Jul 31

Spam inundation may result in lost posts

The amount of bot-spam being posted to this blog has gone up by an order of magnitude in the last week.

I wouldn’t bother my readers about this, except that if one of your posts happens to trigger the spam filter, the odds that I will notice and rescue it have dropped significantly. It’s easier to notice the ham in a dozen putative items of spam, which was the typical length of queue last week, than when the queue is 217 items long as it was just now.

This probably means akismet, the WordPress shared spamtrap that I use, needs some tuning. But I don’t know when or even if that problem will be fixed. Apologies for any inconvenience.

Jul 28

Sometimes, ancestry matters

I’ve written before, on several occasions, about solving the problem of racism by strict individualism – a studied refusal to allow what we know about genetic population differences and differing means in measures like IQ to distort our judgment of individuals. The bell curve is not the point; the mass is not the individual. Ancestry is not destiny. Sanity demands that we recognize the difference.

But ancestry may matter after all. I’m going to tell you a personal story now about one of the most powerful moments in my life. I’m not sure what it meant, or if it meant anything at all. But it was certainly interesting to live through.

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Jul 27

How not to sign NDAs

If you’re any kind of consultant or contract programmer, and you’re an open-source person, one of the persistent minor (and sometimes not-so-minor) irritations of doing business is NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements). Your client will often want you to sign one. About 1% of the time they’re protecting actual business-critical information; the other 99% they’re suffering from an unfounded delusion that they’re protecting business-critical information – but the rigamarole is 100% annoying 100% of the time. Besides, even if (like me) you consider it a point of personal honor not to blab things you’ve been told in confidence, you probably have a philosophical objection to being gagged.

I haven’t signed an NDA in least the last 12 years of active consulting, and over my entire 27 years of such I’ve maybe signed a grand total of two NDAs, and I’ll never sign one again. Herewith, a short course in how to evade them.

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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?

Jul 18


Good causes sometimes have bad consequences. Blacks, women, and other historical out-groups were right to demand equality before the law and the full respect and liberties due to any member of our civilization; but the tactics they used to “raise consciousness” have sometimes veered into the creepy and pathological, borrowing the least sane features of religious evangelism.

One very notable pathology is a form of argument that, reduced to essence, runs like this: “Your refusal to acknowledge that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…} confirms that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}.” I’ve been presented with enough instances of this recently that I’ve decided that it needs a name. I call this general style of argument “kafkatrapping”, and the above the Model A kafkatrap. In this essay, I will show that the kafkatrap is a form of argument that is so fallacious and manipulative that those subjected to it are entitled to reject it based entirely on the form of the argument, without reference to whatever particular sin or thoughtcrime is being alleged. I will also attempt to show that kafkatrapping is so self-destructive to the causes that employ it that change activists should root it out of their own speech and thoughts.

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Jul 17

Jobs Crashing to Earth

The stench of desperation must be getting pretty thick on the Infinite Loop. Can it be that the generator for Steve Jobs’s notorious Reality Distortion Field has finally broken down?

Two days ago, we learned that Jobs knew of the iPhone 4’s antenna problem before launch. They had warnings both from an in-house antenna engineer and “carrier partner”, presumably AT&T. Yes, this means all the Apple fanboys who had hissy fits at me when I said fifteen days ago that Apple was lying about the problem now get to go sit in the stupid corner.

Also two days ago, New York Senator Charles Schumer issued an open letter to Steve Jobs regarding the iPhone 4 antenna issues. Chuckie Schumer is the worst sort of political bottom-feeder, a power-worshiping greaseball with a spine of pure jelly; when such as he thinks it’s good politics to pile on Apple, you may be sure that Jobs’s teflon coating has definitively worn off.

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Jul 16

Smartphone, the Eater-of-Gadgets

I’ve been thinking for some time now that the smartphone has achieved a kind of singularity, becoming a black hole that sucks all portable electronics into itself. PDAs – absorbed. Music players – consumed. Handset GPSes – eaten. Travel-alarm clocks, not to mention ordinary watches – subsumed. Calculators – history. E-readers under serious pressure, and surviving only because e-paper displays have lower battery drain and are a bit larger. Compasses – munched. Pocket flashlights – crunched. Fobs for keyless locks – being scarfed down as we speak, though not gone yet.

This raises an interesting question: what else is natural prey for the smartphones of the future? Given my software interests, one low-hanging fruit that seems obvious to me is marine AIS receivers. If the frequency of any of the RF receiver stages in a phone were tunable, writing an app that would pull AIS data out of the air wouldn’t be very difficult. I’ve written a lot of the required code myself, and I know where to find most of the rest.

But in an entertaining inversion, one device of the future actually works on smartphones now. Because I thought it would be funny, I searched for “tricorder” in the Android market. For those of you who have been living in a hole since 1965, a tricorder is a fictional gadget from the Star Trek universe, an all-purpose sensor package carried by planetary survey parties. I expected a geek joke, a fancy mock-up with mildly impressive visuals and no actual function. I was utterly gobsmacked to discover instead that I had an arguably real tricorder in my hand.

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Jul 15

Women in computing: first, get the problem right

Every few months I trip over another earnest attempt to rectify the gender imbalance in software and computing fields. Very few women opt to become programmers, system administrators, or hardware/software engineers. Indeed, the number of women who try seems to be falling rather than rising. This observation is invariably accompanied by a lot of hand-wringing and proposals for elaborate and (too often) coercive schemes to achieve “gender parity” – all doomed, because the actual problem is misdiagnosed.

I’m writing about this because I think the misdiagnosis arises largely from a refusal to speak uncomfortable truths. Discussion of the problem is nearly suffocated under a cloud of political correctness, cant, and willful blindness to the actual conditions of working in this field. Honesty won’t automatically fix the problems, but it’s a prerequisite to fixing the problems.

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Jul 11

Killing the Founder

During the controversy I described in Condemning Censorship, Even of Werewolves one of the parties characterized me as “nuts and in decline.”. This failed to bother me, and not because I’m insulated against such insults by my natural arrogance. OK, I am largely insulated against such insults by my natural arrogance, but that’s not the main reason I easily shed this one.

In general I’m much less bothered about people who think I’m crazy than they usually think I should be because I know a lot about the life cycle of reform movements. I studied this topic rather carefully in early 1998, just after Netscape announced its intention to release the Mozilla sources, when I noticed that a burgeoning reform movement seemed to need me to lead it. I was particularly influenced in my thinking by the history of John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community.

Here is part of what I learned: There comes a point in the development of every reform movement at which it has to kill the founder. Or anathematize him, or declare him out of his mind. Or neutralize him in a more subtle way by putting him on a pedestal so high that he can’t actually influence events on the ground.

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Jul 07

The Model M: A timeless classic

I just found an informative article about the origin, life, and astonishing persistence of my favorite keyboard. Nearly every article on this blog was hammered out on the same Unicomp Model M I’m typing on now. The design is 25 years old and still going strong, a nearly unique longevity in computing devices.

I endorse every bit of snarkiness and ergonomic wisdom in that article. I find the lack of tactile feeback and noise from modern “soft-touch” keyboards disconcerting and uncomfortable. It does my heart good to know the model M is still being produced, now with USB interfaces even. I expect I’ll be using these until I die or we get brain/computer interfaces, whichever comes first.

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Jul 07

What is truth?

[This may become part of a book.]

What is truth? There are complicated ways of explaining “truth” that get all tangled up in questions about reality and perception, but we’re going to use a very simple one: truth is what makes the future less surprising.

No matter what you think you are and no matter what “reality” may be, the experience that you have to deal with (like every other human being) is of being thrown into a surrounding that does things independently of your thoughts. Shit happens, and you have to deal with it. The first step to dealing with it is to be able to predict it.

So, for example, if somebody says to you “It’s raining outside,” the meaning of that claim is a bundle of implied predictions, including “If you go outside without a hat, hood, or umbrella your head will get wet.” You test the truth of that claim by checking if those predictions are true. You don’t have to know what water “really is”, or for that matter what “reality” is. (We’ll get to what “reality” is later; it’s not actually very complicated when you start from here.)

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Jul 06

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Oh Thoth Trismegistus, oh Ma’at, oh Ganesha, oh sweet lady Eris…I have not laughed so hard in years!

Eliezer Yudkowsky is one of the brightest people I’ve ever met in a lifetime of seeking out gifted- to genius-grade thinkers because people who aren’t usually bore me pretty quickly. Eliezer has spent years studying the deep structure of rationality and probably understands the systematic sources of bias and irrationality in the shared architecture of the human mind as comprehensively as anyone alive. I have previously commented on some of his writings.

Usually Eliezer thinks about questions like how to build human-compatible ethical reasoning into AIs. Serious, deep stuff. When he turns the vast and imponderable force of his intellect to writing, of all things, Harry Potter fanfic, a quite unexpected degree of hilarity ensues.

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Jul 03

FroYo, yum yum!

The over-the-air update for Android 2.2, aka FroYo, landed on my Nexus One this morning.

The WiFi hotspot feature works perfectly when tested with my ThinkPad X61 running Linux.

I am liberated. No more per-diem WiFi charges in hotels. No more cursing as I discover that the airport hotspots are all pay-for-play. Internet on my laptop in the shotgun seat of the car!

This feature will be a must for road warriors everywhere. And the iPhone 4 doesn’t have it. The screams of denial from the Apple fanboys as that absence costs Apple another hunk of market share that it will never get back should be most entertaining.

UPDATE: Have verified that USB tethering just works, too. Plug it in and go!

Jul 02

Apple gets egg on its face — single platform = single doom

One of the predictable responses to my recent writings on the smartphone market and the rise of Android has been a deluge of scornful invective by Apple fans confidently predicting that Android’s 1Q2010 surge in unit share represented a bubble that would pop under pressure from Apple’s “superior user experience”.

Then came the flap over the iPhone4’s antenna problems, and the silence of the fans. Yeah, that’s a superior user experience, all right – huge percentages of dropped calls (including reports that it drops 100% of calls when the bottom left corner is touched), and Steve Jobs telling iPhone 4 users it’s all their fault because they’re holding their phones wrong. The satirical backlash at Jobs on the Internet has been merciless, and completely deserved. Nokia even had the cheek to post a blog entry on the many ways you can hold your Nokia phone.

Now comes Apple’s attempt to spin the problem out of existence. The tone of desperation is palpable. “Oops…” Apple says “…we fucked up the display algorithm for the signal strength meter.” Oh, yeah, that’s a superior user experience all right. It’s Apple, and It Just Works!(tm).

But there’s a story behind this story. Actually, two stories. One is that Apple is lying outright about the scope and nature of the problems. And the second, more important one, is that the fragility of the single-carrier, single-platform strategy for iOS has come around to bite Apple hard. There’s a lesson here for the future.

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Jul 01

After the McDonald decision: what next?

Monday’s decision in McDonald vs. City of Chicago is a major victory for civil rights. Yes, it was 5-4 and the ruling was weaker than it could have been, but the basic holding that the Second Amendment is incorporated against states and all lower levels of government can be a powerful tool for positive change if we wield it correctly. The legal climate for full restoration of firearms rights in the U.S. is now better than it’s been since the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968.

Much remains to be done, however. The Heller ruling in 2008, while affirming that firearms ownership is a fundamental individual right, allowed “reasonable regulation” and failed to specify a standard of scrutiny for what is “reasonable”; the McDonald decision does not specify this either. The constitutionally correct position, of course, is that laws infringing on Second Amendment liberties should have to meet the same strictest-scrutiny standard applied where the First Amendment is concerned — but the City of Chicago has already made plain its intent to nullify the Heller and MacDonald rulings by equating “reasonable” with “prohibitive”.

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