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.

Continue reading

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…

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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…

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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!

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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…

Continue reading

Aug 19

The Smartphone Wars: The Limits of Lawfare

It’s beginning to look like Apple’s legal offensive against Android might backfire on it big-time. Comes the news that Judge Koh has declined to suppress evidence that Apple may have copied crucial elements of the iPad design from prototypes developed by Knight-Ridder and the University of Missouri in the mid-1990s.

Continue reading

Aug 06

An open letter to The Economist

In “Who’s Afraid of Huawei?” you point out the need for the telecoms industry to adopt transparency guidelines to head off risks from kill switches, spyware, and back doors covertly installed in their equipment.

One minimum necessary condition of such transparency is that all software and firmware in these devices must be open source, with customers permitted to install their own software images from published source code and development toolchains that can be audited by third parties.

While open-source software cannot completely head off the possibility of Trojan horses embedded deep in telecoms hardware, it at least reduces the management of aggregate security risks to a tractable problem. No lesser measure is or can be even remotely as effective, even in principle.

Telecoms customers should insist on open source – and, as any competent counter-espionage agency would do, should consider vendors’ insistence on information asymmetry to be indicative of an unacceptable security risk.