Sep 28

The smartphone wars: Android thunders on

My prediction months ago that Android would pass Apple iOS in total share in the fourth quarter of 2010 is looking more prescient all the time. this ComputerWorld reports IDC’s conservative prediction that global (not U.S. share) will reach 16% for Android, 15% for iOS at the end of 2010.

More interesting is the report from ChangeWave that corporate IT buyers now favor Android over iOS in new purchases. The installed base of corporate iOS devices is about double that of their Android counterparts, but Android’s recent growth in that space is a factor of twenty larger than iOS’s. In fact Android is perceptibly eroding the position of market leader RIM’s blackberry line even among corporate IT buyers, RIM’s core market.

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Sep 26

The Golden Age of Wargaming is Now

I’m what people in the strategy-gaming hobby call a grognard. The word is literally French for “grumbler”, historically used for Napoleonist diehards who never reconciled themselves to the fall of L’Empereur even after 1815, and nowadays refers to guys who cut their teeth on the classic, old-school hex-grid wargames of the 1970s.

As a grognard, I’m expected to grumble dyspeptically about the superiority of the huge, heavy, elaborately simulationist two-player wargames we used to play back in the day, and bemoan how fluffy and social the modern wave of multiplayer Eurogames are. Sure, they’ve got four-color printing and unit counters you don’t have to use tweezers to pick up, but where are my pages and pages of combat resolution tables? Where are my hairsplitting distinctions between different types of self-propelled assault gun? O tempora! O mores!

But you know what? Times change, and game designers have actually learned a few things in the last forty years. In this essay I’m going to revisit two games I’ve reviewed previously (Commands and Colors: Ancients and Memoir ’44) and take a closer look at two others: War Galley, and Conflict of Heroes. These games exemplify how very much things have changed, and how little point there really is in pining for the old-school games any more. Yes, I may forfeit my old-fart credentials by saying it, but…I think the golden age of wargaming is now.

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Sep 25

Mystical Poetry and Mental Postures

Over the years I’ve written at least three expositions of the hacker mindset that use the form of mystical poetry or teaching riddles. Probably the best known of these nowadays is The Unix Koans of Master Foo (2003), but there has also been The Loginataka (1992, 2010) and the short Zen poem I included in How To Become A Hacker.

One of the regulars at my Friday gaming group is a Greek Orthodox priest, but an educated and broadminded one with whom I get along surprisingly well considering my general opinion of Christianity. A chance remark he made one night caused me to recite at him the line from the 2010 portion of the Loginataka that goes “The way of the hacker is a posture of mind”, and then when he looked interested the whole four stanzas.

He laughed, and he got it, and then he articulated the reason that I write about being a hacker in this form so well that he made me think about things I hadn’t considered before and probably should have. Like, what if other people don’t get it? All they’d see when they looked at the Loginataka or the Unix Koans is pretentiousness or satire.

But no. The mystical language of these works is functional in a very direct way, which the priest grokked instantly and I will now explain. It has applications beyond the way I’ve used it.

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Sep 22

No apology needed

A few moments ago I received email from the Iranian who first asked me to try to help the dissidents fourteen month ago. I reproduce his email and my response in its entirety, except that I omit information that might identify him.

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Sep 21

Fourteen months of carrying

It is now about fourteen months since, after receiving my second death threat, I started carrying a firearm almost constantly. This experience has taught me a few truths, some merely amusing but others with larger implications.

The major lesson: people are amazingly oblivious to what they don’t expect to see. When I carry using a belt holster (not my only method), I watch peoples’ eye movements and facial expressions for this pattern: eyes going to my right hip, momentary startlement or an increase in tension. This would mean the shirt I’m wearing flapped over the pistol butt has ridden up and it’s exposed. But, in fact, with only one exception that I’ll get to, I have never seen this. On the other hand, there have been occasions when I’ve noticed by touch that the weapon was exposed, or my wife has told me it’s showing, and nobody around me gives any sign of having noticed.

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Sep 20

Terry Pratchett ascends to the pantheon, alive!

Some years ago, in The Delusion of Expertise, I wrote about the memorable occasion in 2003 on which some friends and I were able to bestow on author Terry Pratchett the accolade of hacker, recognizing him as what he had always been: one of us.

Now comes the news that as part of his preparations to be formally knighted by the Queen of England, Terry made his own sword – smelted the iron, and helped hand-forge it. Including, as he says, “several pieces of meteorites — thunderbolt iron, you see — highly magical, you’ve got to chuck that stuff in whether you believe in it or not”.

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Sep 17

Needling Haystack

In mid-2009, just after Neda Soltan was shot down on a Tehran street, I was working with a group of hackers attempting to provide covert communications support to the Iranian dissident movement. I blogged about it at the time, received my second death threat as a result, and had a couple of interesting conversations with the FBI. Eventually I stopped working with the group; they made what I considered some serious mistakes of direction, and I was anyway beginning to doubt the principal’s claims of having an extensive contact network on the ground in Iran.

The group I was working with was deploying stealthed HTTP proxies and Tor nodes; my main technical contribution was a Squid configuration tuned to the purpose in ways I won’t discuss because the techniques might be useful against another tyranny someday. We knew of other groups using different technology; one seemed to be organized around a program called Haystack and its designer, a guy named Austin Heap.

I had brief contact with Heap during that period. Now I learn that he may have been a fraud. The Great Internet Freedom Fraud all but accuses him of this.

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Sep 15

Pessimistic anarchism

I received email recently asking me to respond to an article in the Huffington Post, No Safe Harbor on Gulf Coast; Human Blood Tests Show Dangerous Levels of Toxic Exposure. Questioner’s English wasn’t very good, but the question he was trying to pose was how market anarchists like myself can oppose government action to mitigate disasters like the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and what we have to say about the charge that corporate money is suppressing news of the full toll of the disaster.

What I had to say to him about that follows, slightly edited and expanded. It’s as good an individual case as any to explain why my free-market anarchism is a result not of optimism about the perfectibility of markets but of profound pessimism about the limits of any sort of collective action by human beings.

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Sep 13

The smartphone wars: Google goes Taoist, Microsoft uses the farce

A few days ago, I observed that Google is not pushing back against cell carriers’ lockdown of Android phones as vigorously as I had expected in the wake of the Android 2.2 announcement. If this Twitter rumor is true, Google locked horns with the carriers and lost that confrontation, leading to the semi-discontinuance of the Nexus One. Does this mean the carriers have won the war?

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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 11

Eminent Domains: The First Time I Changed History

In a day or two I plan to do a blog post on the way engineering decisions can be critically important at cusp points in the history of society. In order for part of the argument in that post to make sense, my readers need to hear a story I’ve been hinting at in comments for some time: the first time that I personally made a difference in the world at what I believe was history-changing scale, and how that happened.

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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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Sep 08

The smartphone wars: a global perspective

While doing some research to check an assertion made by a commenter on More dispatches from the smartphone front I ran across excerpts from a very interesting report from investment analysts at Piper Jaffray on global smartphone market share and how they expect it to change in the next few years.

I can’t get at the full report, as Piper Jaffray has it paywalled and sells it to customers. But I have to say that for bankers the excerpts I can see make them look pretty smart to me. They’ve suggested a scenario for a radical change in market conditions that I actually think is quite plausible.

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Sep 07

More dispatches from the smartphone front

Four days ago I blogged about upgrading my old G-1 to CyanogenMOD and complained that the mod’s home site contained no high-level overview of the modding process to help pepople understand all the details in the modding instructions for individual devices.

It took some days of research, but I have now fixed that problem. I had that narrative description reviewed by experts on the IRC #cyanogenmod IRC channel while I was writing it, so it’s an outsider view with insider correctness.

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Sep 03

CyanogenMOD rocks my old G-1

I spent some time today rooting and reflashing my old G-1 so it’s jumped from stock Android 1.6 to Android 2.2. CyanogenMod is a truly impressive piece of work, with both snazzy surface polish and a lot of nice little hackerly touches like including a root console in the standard apps panel and easy access to the recovery loader. I really feel like I have control of the device now.

Which is nice, but doesn’t have a lot of practical relevance yet. My main use for the G-1 is as a fallback in case my Nexus One gets lost or stolen. Still, there was some enjoyment in learning that, yes, I can do stuff like reflashing a phone without bricking it, and swapping around SIM cards without perpetrating some egregious blunder that wipes them. Alas, I’m still not very comfortable doing risky things with hardware – I retain some emotional reflexes from thirty years ago, when zorching anything computerlike meant you’d just incurred a five-figure bill and were in deep, deep shit.

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