Feb 25

From Dave in my basement

Dave Taht is in my basement trying to use GPSD to set up NTP-independent time service on an WNDR3700 router, and having some problems. I’m upstairs teaching GPSD to emit a clock-drift message – both projects are because we’re trying to build a monitoring framework for accuracy-checking NTP. The following IRC exchange ensues:

[11:31]	dtaht2	looks like I have an underconfigured gpsd, miscompiled gpsd or ntp
[11:32]	dtaht2	OR does gpsd not provide time until it gets a full fix?
[11:32]	esr	That's correct.
[11:33]	dtaht2	yes, in terms of 'or' statements, the above evaluates to 'true'. However... which?
[11:33]	esr	Some devices report time from one satellite but you can't count on that. Most won't report time without 3 sats in view and good enough SNR.
[11:34]	dtaht2	cgps does report the time, so this particular device is
[11:35]	esr	OK, you have a problem somewhere else in the chain. And a learning experience just ahead of you.
[11:35]	dtaht2	and a dark tunnel ahead. There may be grues.
[11:36]	esr	Take your flashlight.
[11:36]	dtaht2	w;w;w;
[11:36]	esr	You see a rusty wand with a star on one end.
[11:37]	dtaht2	get wand; wave aimlessly
[11:38]	esr	Nothing happens.

Actually, I went downstairs and said the last line to Dave rather than typing it. He then laughed immoderately.

If you failed to understand the above, you are probably a normal human being and not an unregenerate geek who spends too much time in basements. This is sad for you.

Feb 23

An Open Letter to Chris Dodd

Mr. Dodd, I hear you’ve just given a speech in which you said “Hollywood is pro-technology and pro-Internet.” It seems you’re looking for interlocutors among the coalition that defeated SOPA and PIPA, and are looking for some politically feasible compromise that will do something against the problem of Internet piracy as you believe you understand it.

There isn’t any one person who can answer your concerns. But I can speak for one element of the coalition that blocked those two bills; the technologists. I’m not talking about Google or the technology companies, mind you – I’m talking about the actual engineers who built the Internet and keep it running, who write the software you rely on every day of your life in the 21st century.

I’m one of those engineers – you rely on my code every time you use a browser or a smartphone or a game console. I’m not exactly a leader among them as you would understand the term, because we don’t have those and don’t want them. But I am a well-known philosopher/elder of the tribe (I’ll name two others later in this letter), and also one of our few public spokespersons. In the late 1990s I helped found the open-source software movement.

I’m writing to educate you about our concerns, which are not exactly the same as those of the group of firms you think of as “Silicon Valley”. We have our own culture and our own agenda, usually coincident with but occasionally at odds with the businesspeople who run the tech industry.

The difference matters because the businesspeople rely on us to do the actual technical work – and since the rise of the Internet, if we don’t like where a firm’s strategy is going, it tends not to get there. Wise bosses have learned to accommodate us as much as possible and pick the few fights they must have with their engineering talent very, very carefully. Google, in particular, got its huge market capitalization by being better at managing this symbiosis than anyone else.

I can best introduce you to our concerns by quoting another of our philosopher/elders, John Gilmore. He said: “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

To understand that, you have to grasp that “the Internet” isn’t just a network of wires and switches, it’s also a sort of reactive social organism composed of the people who keep those wires humming and those switches clicking. John Gilmore is one of them. I’m another. And there are some things we will not stand having done to our network.

We will not have it censored. We built the Internet as a tool to make every individual human being on the planet more empowered. What the users do with the Internet is up to them – not up to Hollywood, not up to politicians, and not even up to us who built it. Whatever else we Internet geeks may disagree on among ourselves, we will not allow our gift of fire to be snuffed out by jealous gods.

Because we will not have the Internet censored, we are also implacably hostile to any attempts to impose controls on it that could be used for censorship – whether or not that is the stated intent of the controls. That is why we were absolutely unanimous against SOPA and PIPA, and a significant reason that you lost that fight.

You speak as though you believe that the technology industry stopped SOPA/PIPA, and that by negotiating with the industry you can set up the conditions for a successful second round. It won’t work that way; the movement that stopped SOPA/PIPA (and is now scuttling ACTA) was much more organic and grass-roots than that. Silicon Valley can’t give you the political firepower or cover you’d need. All you’ll get from them is a bunch of meaningless press conferences and empty platitudes from CEOs who have nothing actually to gain by helping you and really wish you’d go away so they can get back to their jobs.

Meanwhile, the engineers inside and outside those companies will take it as their duty to ensure that you lose that battle again if you try to fight it again. Because there aren’t a lot of us, but the vast mass of Internet users – who do vote in numbers large enough to swing elections – have figured out that we’re on their side and we’re their early-warning system. When we sound the tocsin – as we did, for example, by blacking out Wikipedia – they will mobilize and you will be defeated.

Accordingly, one of the cardinal rules for any politician who wants to have a long career in a 21st-century democracy has to be “don’t screw with the Internet”. Because it will screw you right back. At least two primary challenges to SOPA/PIPA sponsors are in the news right now because they wouldn’t have happened without the popular outrage against it.

Hollywood wants you to screw with the Internet, because Hollywood thinks it has problems it can solve that way. Hollywood also wants you to think we (the engineers) are foes of “intellectual property” and in willing cahoots with criminals, pirates, and thieves. Neither of these claims is true, and it’s important that you understand exactly how they’re not true.

Many of us make our living from “intellectual property”. A few of us (not including me) are genuinely opposed to it on principle. Most of us (including me) are willing to respect intellectual property rights, but there’s a place where that respect abruptly ends. It stops at exactly the point where DRM threatens to cripple our computers and our software.

Richard Stallman, one of our more radical philosophers, uses the phrase “treacherous computing” to describe what happens when a PC, or a smartphone, or any sort of electronics, is not fully under the control of its user. Treacherous computers block what you can see or hear. Treacherous computers spy on you. Treacherous computers cut you off from their full potential as communications devices and tools.

Treacherous computing is our second line in the sand. Most of us don’t actually have anything against DRM in itself; it’s because DRM becomes a vehicle for treachery that we loathe it. Not allowing you to skip the advertisements on a DVD is a small example; not allowing you to back up your books and music is a larger one. Then there was the ironically pointed case of the book “1984″ being silently disappeared from the e-readers of customers who had paid for it…

Some companies propose, in order to support DRM, locking up computers so they can only only run “approved” operating systems; that might bother ordinary users less than those other treacheries, but to us would be utterly intolerable. If you imagine a sculptor told that his new chisel would only cut shapes pre-approved by a committee of shape vendors, you might begin to fathom the depths of our anger at these proposals.

We engineers do have an actual problem with Hollywood and the music industry, but it’s not the one you probably assume. To be blunt (because there isn’t any nice way to put this) we think Big Entertainment is largely run by liars and thieves who systematically rip off the artists they claim to be protecting with their DRM, then sue their own customers because they’re too stupid to devise an honest way to make money.

I’m sure you don’t agree with this judgment, but you need to understand how widespread it is among technologists in order to get why all those claims about “piracy” and lost revenues find us so unsympathetic. It’s bad enough that we feel like our Internet and our computers are under attack, but having laws like SOPA/PIPA/ACTA pushed at us on behalf of a special-interest group we consider no better than gangsters and dimwits makes it much worse.

Some of us think the gangsters’ behavior actually justifies piracy. Most of us don’t agree that those two wrongs add up to a right, but I can tell you this: if you make the technologists choose between the big-media gangsters and the content pirates, effectively all of us will side with the content pirates as the lesser of the two evils. Because maybe both sides are stealing on a vast scale, but only one of them doesn’t want to screw with our Internet or cripple our computers.

We’d really prefer to oppose both groups, though. Our sympathies in this mess are with the artists being ripped off by both sides.

Consider this letter our “Don’t tread on me!”. Our agenda is to protect our own liberty to create and our users’ liberty to enjoy those creations as they see fit. We have no give and no compromise on either of those, but long as Hollywood stays out of our patch (that is, no more attempts to lock down our Internet or our tools) we’ll stay out of Hollywood’s.

And if you’d like to discuss some ways of fighting piracy that don’t involve trampling on us and our users, we do have some ideas.

Feb 21

The Grey Lady weeps for Peter Gleick

So, all last week on one of my favorite mailing lists I was hearing various climate alarmists crowing about a document leak from the Heartland Institute that supposedly prooooved that it (and by extension all other anthropogenic-global-warming skeptics) was engaging in a nefarious campaign to suppress its opponents and trash the teaching of science in the U.S.

You may, therefore, imagine my amusement when it turned out that the key, incriminating document in the Heartland dump is pretty certainly a fake. Several separate lines of evidence lead to this conclusion, including both content analysis of the document and some smelly things about the PDF metadata.

My initial reaction was: ho hum, more fraud by climate alarmists, good that they got caught again, should be entertaining to watch the mainstream media trying to suppress the story just as assiduously as they were hyping it when it looked like a good score against the eeeevil Heartland Institute and the eeevil denialists. In the normal course of events I’d have let all this pass without comment; it’s not surprising, and other than some entertaining resonances with Dan Rather’s forged TANG document back in 2004 it’s not very interesting.

That is, until yesterday’s unintentional hilarity at the New York Times.

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Feb 16

Super Star Trek 2.1

I guess it’s paleo-game theme week. For your retrocomputing pleasure, here’s my Python forward-port of the 1973 University of Texas FORTRAN Trek game: Super Star Trek.

Anybody old enough to remember TTYs probably played this on one. While it has accreted some features over time, it’s still functionally pretty close to the original FORTRAN Star Trek. You kids should get off my lawn try it, too – it retains considerable play value despite the primitive interface.

Feb 15

Eclipse: raising the bar for the 4X game

I’m a big fan of the game genre called “4X” – “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.”. I’ve been playing these ever since the ur-progenitor of the genre in the 1980s, Empire, and I actually still maintain an open-source C version of that game. Civilization is my favorite computer game ever, and by what I hear of it Master of Orion – the game “4X” was coined to describe – would have hooked me even harder if I’d known of it when it came out.

I particularly like SF-themed 4X games. I have previously posted a favorable review of Twilight Imperium (hereafter “TI”), a big sprawling epic of a contending-galactic-empires 4X game. But now I write to report on a game that effectively makes TI obsolete – a new design called Eclipse which I think is going to permanently raise the quality bar in 4X games.

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Feb 13

Generative science

I’m thinking about writing another book. I won’t disclose the title or topic yet, but there’s a bit of research for it I think can be usefully crowdsourced, and may also give a clue about the book for those of you interested.

I’ve written before about the difference between descriptive and generative theories. To recap and simplify, a descriptive theory accounts for what is; a generative theory finds causal regularities beneath a descriptive account and predicts consequences not yet observed.

Now I want to zero in on a parallel difference among entire sciences. Some scientific fields – like, say, evolutionary biology – are tremendously productive of models and insights that can be applied elsewhere. On the other hand, some other sciences – like, say, astronomy – seldom export ideas or models.

Note that while it is appropriate to think of sciences that export lots of ideas as ‘generative’, the class of sciences that don’t are not merely descriptive. Astronomy, for example, has lots of generative theory inside it; astrophysics, for example makes predictions about stellar spectra and elemental abundances. But astronomy as a whole is not generative because none of its theory really informs anything outside astronomy.

So I’m going to start with a (non-exhaustive) list of scientific fields, indicating roughly how generative I think they are and what if anything they export. I invite additions and corrections from my readers.

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Feb 11

I’ve settled on “Admired”

I’ve settled on Brad Thomas’s “Admired” with the light white skin as the new theme for this blog. It’s a relatively new theme and is being actively maintained with a support forum. which relieves my main worry about my old Live Steam theme – it’s not going to fall out of sync with the WordPress engine any time soon.

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Feb 09

Admire this?

Regulars: If you’re seeing the blog’s main page with a blue bar across the top, directly below the title, then you’re probably seeing the “Admire” theme. It’s an improvement over TwentyEleven, and I’ve figured out how to disable comment nesting. Let me know what you think: is this an improvement over the old Live Steam theme?

UPDATE: Aha! I found an even more minimalist skin, a bit closer to the look of the old Live Steam. No more blue bar, and no more boxes around comments.

Feb 09

Reverting to the old theme…

I’m reverting to the old theme to see if I can fit some of the new features in it.

I agree the new theme was too whitespace-heavy, and comment nesting was not working out as well as I’d hoped. I haven’t been able to figure out how to get rid of the huge right margin on comment lists, which is the misfeature that annoys me most. By contrast, the serif font would have been easy to fix.

A significant reason comment nesting wasn’t working for me is that the administrative page doesn’t do it even when the main theme does. Thus, when commenters reacted naturally to the nesting by leaving out quotes, I could no longer follow threads.

The main reason I changed themes was to be able to support modular theme widgets, which is the newfangled way in WordPress to lay out sidebars and footers. Also, I was beginning to fear that changes in the underlying WordPress engine would break my theme, which is a custom variation of an old one called “Steam” from the 2.x version. (I changed it to be flexible to the browser size rather than having a fixed bounding box and padding, a design style I hate for both practical and philosophical reasons.)

Now I’ll try retrofitting widget support into my old theme (I call it “Live Steam”; the new one was a stock WordPress theme called TwentyEleven). Or, I might try finding a theme that already supports widgets and has a similar look and feel. The management regrets any inconvenience.

Feb 08

The Smartphone Wars: The market share scramble and Apple’s long con

Mobile phone carriers have a crappy record of strategic planning – the history of the industry is rife with massive overinvestment in services consumers didn’t actually want, partly redeemed by massive unanticipated revenue from accidents of technology (I’m looking at you, SMS!). I’ve explained elsewhere that inflation-adjusted carrier ROI is negative.

Even so, the latest news from the analysts is pretty mind-boggling. Remember all those carrier execs rhapsodizing about how iPhone is the awesomest invention since sex? Well, it seems Apple is sucking all the profits out of the carriers that went for it. That has interesting implications for the future. Like, what happens when the carriers decide they’re done being conned?

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Feb 02

Does “Corporation X” follow the hacker way?

Got a query from a journalist today working on a major story about a certain large corporation that’s been much in the news lately. Seems the corporation’s founder has been talking up his organization’s allegiance to “the hacker way”, and she not unreasonably wanted my opinion as to whether or not this was complete horse-puckey.

So as not to steal the lady’s thunder, I won’t reveal the identity of Corporation X. I will, however, repeat a version of my answer with its identity lightly obscured – because I think these are questions we should ask any corporation that talks like that.

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