Sep 12

Engineering history

On a mailing list I frequent, a regular expressed doubt about the possibility that very small subgroups of a society (less than 5% of its population) can cause large changes in the overall direction of its evolution without long historical timespans to work in. But I know from experience that this can happen, because I’ve lived it. My explanation (lightly edited and expanded) follows.

Of particular note is my explanation of how engineering design can shape history.

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Sep 09

The social utility of hacker humor

I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on an ancient project of mine, C-INTERCAL, that’s an implementation of the longest-running joke in the history of computer languages. It’s an implementation, begun in 1990, of a language conceived in 1972 as a parody of programming languages of the 1960s. Now it’s nearly 40 years later, and yet some skilled hackers are still investing their time into fixing bugs, shipping releases, and even (gasp!) documenting the thing.

That’s a lot of effort to plow into a joke, and some people don’t get why. But there are parallels elsewhere: consider, for example, the venerable custom of issuing spoof Internet standards, published through the same channels as the real RFCs, on every April 1st. Behaviors like INTERCAL or the spoof RFCs don’t usually persist as long as these have without some powerful reason behind them.

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Aug 27

Risk, Verification, and the INTERCAL Reconstruction Massacree

This is the story of the INTERCAL Reconstruction Massacree, an essay in risk versus skepticism and verification in software development with a nod in the general direction of Arlo Guthrie.

About three hours ago as I began to write, I delivered on a promise to probably my most distinguished customer ever – Dr. Donald Knuth. Don (he asked me to call him that, honest!) had requested a bug fix in INTERCAL, which he plans to use as the subject of a chapter in his forthcoming book Selected Papers on Fun And Games. As of those three hours ago Donald Knuth’s program is part of the INTERCAL compiler’s regression-test suite.

But I’m not actually here today to talk about Donald Knuth, I’m here to talk about risk versus skepticism and verification in software engineering – in five part harmony and full orchestration, using as a case study my recent experiences in (once again) calling INTERCAL forth from the realm of the restless dead.

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Aug 11

A world without “ESR”

One of my commenters speculated as follows:

Perhaps I overestimate him, but I suspect that without Eric our choice would be Richard Stallman or Bill Gates without much in between. That isn’t a pretty picture. Maybe Linus Torvalds would have help fill the vacuum, or perhaps someone else would have stepped up.

Because I think at least part of the time like a historian/anthropologist, I’ve actually spent a fair amount of effort contemplating what the world might look like if I hadn’t affected it. The more general and interesting question this touches (and what makes this particular instance actually worth thinking about) is a familiar one in historiography: to what extent the times make the man versus the man making the times.

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Jul 21

Double Vision

Yesterday I discovered that Donald Knuth at least occasionally reads my blog. I only half-jokingly reported a vague feeling that I ought to be falling to my knees and crying “I’m not worthy!” In response, a “v. m. smith” popped up in my comments to say this:

Dude, you have written at least two books (that I have read) and possibly more. I have never read any of Knuth’s books, so I am forced to consider this hypothesis:

You might be worthy.

Of course, it’s only a hypothesis.

At this I laughed so hard that my eyes watered. That last line! I’m going to be giggling about it for weeks. But, you know, once I calmed down, I realized that “v. m. smith” had an actual point. Which led me to some interesting thoughts about fame, double vision and personal identity – how we choose to become what we are.

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Jul 20

Donald Knuth reads my blog?

Received in email from Donald Knuth’s secretary:

I know from your blog that you’re doing lots of real important stuff these days. So I’m sure you want a break; you clearly must be ready to hack INTERCAL just once more.

Huh…Donald Knuth reads my blog?

Um…Donald Knuth reads my blog?

Wha…Donald Knuth reads my blog?

Eric clutches the nearest piece of furniture as the universe spins dizzily around him.

Eric successfully resists a vague feeling that he ought to fall to his knees and cry out “I’m not worthy!”

Er. Well then. I guess I’ll have to ship another release of INTERCAL, won’t I?

Apr 20

Hear, O Nobly Born: The Way of the Hacker

I get several requests in an average week from people who want me to teach them the way of hacking. Yesterday I got an unusually witty one in the form of a mystical poem, imploring me to accept the author as a disciple. I replied that I don’t know how to do what he seems to want, which is to pour the essence of hacking in through his ears or something. He replied that he was pretty sure I’d say that, but had been hoping for a reply in the manner of The Loginataka.

I told him “Sorry, I was distracted.” Then I wrote this:

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Feb 18

How you know you’ve made a difference

I received this a few seconds ago in my mailbox. It’s not especially unusual for me to get wow-you-changed-my-life email, I see two or three in a typical month, but this one is…well, I’ll say a bit more intense than usual. Also, 34 is an unusual age; they tend to be teenagers. Sender’s name masked and one bit turned into a live link. Otherwise unedited, typos and all.

I just finished reading your [Hacker HOWTO] for the second time in as many
days. All of my life I have wanted to be a programmer. I have never
done it. I dealt with the failure of that by downloading cracked
software and telling myself that I was a “hacker.”

When I clicked on the link to your guide, my intention was to get
started on the road towards what I envisioned a hacker to be.

By the end of your guide, I was wallowing in humiliation. I felt…
well basically I felt like a jack ass. I never even knew what a
hacker was. I wasn’t even a cracker, just some poser with no
ambition.

Your guide showed me that any of my few contributions to the cracker
community were meaningless, juvenile ploys for attention with no
progressive merit. They won’t matter in 6 months because I haven’t
‘built’ anything.

After reading your guide, I began to research and really appreciate
the open source community. I saw that the degree of separation
between us wasn’t to huge of a gap and I realized that I could,
through dedication and hard(but fun) work, be part of something that
is growing and giving. A place where individual contributions aren’t
lost in the grand scheme of things, but help shape that scheme.

I am 34 years old and I have no problem admitting to you that your
guide made me feel like a complete ass. It also directed me to an
ideal I will be proud to contribute to.

For that, I thank you Sir.

XXXXX XXXXXX

I replied by quoting “I saw that the degree of separation between us wasn’t to huge of a gap” and said “I’m glad you got that far. Good luck on your journey.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you know your life has made a difference.