Sep 30

The Unix Hater’s Handbook, Reconsidered

A commenter on my post pre-announcing Why C++ Is Not Our Favorite Programming Language asked “esr, from the perspective of a graybeard, which chapters did you consider good and which chapters did you consider bad?”

(Technical note: I do not in fact have a beard, and if I did it would not be gray.)

Good question, and worthy of a blog entry. I was the first technical reviewer for the manuscript of this book back when it was in preparation — IDG published it, but I think it was passed to me through MIT Press. As I noted in the same comment thread, I worked hard at trying to persuade the authors to tone down the spleen level in favor of making a stronger technical case, but didn’t have much success. They wanted to rant, and by Ghod they were gonna rant, and no mere reviewer was gonna stop ‘em.

I’ve thought this was a shame ever since. I am, of course, a long-time Unix fan; I’d hardly have written The Art of Unix Programming otherwise. I thought a book that soberly administered some salutary and well-directed shocks to the Unix community would be a good thing; instead, many of their good points were obscured by surrounding drifts of misdirected snark.

You can browse the Handbook itself here. What follows is my appraisal of how it reads 14 years later, written in real-time as I reread it. After the chapter-by-chapter re-review I’ll sum up and make some general remarks.

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Sep 25

C++ Considered Harmful

My blogging will be sporadic to nonexistent for a while, as my friend Rob Landley and I are concentrating heavily on writing a paper together. The working (and probably final) title is “Why C++ is Not Our Favorite Programming Language”. It begins:

C++ is an overcomplexity generator. It was designed to solve what
turned out to be the wrong problems; as a result, it lives in an
unhappy valley between two utility peaks in language-design space,
with neither the austere elegance of C nor the expressiveness and
capability of modern interpreted languages. The layers, patches, and
added features designed to lift it out of that valley have failed to
do so, resulting in a language that is bloated, obfuscated, unwieldy,
rigid, and brittle. Programs written in C++ tend to inherit all
these qualities.

In the remainder of this paper we will develop this charge into
a detailed critique of C++ and the style it encourages. While we
do not intend to insult the designers of C++, we will not make
excuses for them either. They repeatedly made design choices that
were well-intentioned, understandable in context, and wrong. We
think it is long past time for the rest of us to stop suffering
for those mistakes.

Yes, we are attempting to harpoon the Great White Whale of modern programming languages. I’m announcing this here to give my commenters the opportunity to contribute. If you know of a particularly good critical analysis of C++, or technically detailed horror story around it, please cite. Superb apologetics for the language would also be interesting.

The paper is developing primarily from a software-engineering perspective rather than out of formal language theory. I’m particularly looking for empirical studies on the importance of manual memory management as a defect attractor (I have the Prechelt paper from the year 2000). I’m also interested in any empirical studies comparing the productivity impact of nominative vs. structural vs. duck typing.

After about 3 days of work our draft is over 600 lines of clean narrative text in asciidoc. It’s going well.

Sep 22

Why Alternative Energy Isn’t

As oil prices recede from all-time dollar highs and some of the hot air gets let out of energy policy debates, it’s a good time to remember that here’s a key concept missing from almost every popular discussion of the subject: energy density. Specialist economists get it, but almost nobody else does. It is important to understanding why most forms of “alternative energy” are mirages, and what a sane energy policy would actually look like.

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Sep 20

The Limits of Open Source

A mailing list I frequent has been discussing the current financial meltdown, specifically a news story claiming that Wall Street foooled its own computers by feeding them risk assumptions the users knew were over-optimistic.

This is also a very strong case for F/OSS software. Had such software been in use, I strongly feel that the inherent biases programmed in would have been found.

But then, that’s also true for voting machine software.

As the original begetter of the kind of argument you’re making, I’d certainly like to think so…but no, not in either case.

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Sep 17

Sarah Palin, American Centrist

In the fusillade of accusations that has been flung at Sarah Palin since McCain chose her as VP-nominee, there is one thread in common; that Palin is an extreme right-winger. There are several possible reasons for an accuser to take this position, but it occurred to me yesterday that the most important one may be accusers who are honestly confused about where the American center actually is.

Of course, the political map is not neatly describable as a one-dimensional spectrum. I myself, as an anarcho-capitalist radical quite willing to dump on both Left and Right, am an existence proof of that. Nevertheless, we actually have a lot of psephological information on where the “center” falls, in the sense that if you choose polar “Left” and “Right” stands on particular issues, polling can locate the position between them held by the median number of Americans.

One can then at least ask the question “Where is Palin with respect to that median?” I’m in an interesting position to address that question, because on pretty much all of the hot-button “culture wars” issues I have radical positions opposed to Palin’s but nevertheless believe on good evidence that her position is closer to the median than mine.

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Sep 15

The Post-Racial Hall of Mirrors

Two days ago, while on a quest to find one of the vanishing breed of waterbed stores, my wife and I had to drive through a slum section of Wilmington, Delaware. The streets were full of black people, and I had a strong “Ugh! Don’t want this kind anywhere near me!” reaction. Only it wasn’t to their blackness. It was because, with a few teenage exceptions, they were graceless and ugly and fat. Women wearing sack dresses in garish floral prints that would look bad even on a mattress liner, men in wife-beater T-shirts, rolling oceans of sloppy adipose tissue, not a smidgen of self-respect or good taste in sight. Awful…

I might not have written about this, except that later in the day I was reading a blog discussion of the Bradley Effect and its possible impact on the 2008 presidential race, and someone’s comment noted that it could be caused not only by hidden racism but by fear of seeming a racist even if one is opposed to Obama but knows oneself to be innocent of actual racist sentiment.

Then I flashed back to my experience in the Delaware slums a few hours previously and realized there is a third and subtler possibility. If I were a left-liberal rather than a libertarian, might I have confused my own reaction to the black people in that slum with racism, and felt eager to expiate it with displays of pro-blackness like telling posters I’m an Obama fan? Is it possible the Bradley effect is largely a rebound phenomenon driven not by “hidden racism” but by unjustified white guilt?

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Sep 14

Heh — “Read My Lipstick”

I am slack-jawed with admiration tonight.

The source of my amazement is reports that female McCain/Palin supporters have started making and distributing T-shirts that say “Read My Lipstick: MCain/Palin 2008”. And wearing them in large numbers.

This is deployment of multi-leveled irony as an offensive weapon. They are taking Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” remark and slugging him in the face with it. They are taking the MSM’s vile smears and insinuations about Palin’s sex life and sexual presence and slugging them in the face with that. They are kicking Gloria Steinem and every desexualized “Palin isn’t a woman” harridan in their collective teeth. Yes, they’re saying, you can be a former beauty queen who looks good in stockings and makeup and a pit bull at the same time, and we love you for it.

“Lipstick”, on pit bulls, on pigs, and on women, has been bouncing around as a loaded signifier in this campaign ever since the Palin nomination (was that only a couple of weeks ago?). With this move, the Palin supporters have appropriated it for their own. I predict that their opponents are not going to get it back; that every reference to lipstick from now on is going to remind everyone of the merciless, scurrilous rumor-mongering about Palin and how she has survived it with style just by unapologetically being who she is.

Whatever Sarah Palin’s substantive qualifications for VP may or may not be, I am an aficionado of political mockery and this is the sweetest, sharpest bit of street theater I have seen in decades. It’s a satirical body-slam of every dismissive talking head who has tried to declare Palin unqualified and unserious. It’s worthy of the Yippies in their heyday.

It’s not mainly Sarah Palin I’m admiring tonight, it’s her supporters, for cleverness and sheer brass. But OK, Palin deserves admiration too, for being the kind of person who can survive the most disgusting farrago of baseless shit I’ve ever seen flung at a politician, and for being the kind of person about whom this slogan can be such a devastating counterpunch.

Poor Obama. You have been so quickly and utterly outclassed at the charisma game. And by a gun-toting rural hick from a state nobody trendy ever goes to. That’s gotta hurt.

Of course, for Palin supporters that’s the final turn of the screw. Obama has already been responding to Palin’s presence in the race more than is tactically smart; that’s how he wound up uttering the “lipstick on a pig” gaffe they’re playing off of. He’s fraying, losing his cool. This is a shot — and a shrewd one, I’d say — at driving Obama completely bugfuck, increasing the odds he will melt down with a national audience watching.

None of it has anything to do with substance or issues of course. But considered purely as mindfuck it is beautiful. The Discordian in me bows in awe and respect.

I’m also a bit puzzled. When did conservatives — of all people — learn how to play this sort of game? Obviously while I wasn’t looking…

Sep 12

Timing the Entitlements Crash

Investor’s Business Daily ran a story recently, Tax To The Max, on a Congressional Budget Office study of the U.S. finances.What it says is that spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs is unsustainably high. The study projects tax increases of 150%, with the lowest income-tax bracket going from 10% to 25% and top rates going from 35% to 88%.

The IBD correctly notes: “Allowed to grind on without real reform, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will do what no invading army or cabal of terrorists has done or will ever do: bring this mighty republic to its knees. Increasing federal taxes by 150% will strangle economic growth.”

I think the IBD is too optimistic. Even pushing tax rates to 100% confiscation wouldn’t finance the entitlements black hole at the rate we can expect the client population’s needs to grow — especially not after 2050, when the demographics of the U.S. will tilt in a distinctly less favorable direction. A mere 150% increase in current rates certainly won’t do it. One way or another, the Federal entitlements system seems headed for a terminal crash. The only question is when it will happen.

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Sep 12

The Obama campaign smells of defeat

My normal style on this blog is to write think pieces. I post when I have an idea I need to grapple with; the process of writing and researching helps me organize and sharpen my thinking. Sometimes, the process changes my mind about an issue.

This once, I’m posting to report a gut feeling I’ve been getting more and more strongly in the last two weeks. It started with Barack Obama’s VP choice of Joe Biden, got stronger when McCain tapped Sarah Palin, and has become overwhelming in the last two days. My feeling is this: Barack Obama is toast. He’s done, stick a fork in him. It’s not that I think the McCain/Palin ticket is going to win, it’s that I feel strongly that the Obama/Biden ticket is going to lose.

Note: This is not partisan cheering I’m doing. I’m not a McCain fan: I’ve never forgiven him for the the McCain-Feingold “campaign finance reform” bill, which I consider the most atrocious rape-job on the First Amendment in my lifetime. And I agree with Matt Welch’s portrait of an authoritarian maverick; McCain’s is in many ways a frighteningly authoritarian personality. I have, at best, very mixed feelings about seeing him in the White House.

No, what I’m reacting to is a gut sense that the wheels are coming off the Obama bandwagon and it’s headed for a big, ugly crackup. I would no longer be surprised if Obama melted down in a serious way during the debates, though I don’t think keeping his cool will save him from being trounced. I don’t even think the election’s going to be close anymore.

Why? Lots of things. Poll numbers. Sarah Palin. The hysterically vituperative reaction to Sarah Palin from the left and the media (which I think is a gift beyond price to the Republicans). The way Obama himself seems to be fraying around the edges, losing his cool, gaffe frequency increasing. Democratic supporters dissing him in Duryea. I smell desperation and failure; I see the Democratic party, yet again, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

OK, I’ve said it on the record. When the votes are counted, I’ll take the kudos or the lumps for it.

UPDATE: Democrats’ polling league in a generic contest has collapsed. Control of Congress is in play. Wow. Just wow. Considering how hard the Republicans have been fucking up and alienating their base, this is astonishing. EPIC FAIL.

Sep 11

Blog site defacement

Sometime shortly after 6AM this morning, my blog site and home page were defaced, replaced with a message reading “Happy 9/11 LOL” and a very ugly image.

I happened to be up and working and discovered the damage quickly, probably within minutes of the attack. Less than ten minutes later I had received three pieces of email and a phone call alerting me; apparently, I have enough friendly readers that even if I had not been on line I would have been informed of such vandalism within a half hour.

I have undone the damage, taken some appropriate security measures, and reported full details of the crack to the ibiblio site admins. The pinhead behind this attack is very likely to be tracked down, and had better hope the ibiblio site people find him before I do.

Sep 10

Kansas and the Vanishing Gap

In my last essay, The Vanishing Consumption Gap, I presented several lines of evidence leading to the conclusion that the consumption disparity between rich and poor in the U.S. is drastically less than the income disparity, and seems to be decreasing even as income disparity rises. This continues a historical trend, and there are causal reasons (ephemeralization and the efficiency-seeking effects of markets) to believe it’s happening everywhere on earth.

I concluded the essay by observing that the vanishing consumption gap has political consequences. Among other things (as I hinted in a comment on Oh, those bitter clingers!) it explains what’s the matter with Kansas.

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Sep 10

The Vanishing Consumption Gap

There’s an often-quoted statistic that the ratio between the average incomes of the richest and poorest quintiles of Americans is 15 to 1. Earlier this year I stumbled over some research (“You Are What You Spend”) indicating that there is less to that difference than meets the eye. According to the authors, the difference in actual annual spending (as opposed to annual income) falls to 4:1, apparently because lots of people have sources of spendable cash that don’t show up as annual income (asset sales, securities not subject to capital gains taxes, insurance policy redemptions, and so forth).

But it gets better. If you adjust for size of household, the consumption ratio between richest and poorest quintiles drops to 2.1:1. They note that the average person in the middle income quintile consumes just 29% more than the average person in the lowest quintile. American spending patterns look dramatically more egalitarian than the raw numbers on income distribution would suggest. What the heck is going on here?

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Sep 08

Oh, those bitter clingers!

News flash: Presidential candidate Barack Obama says I’m not going to take your guns away in front of a hand-picked crowd of Democratic supporters in Duryea, Pennsylvania — and they don’t believe him.

No, that was not a hook for an anti-Obama rant. Obama’s unbelievability on this issue is only partly his own individual fault. The infamous clanger he dropped last April in San Francisco (“And it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”) didn’t help, but it wouldn’t have become one of the defining memes of the 2008 campaign without a broader context that is what I’m more interested in exploring.

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