Mar 30

Penguicon 2012 Geeks With Guns

The party for Armed & Dangerous readers is still on for Friday night at Penguicon, and we have a new event – actually, the return of an old favorite: Geeks with Guns.

This year’s GWG is scheduled for 2:00PM on Friday the 27th; it will take place at the Firing Line range. We will be teaching basic firearms safety, handling, and pistol marksmanship; first-time shooters are welcome. Experienced shooters are also welcome and may be drafted as range officers and assistant instructors. Yes, I’ve done this before, and no, we’ve never had an injury – pistol shooting is statistically safer than golf.

Important: please mail guns@penguicon.org with your intention to attend. We need to give the range advance notice of roughly how many people will be showing. Two dozen is pretty typical.

Thanks to regular John D. Bell for organizing. John will be passing around the hat for a few bucks each to cover the range fees. Bring your own weapon if you have one, otherwise you can rent at the range or possibly borrow a friend’s. Newbs seeking instruction will be expected to buy their own ammunition.

Mar 29

Where your contributions go

This is a thank-you to my tip-jar contributors.

Today I spent $88.76 directly out of the tip jar on engineering samples of GPS dongles specially modified to carry the 1PPS signal out to USB. I will test them, and if the modification succeeds it is quite likely that the company I am cooperating with will begin shipping this mod in a volume product shortly. This will, for the first time, make time sources with 1ms accuracy available for less than $100 each. The application I have in mind is fixing the Internet; there are many others.

This is the sort of thing that happens when you donate money to support my open-source projects. Thank you; you are helping me make the world a better place.

Mar 29

Remembering the future

I own a rather large library of paperback SF which I have been collecting since the late 1960s; it includes a lot of stuff that is now quite rare and half forgotten. I owe a great deal to SF and consider these books cultural treasures, The last few years I’ve been wondering if there’s any way to ensure that this treasure won’t be lost as conventional printed books get left behind and the remaining copies of the more obscure stuff crumble.

Maybe there is the beginning of an answer. Singularity & Co. – Save the SciFi! is a Kickstarter project aimed specifically at rescuing out-of-print genre SF from oblivion. It is not yet clear whether their methods will scale; scanning is easy but untangling the IP around these old books can be difficult. But the response to the project has been encouraging; they’re already 240% over their initial funding goal.

I have contributed $25, and offered them the use of my library. If it looks like they have developed a sustainable set of methods I will contribute a lot more. I think this is a worthy project and deserving of support from everyone who loves science fiction.

Mar 23

Michael Meets Mozart

I love classical music. It was my first musical vocabulary; I didn’t start listening to popular music until I was 14. When I grew up enough to notice that I was listening to a collection of museum pieces and not a living genre, that realization made me very sad.

But go listen to this: Michael Meets Mozart.

Now, if you’re a typical classical purist, you may be thinking something like this: “Big deal. It’s just a couple of guys posing like rock stars, even if there’s some Mozart in the DNA. Electric cello and a backbeat is just tacky. Feh.”

I’m here to argue that this attitude is tragically wrong – not only is it bad for what’s left of the classical-music tradition today, but that it’s false to the way classical music was conceived by its composers and received by its audiences back when it was a living genre.

Mozart didn’t think he was writing museum pieces…

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Mar 21

The infrastructure gnomes of tomorrow

Regular TomA continues a hot streak by asking, in response to my post on Holding Up The Sky, “Is the hacker support system robust?”

That is: having noticed that open-source volunteers now have a large and increasing role in maintaining critical shared infrastructure like the Internet, is there a sustainability issue here? Once the old guard who were involved in the early days (people like Jim Gettys and Dave Taht and myself) dies off, are we going to be able to replace them?

I shall set forth my reasons for optimism.

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Mar 18

Holding up the sky

During the last few years I’ve noticed a change in the meaning of my life – well, my life as a hacker, anyway. I had an exchange on a mailing list last night that made me think it’s not just me, that the same change has been sneaking up on a lot of us.

It’s part of the hacker ethos to (as Alan Kay put it) predict the future by inventing it – to playfully seek solutions to problems people outside our culture are not yet even thinking about. We still do that, and I think we always will.

But increasingly, as the world of pervasive networks and ubiquitous computing hackers imagined decades ago has become reality, we’re not just the innovators who thought of it first. Now we’re responsible; having created the future, we have to maintain it. And, as the sinews of civilization become ever more dependent on the Internet and software-intensive communications devices, that responsibility gets more serious every year.

This makes for a subtle change in our duties and our relationship to our work – a gradual shift from merry prankster to infrastructure gnome.

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Mar 12

The moral equivalent of witchcraft

The New York Times is carrying an unusually in-depth story “What Happened to the Girls in Leroy? on an epidemic of twitching, stuttering, and tics among the high-school girls of a small town in upstate New York.

The reporter didn’t go there, but I couldn’t help noticing strong parallels to what we know about the run-up to the Salem witch trials. The symptoms reported from LeRoy are very like the “sickness of astonishment” which, in the belief context of Puritan Massachusetts in the 1690s, led to accusations of witchcraft and the torture and hanging of twenty people.

Today’s verdict on the epidemic in LeRoy matches what historians generally believe about the causes of the Salem witch trials. Mass hysteria – or, in more modern clinical language, an epidemic of “conversion disorder” in which psychological stressors turn into physical symptoms through unconscious neurological mechanisms that are not yet well understood.

What is yet more interesting, but not as closely examined by the reporter as it should have been, is the secondary illness the girls induced in the community around them. Parents reaching for explanations in Salem in 1692, living within a strongly religious world-view, seized on Satan and hostile witchcraft to explain the twitching, stuttering, and tics. The parents of Leroy, in a more secular world, instantly invented an equally unfalsifiable explanation – one which tells us a great deal about the native insanities of our own time.

Yes, it’s 2012, and trace chemical pollutants have become the new witchcraft.

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Mar 11

John Carter: the movie

I was pretty dubious about John Carter. It was one of those movies which, as a serious SF fan and historian, I have to see even given a quite high likelihood that it was going to offend me with aggressively stupid handling of its source material. Therefore I am surprised and pleased to report that it is actually quite good!

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Mar 08

Return of the hacker ribbons

Penguicon (venue of the upcoming Friends of Armed & Dangerous party) is a combination science-fiction convention and Linux/open-source conference, two geek tastes that taste great together.

One of Penguicon’s customs is that people wander around handing out affinity-group badge ribbons to those they deem worthy (or simply to be funny). In many past years I handed out a silver-on-blue ribbon that simply says “hacker”. But the last couple years I’ve been busy and distracted and my stash of ribbons had run out.

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Mar 05

A civil rights victory

Today we scored what may be the most important civil-rights victory since the Heller ruling in 2008. Woollard v. Sheridan was found for the plaintiffs, and
Maryland’s law requiring concealed-carry applicants to show “good and substantial reason” for their permit applications has been found unconstitutional.

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Mar 01

Calling all open-source hardware engineers

How would you like to help fix the Internet?

One of the efforts I’ve been contributing to during the last year is the Bufferbloat project, a group of experienced Internet engineers who believe that excessive buffering and poor queue-management strategies may be the real villains behind a lot of network problems commonly attributed to undercapacity.

Before we can solve the problem, we need to measure and map it by collecting a lot of packet-propagation-time statistics. Awkwardly, we suspect that one of the services being screwed up by bufferbloat-induced latency spikes is the Network Time Protocol. So…Dave Täht (aka Dave from my basement) is trying to build a device he calls the Cosmic Background Bufferbloat Detector. The CBBD would be a flock of routers scattered all over the world, watching NTP packet timings using a common timebase independent of NTP, and sending data back to a collection server for analysis and visualization.

That’s where I, as the lead of the GPSD project, come in. GPSes are an obvious candidate for a high-precision NTP-independent time service. But there’s a problem with that…

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