Apr 15

The midrange computer dies

About five years ago I reacted to a lot of hype about the impending death of the personal computer with an observation and a prediction. The observation was that some components of a computer have to be the size they are because they’re scaled to human dimensions – notably screens, keyboards, and pointing devices. Wander outside certain size extrema and you get things like smartphone keyboards that are only good for limited use.

However, what we normally think of as the heart of a computer – the processing and storage – isn’t like this. It can get arbitrarily small without impacting usability at all. Consequently, I predicted a future in which people would carry around powerful computing nodes descended from smartphones and walk them to docking stations bundling a screen, a pointing device, and a real keyboard when they need to get real work done.

We’ve now reached an interesting midway point on that road. The (stationary) computers I use are in the process of bifurcating into two classes: one quite large, one very small. I qualify that with “stationary” because laptops are an exception for reasons which, if not yet obvious, will be in a few paragraphs.

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Apr 07

Too clever by half

The British have a phrase “Too clever by half”, It needs to go global, especially among hackers. It can have any of several closely related meanings: the one I mean to focus on here has to do with overconfidence in one’s intelligence or skill, and the particular bad consequences that can have. It’s related to Nassim Taleb’s concept of a “fragilista”.

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Apr 03

Sometimes I should give in to my impulses

For at least five years now I’ve been telling myself that, as nifty as it would be to play with the hardware, I really shouldn’t spend money on a small-form-factor PC.

This was not an easy temptation to resist, because I found little systems like the Intel NUC fascinating. I’d look over the specs for things like that in on-line stores and drool. Replacing a big noisy PC seemed so attractive…but I always drew back my hand, because that hardware came with a premium pricetag and I already have working kit.

Then, tonight, I’m over at my friend Phil Salkie’s place. Phil is a hardware and embedded-programming guy par excellence; I know he builds small-form-factor systems for industrial applications. And tonight he’s got a new toy to show off, a Taiwanese mini-ITX box called a Jetway.

He says “$79 on Amazon”, and I say “I’ve thought about replacing my mailserver with something like that, but could never cost-justify it.” Phil looks at me and says “You should. These things lower your electric bills – it’ll pay itself off inside of a year.”

Oh. My. Goddess. Why didn’t I think of that?

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Oct 07

The FCC must not lock down device firmware!

The following is a comment I just filed on FCC Docket 15-170, “Amendment of Parts 0, 1, 2, 15, and 18 of the Commission’s Rules et al.”

Thirty years ago I had a small hand in the design of the Internet. Since then I’ve become a senior member of the informal collegium that maintains key pieces of it. You rely on my code every time you use a browser or a smartphone or an ATM. If you ever ride in a driverless car, the nav system will critically depend on code I wrote, and Google Maps already does. Today I’m deeply involved in fixing Internet time service.

I write to endorse the filings by Dave Taht and Bruce Perens (I gave Dave Taht a bit of editorial help). I’m submitting an independent comment because while I agree with the general thrust of their recommendations I think they may not go far enough.

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Mar 11

The Great Beast is armored!

All my readers should be aware of the Rowhammer attack by now.

It gives me great pleasure to report that thanks to our foresight in specifying ECC memory for the design, the Great Beast of Malvern has armor of proof against this attack. The proof being over a thousand runs of the Rowhammer test.

Thank you, everyone who threw money into the Beast’s build budget. If y’all hadn’t been so generous, the build team might have had to make compromises. One of the most likely items to be cut would have been ECC…because registered ECC DRAM at the Beast’s speeds is so freaking expensive that the memory was about a third of the entire build budget. And now we’d have a vulnerable machine.

As it is, the Beast roars in triumph over the Rowhammer.

Oh, and what I’m currently doing with the Beast? Why, I’m repairing the very fabric of time..itself! Explanation to follow, probably early next week.

Feb 25

Beware cut-price Korean monitors!

There have been a flood of big, cheap monitors (2560×1440 and up) becoming available on TigerDirect and other similar sites recently. But I’m here to tell you that these should come with warning labels, and explain why.

I’ve had some dolorous experiences with the no-name pair of big flatscreens I bought back in 2013 – the things called Aurias that I described in The Agony, the Ectasy, the Dual Monitors. Very recently I finally got both to finally work with enough stability that I’m sure I’ll be keeping them for a while.

But the troubleshooting process was arduous. Along the way I learned some important things, mainly because two friends who are unusually capable hardware troubleshooters actually took the suckers apart in my presence and explained things about the internals and the surrounding market.

Here are some of the things I learned…

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Oct 20

Building the perfect beast

I’ve attempted to summarize the discussion of build options for the repository-surgery machine. You should see a link at the top of the page: if not, it’s here

I invite all the commenters who have shown an interest to critique these build proposals. Naturally, I’d like to make sure we have a solid parts list with no spec conflicts before we start spending money and time to build this thing.

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Oct 18

Black magic and the Great Beast

Something of significance to the design discussion for the Great Beast occurred today.

I have finally – finally! – achieved significant insight into the core merge code, the “black magic” section of cvs-fast-export. If you look in merge.c in the repo head version you’ll see a bunch of detailed comments that weren’t there before. I feel rather as Speke and Burton must have when after weeks of hacking their way through the torrid jungles of darkest Africa they finally glimpsed the source of the Nile…

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Oct 17

Spending the “Help Stamp Out CVS In Your Lifetime” fund

I just shipped cvs-fast-export 1.21 much improved and immensely faster than it was two weeks ago. Thus ends one of the most intense sieges of down-and-dirty frenzied hacking that I’ve enjoyed in years.

Now it comes time to think about what to do with the Help Stamp Out CVS In Your Lifetime fund, which started with John D. Bell snarking epically about my (admittedly) rather antiquated desktop machine and mushroomed into an unexpected pile of donations.

I said I intend to use this machine wandering around the net and hunting CVS repositories to extinction, and I meant it. If not for the demands of the large data sets this involves (like the 11 gigabytes of NetBSD CVS I just rsynced) I could have poked along with my existing machine for a good while longer.

For several reasons, including wanting those who generously donated to be in on the fun, I’m now going to open a discussion on how to best spend that money. A&D regular Susan Sons (aka HedgeMage) built herself a super-powerful machine this last February, and I think her hardware configuration is sound in essentials, so that build (“Tyro”) will be a starting point. But that was eight months ago – it might be some of the choices could be improved now, and if so I trust the regulars here will have clues to that.

I’ll start by talking about design goals and budget.

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Sep 28

Commoditization, not open source, killed Sun Microsystems

The patent-troll industry is in full panic over the consequences of the Alice vs. CLS Bank decision. While reading up on the matter, I ran across the following claim by a software patent attorney:

“As Sun Microsystems proved, the quickest way to turn a $5 billion company into a $600 million company is to go open source.”

I’m not going to feed this troll traffic by linking to him, but he’s promulgating a myth that must be dispelled. Trying to go open source didn’t kill Sun; hardware commoditization killed Sun. I know this because I was at ground zero when it killed a company that was aiming to succeed Sun – and, until the dot-com bust, looked about to manage it.

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Oct 19

Stratum 1 time server on a tiny SBC?

I’ve been working on GPSD a lot recently – we’re heading towards a 3.10 release with a lot of new features. As part of this release I’ve decided to ship a HOWTO on setting up a high-quality NTP time server using GPSD. In the course of working on that, I’ve had an idea.

The idea has two antecedents. One is that if you start with any one of several inexpensive GPS modules (my favorite of which is the u-blox 6), and add GPSD to read it and feed an ntpd instance, it’s possible to build an NTP server that meets the usual standard for public Stratum 1 time servers – 10mSec or better accuracy to UTC.

The other is that there is a raft of inexpensive SBCs that run Linux out there – Arduino, Raspberry Pi and the current new hotness BeagleBone. So here’s my thought: why not build a low-power Stratum 1 timeserver on a credit-card-sized SBC?

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Sep 03

The Smartphone Wars: Nokia gives it up for Microsoft

It’s been quite a while since I wrote a Smartphone Wars post; I let the series lapse when I concluded that the source I was using for U.S. market share figures had likely disconnected from reality (and more recent surveys from other sources suggest I was right). But the developments of the last couple of days demand comment. Nokia has sold its phone business to Microsoft; Stephen Elop has returned to Microsoft to head its devices group; and there is talk he might succeed Ballmer.

You couldn’t make this stuff up for a satirical novel and have it believed. The conspiracy theorists who maintained that Elop was a Microsoft mole sent in to set up a takeover look prescient now – but a takeover to what purpose? Nokia’s phone business, the world’s most successful and respected a few short years ago, is now a shattered wreck.

And as for Elop: he masterminded what was probably the biggest destruction in shareholder value ever – and this is the guy who’s being talked of as Ballmer’s successor? Astonishing. On his record, the man isn’t competent to run a Taco Bell store; that that he’s even in consideration suggests Microsoft’s board has developed some perverse desire to replace a strategic idiot with an even more wrongheaded strategic idiot.

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Aug 14

Summer vacation 2013

The last couple of weeks have been my vacation, and full of incident.This explains the absence of blogging.

First, World Boardgaming Championships. I did respectably, making quarter- and semi-finals in a couple of events, but failed in my goal to make the Power Grid finals again this year and place higher than fifth.

I did very well in Conflict of Heroes, though; my final game – with the tournament organizer – was a an epic slugfest that attracted the attention of Uwe Eickert (the game’s designer) who watched the last half enthralled. I lost by only 1 point and was told I’d be put on the Wall of Honor. I like my chances at the finals next year.

Then Summer Weapons Retreat. Huge fun as usual; I spent most of the week working on Florentine (two-sword) technique. with some excursions into polearm and hand-and-a-half sword. I’ve posted a few pictures on my G+ feed.

First full day I was home, a thunderstorm blew out the router in my basement. Yes I had it on a UPS, but ground surges (though rare) do happen; this one toasted the Ethernet switch. Diagnosing, replacing, and dealing with the second-order effects of that ate most of yesterday.

Now life is back to relatively normal, though it will take a few days for the muscle aches from a week of hard training to entirely subside. Blogging will resume.

Jun 27

Keyboards are not a detail!

I’ve been thinking a lot about keyboards lately. Last Sunday I founded the Tactile Keyboards community on Google+ and watched it explode in popularity almost immediately. Spent most of the next couple of days boning up on keyboard lore so I could write a proper FAQ for the group.

On my journey of discovery I learned of geekhack.org, a site for people whose obsession with keyboard customization and modding makes my keen interest in these devices seem like the palest indifference by comparison. Created an account and announced myself in the manner they deem proper for new members. Got a reply saying, more or less, that it’s nice “ESR” attends to details like keyboards.

What? What? What? Your keyboard is not a detail, dammit!

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Jun 23

Announcing: Keyboards with crunch

I’ve founded a G+ community for fans of the Model M and other buckling-spring keyboards. Here it is:

Keyboards with crunch

Buckling-spring keyboards are wonderful devices for the discriminating hacker, vastly superior to the mushy dome-switch devices more common these days. But for various reasons (including the mere fact that they contain a lot of mechanical switches) they can be tempermental beasts requiring a bit of troubleshooting and care.

This community is for people who want to know how to find, care for, and troubleshoot their clicky keyboards.

UPDATE: After research and feedback, the name is now “Tactile Keyboards”.

May 11

Adobe in cloud-cuckoo land

Congratulations, Adobe, on your impending move from selling Photoshop and other boring old standalone applications that people only had to pay for once to a ‘Creative Cloud’ subscription service that will charge users by the month and hold their critical data hostage against those bills. This bold move to extract more revenue from customers in exchange for new ‘services’ that they neither want nor need puts you at the forefront of strategic thinking by proprietary software companies in the 21st century!

It’s genius, I say, genius. Well, except for the part where your customers are in open revolt, 5000 of them signing a petition and many others threatening to bail out to open-source competitors such as GIMP.

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Jan 21

How to fix cable messes

A friend of mine recently posted this image of a hideous network-cable tangle:

A hideous tangle of network cable

A hideous tangle of network cable.

I have invented an algorithm for fixing this kind of mess. Probably other people have developed the same technique before, but it wasn’t taught to me and I’ve never seen it written down. Here it is…

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