENT by those of us who played it on PDP-10s, is one of the major artifacts of hacker history.

The earliest version by Crowther and Woods (sometimes known as 350-point Adenture) was ported to C by Jim Gillogly in ’77 just after it first shipped. That has been part of the bsd-games collection forever.

What I have have just received Crowther & Wood’s encouragement to polish up and ship under a modern open-source license is not the Gillogly port; it’s Crowther & Woods’s last version from 1995. It has 18 years of work in it that the Gillogly version doesn’t.

I feel rather as though I’d been given a priceless Old Master painting to restore and display. Behooves me to be careful stripping off the oxidized varnish.

Apr 18

You shall judge by the code alone

I support the open letter by Drupal developers protesting the attempted expulsion of Larry Garfield from the Drupal commmunity.

As a Drupal contributor who has never in any respect attempted to tie the project to his beliefs or lifestyle, Garfield deserves the right to be judged by his code alone. That is the hacker way; competence is all that matters, and no irrelevance like skin color or shape of genitals or political beliefs or odd lifestyle preference should be allowed to matter.

That I even need to say this in 2017 is something of a disgrace. The hacker culture already had judge-by-the-code-alone figured out forty years ago when I was a n00b; the only reason it needs to be said now is that there’s been a recent fashion for “social justice” witch hunting which, inevitably, has degenerated into the sort of utter fiasco the Drupal devs are now protesting.

Thomas Paine said it best: “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

It doesn’t matter how much you dislike Larry Garfield’s personal kinks. If you don’t defend him now, you may have nobody to defend you when some self-declared commissar of political and sexual correctness – or just a censorious project lead like Dries Buytaert – decides that you should be declared an unperson.

You shall judge by the code alone. That is the only social equilibrium that doesn’t degenerate into an ugly bitchfest with expulsions controlled by whatever happens to be politically on top this week. It was the right community norm forty years ago, and remains so today.

Apr 12

PSA: “E-Shielder Security” and “CyberSec Buzz” are gangs of idiotic scum

This is a public service announcement: E-Shielder Security, describing itself as “leading importers and suppliers of high end electronic technology solution systems” is a gang of idiotic scum.

Yesterday they posted a Hacktivists on the rampage in 2017, which largely reproduced my Hacker Archetypes post.

They did so in obvious ignorance of who the hackers I was referring to actually are, going off on a tear about “hacktivists”. That term is, in general, a flare-lit clue that the person using it is either an idiot or a vandal trying to cloak destructive behavior in respectability – real hackers are proud of what they do, take responsibility for it, and don’t wear masks (with a limited exception for those under direct threat from totalitarian governments). In this case it was clearly idiocy.

Mere idiocy turned into something nastier. I left a comment on the post pointing out their error, something I had clear standing to do as the author of the article they were quoting.

The comment was suppressed. That was scummy behavior; thus “idiotic scum”.

Don’t do business with these clowns. Warn your friends. Propagate this widely, the clowns deserve some serious reputation damage.

Addendum: Title amended because the article may have originated at CyberSec Buzz, another ‘security’ blog run by drivelheads who obviously have no fscking idea what they’re talking about. It has been taken down where I originally found it.

Apr 03

Hacker Archetypes

There’s a book about martial arts called On the Warrior’s Path that tries to understand the differing psychologies of martial artists through the lens of half a dozen archetypes – Seeker, Ronin, Tribal Warrior, and others.

I have not yet read the book, but my friend and regular A&D commenter Susan Sons reports having found it very effective for motivating young and newbie martial artists. “It gave them their first glimpse of what they were trying to become,” she reports, “They both knuckled down not just in the obvious physical parts of training, but in the mental aspects, far more than they had before and far more than their age/experience peers.”

So, Susan had the idea that it might be a good idea to develop a parallel gallery of hacker archetypes to help motivate newbies. We brainstormed this on IRC for a while. One thing that had been blocking Susan is that, by her own report, she sucks at naming things. I, on the other hand, am pretty good at that; I was able to come up with names that helped the archetypes develop more definition.

We don’t think this is a complete set, and some of the names might change. But it’s enough of a start for some public brainstorming.

Also note: no hacker is only one of these, but in talking about a number of mutual friends we found it was always pretty easy to agree on both the friend’s dominant archetype and the secondary one that they display most after it. I think this is an indication that we are, even if imperfectly, zeroing in on real traits.

Here they are. Descriptions mostly Susan, names mostly me.

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Mar 08

How to change the world in Zen easy lessons

This morning I stumbled over a comment from last September that I somehow missed replying to at the time. I suspect it’s something more than one of my readers has wondered about, so here goes…

Edward Cree wrote:

If I’m really smart enough to impress esr, I feel like I ought to be doing more with myself than toy projects, games, and an obscure driver. It’s not that I’m failing to change the world, it’s that I’m not even trying. (Not for want of causes, either; there are plenty of things I’d change about the world if I could, and I suspect esr would approve of most of them.)

Obviously without Eric’s extroversion I won’t be as influential as him, but… dangit, Eric, what’s your trick? You make having a disproportionate effect on the course of history look easy! Why can I never find anything important to hack on?

There are several reasons people get stuck this way. I’ve experienced some of them myself. I’ve seen others.

If this sounds like you, dear reader, the first question to ask yourself is whether you are so attached to having a lot of potential that you fear failing in actuality. I don’t know Edward’s age, but I’ve seen this pattern in a lot of bright young people; it manifests as a lot of project starts that are potentially brilliant but a failure to follow through to the point where you ship something that has to meet a reality test. Or in an opposite way: as self-constraining to toy projects where the risk of failure is low.

So my first piece of advice is this: if you want to have “a disproportionate effect on the course of history”, the first thing you need to do is give yourself permission to fail – as long as you learn something from every failure, and are ready to keep scaling up your bets after success.

The second thing you need to do is finish something and ship it. No, more than that. You need to make finishing and shipping things a habit, something you do routinely. There are things that can be made to look easy only by cultivating a lot of self-discipline and persistence. This is one of them.

(The good news is that once you get your self-discipline to the required level it won’t feel like you have to flog yourself any more. It’ll just be habit. It’ll be you.)

Another thing you need to do is actually pay attention to what’s going on around you, at every scale. 99% of the time, you find important things to hack on by noticing possibilities other people have missed. The hard part here is seeing past the blinding assumptions you don’t know you have, and the hard part of that is being conscious of your assumptions.

Here’s my favorite example of this from my own life. After I described the many-eyeballs-make-bugs-shallow effect, I worried for years at the problem of why nobody in the hacker culture had noticed it sooner. After all, I was describing what was already a decades-old folk practice in a culture not undersupplied with bright people – why didn’t I or anybody else clue in faster?

I remember vividly the moment I got it. I was pulling on my pants in a hotel in Trondheim, Norway, idly chewing over this question yet again. It was because we all thought we knew why we were simultaneously innovating and achieving low error rates – we had an unexamined, unconscious explanation that suited us and we never looked past it.

That assumption was this: hackers write better software because we are geniuses, or at least an exceptionally gifted and dedicated elite among programmers. Our culture successfully recruits and selects for this.

The insidious thing about this explanation is that it’s not actually false. We really are an exceptionally gifted elite. But as long as you don’t know that you’re carrying this assumption, or know it and fail to look past it because it makes you feel so good, it will be nearly impossible to notice that something else is going on – that the gearing of our social machine matters a lot, and is an evolved instrument to maximize those gifts.

There’s an old saw that it’s not the things you don’t know that hurt you, it’s the things you think you know that ain’t so. I’m amplifying that: it’s the things you don’t know you think that hurt you the most.

It’s not enough to be rigorous about questioning your assumptions once you’ve identified them. The subtler work is noticing you have them. So when you’re looking for something important to hack on, the question to learn to ask is: what important problems are everybody, including you, seeing right past? Pre-categorizing and dismissing?

There’s a kind of relaxed openness to what is, a seeing past preconceptions, that is essential to creativity. We all half-know this; it’s why hackers resonate so strongly with Zen humor. It’s in that state that you will notice the problems that are really worth your effort. Learn to go there.

As for making it look easy…it’s only easy in the same way that mastery always looks a skill easier than it is. When someone like John Petrucci or Andy Timmons plays a guitar lick with what looks like simple, effortless grace, you’re not seeing the years of practice and effort they put into getting to where that fluency and efficiency is natural to them.

Similarly, when you see me doing things with historical-scale consequences and making it look easy, you’re not seeing the years of practice and effort I put in on the component skills (chopping wood, drawing water). Learning to write well. Learning to speak well. Getting enough grasp on what makes people tick that you know how to lead them. Learning enough about your culture that you can be a prophet, speak its deepest yearnings and its highest aspirations to it, bringing to consciousness what was unconscious before. These are learnable skills – almost certainly anyone reading this is bright enough to acquire them – but they’re not easy at all.

Want to change the world? It’s doable. It’s not magic. Be aware. Be courageous. And will it – want it enough that you accept your failures, learn from them, and never stop pushing.

Feb 08

Things Every Hacker Once Knew: 1.6

The newest version is here.

I think it’s stabilizing. The rate of comments and submissions has been dropping.


     How VDTs explain some heritage programs, and how bitmapped
     displays eventually obsolesced them. Explain why the ADM-3
     was called "dumb" even though it was smart.

There’s also a mention of RS-323 on network gear.

Still nothing about XMODEM/YMODEM/ZMODEM – that’s probably the most requested addition left, but I really don’t see what could be interesting to say about them at this late date.

The reaction to this on my Patreon feed has been impressive. It seems to have driven $300-$400 of new subscriptions.

Feb 05

In defense of recording folk history

One of my regular commenters on A&D, Random832, wrote the following in response to my inclusion criteria for Things Every Hacker Once Knew.

On “common knowledge at the time”, I think the problem with dismissing things as “fascinating but obscure trivia” means too much exclusion of the real facts behind things that were already forgotten or inaccurately known, and reduces its value as a historical document. There’s also the fact that the intersection between, say, the Lisp and Unix hacker spaces seems to have been tenuous enough to cause some things to have been lost in translation […] – maybe there was never really anything every hacker once knew, just some things some hackers once knew, and other things other hackers once knew, all worth preserving. I think arbitrarily drawing lines around “provides too much historical context” runs the risk of the document being better described as “Things Eric Once Knew”.

I think this comment raises real issues that deserve to be squarely engaged. I’ve omitted one sentence that I think is based on a a factual misunderstanding in order to focus on the large questions.

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Jan 29

Things Every Hacker Once Knew: 1.2

The response to this piece has been remarkably broad and positive. I have to note, though, that I didn’t write it as a nostalgia trip – I don’t miss underpowered computers, primitive tools, and tiny low-resolution displays.

At least people did notice that it isn’t a you-kids-get-off-my-lawn grumble. I think it’s good for younger hackers to know these things, but it’s no fault of theirs that the technological context has changed so much that they don’t absolutely need to to get work done. In fact it’s a sign of progress.

Yes, you’ll occasionally trip over old tech for which forgotten common knowledge is important – and RS-232, in particular, is still important in niche applications. But the real reason to remember these things is less tangible, and unfortunately difficult for many people to talk about without sliding into sentimentality.

In any kind of craft or profession, I think knowing the way things used to be done, and the issues those who came before you struggled with, is quite properly a source of pride and wisdom. It gives you a useful kind of perspective on today’s challenges.

The real reason I wrote this is to encourage that kind of perspective.

Updated version here. With: more about the persistence of octal, current-loop ASR-33s, 36-bit machines and their lingering influence, ASCII shift, a bit more about ASCII-1963, and some error corrections.

Jan 25

Tools generate culture: a trivial example

If I were the kind of person who grumbles about feeling ancient, I’d have been doing it today.

I got reminded that younger hackers don’t know the bit structure of ASCII like their tongues know the back of their teeth. Man, we all grokked that back when I was new at this.

Nowadays not so much. I’ve actually seen younger hackers be confused about, say, how to generate a NUL from the keyboard. And I’m all, like, “How can you not know this?”

I’m bothering to post because I think I’ve figured out why this changed. The kids are OK, it’s conditions around them that have shifted.

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Jan 13

Rust and the limits of swarm design

In my last blog post I expressed my severe disappointment with the gap between the Rust language in theory (as I had read about it) and the Rust language in practice, as I encountered it when I actually tried to write something in it.

Part of what I hoped for was a constructive response from the Rust community. I think I got that. Amidst the expected volume of flamage from rather clueless Rust fanboys, several people (I’m going to particularly call out Brian Campbell, Eric Kidd, and Scott Lamb) had useful and thoughtful things to say.

I understand now that I tested the language too soon. My use case – foundational network infrastructure with planning horizons on a decadal scale – needs stability guarantees that Rust is not yet equipped to give. But I’m somewhat more optimistic about Rust’s odds of maturing into a fully production-quality tool than I was.

Still, I think I see a problem in the assumptions behind Rust’s development model. The Rust community, as I now understand it, seems to me to be organized on a premise that is false, or at least incomplete. I fear I am partly responsible for that false premise, so I feel a responsibility to address it square on and attempt to correct it.

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Jan 12

Rust severely disappoints me

I wanted to like Rust. I really did. I’ve been investigating it for months, from the outside, as a C replacement with stronger correctness guarantees that we could use for NTPsec.

I finally cleared my queue enough that I could spend a week learning Rust. I was evaluating it in contrast with Go, which I learned in order to evaluate as a C replacement a couple of weeks back.

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