Apr 26

Penguicon party 2013!

My blogging will be light or nonexistent over the next week. I’m on the road in Michigan, at Penguicon; the Friends of Armed and Dangerous party will be here at 9:00 tonight.

It really is the 21st century. Yesterday I merged a bunch of patches, ran acceptance tests, and then polished and shipped a reposurgeon release – while in the passenger seat of a car tooling down I-80. The remarkable thing is that this no longer seems remarkable.

I discovered in the process that while i3 is the best thing since sliced bread on a 2560×1440 display, a tiling window manager is pretty uncomfortable on a laptop-sized 1366×768 display. The problem is that even dividing the laptop screen only in half produces shell and Emacs windows that are narrower than their natural 80-column size rather than wider as on the larger display; one gets the text in email and source code wrapping unpleasantly. I’ve fallen back to XFCE for laptop use.

In two hours, Geeks With Guns. Going to be a full day.

Apr 19

Iranian connection in the Boston bombing

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the terrorist who died in a firefight with the Boston police with a kettle bomb strapped to him, had a YouTube page. Examining an image of it, I found an approving link to a movie titled “The Black Flags of Khorasan”.

Because, unlike the politically-correct idiots who infest our nation’s newsrooms, I’ve actually studied the history of Islam in some detail, that title had immediate resonance for me. I thought I knew what it meant, and I googled.

What I found confirmed my hunch. Not just that Black Flags from Khorasan is a jihadist propaganda movie, but that it’s a jihadi movie of a particularly interesting kind – Mahdist, and almost certainly radical Shi’a. Mahdism is present in Sunni but much less central, and in any case the region of Khorasan has been the heart country of Shi’a for nearly a thousand years.

Domestic terrorism, my ass. As usual, the mainstream media was slavering to pin this on some Richard-Jewell-like native-born conservative (bonus points if they get to say “Tea Party”). As usual, it’s a jihadi atrocity in which fundamentalist Islam was causal.

But that film is a more specific clue. If the investigators have even a microgram of brains, they’re looking for an Iranian connection now.

Apr 16

Building a better IRC client

I’ve been thinking about how to build a better IRC client recently.

The proximate cause is that I switched to irssi from chatzilla recently. In most ways it’s better, but it has some annoying UI quirks. Thinking they’d be easy to fix, I dug into the codebase and discovered that it’s a nasty hairball. We’ve seen projects where a great deal of enthusiasm and overengineering resulted in code that is full of locally-clever bits but excessively difficult to modify or maintain as a whole; irssi is one of those. Even its maintainers have mostly abandoned it; there hasn’t neen an actual release since 2010.

This is a shame, because despite its quirks it’s probably the best client going for serious IRC users. I say this because I’ve tried the other major contenders (chatzilla, BitchX, XChat, ircii) in the past. None of them really match irsii’s feature set, which makes it particularly unfortunate that the codebase resembles a rubble pile.

I’m nor capable of stumbling over a situation like this without thinking about how to fix it. And yesterday…I had an insight.

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Apr 15

Destroying the middle ground

Here’s a thought experiment for you. Imagine yourself in an alternate United States where the First Amendment is not as a matter of settled law considered to bar Federal and State governments from almost all interference in free speech. This is less unlikely than it might sound; the modern, rather absolutist interpretation of free-speech liberties did not take form until the early 20th century.

In this alternate America, there are many and bitter arguments about the extent of free-speech rights. The ground of dispute is to what extent the instruments of political and cultural speech (printing presses, radios, telephones, copying machines, computers) should be regulated by government so that use of these instruments does not promote violence, assist criminal enterprises, and disrupt public order.

The weight of history and culture is largely on the pro-free-speech side – the Constitution does say “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. And until the late 1960s there is little actual attempt to control speech instruments.

Then, in 1968, after a series of horrific crimes and assassinations inspired by inflammatory anti-establishment political propaganda, some politicians, prominent celebrities, and public intellectuals launch a “speech control” movement. They wave away all comparisons to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, insisting that their goal is not totalitarian control but only the prevention of the most egregious abuses in the public square.

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Apr 14

Thanks again to those of you who hit the tip jar

This is a postscript to my saga of the graphics-card disaster.

Thank you. everybody who occasionally drops money in my PayPal account. In the past it has bought test hardware for GPSD. This week I had enough in it to pay for the Radeon card, the one that actually works.

Your donations help me maintain software that serves a billion people every day. Thank you again.

Apr 11

National styles in hacking

Last night, in an IRC conversation with one of my regulars, we were discussing a project we’re both users of and I’m thinking about contributing to, and I found myself saying of the project lead “And he’s German. You know what that means?” In fact, my regular understood instantly, and this deflected us into a discussion of how national culture visibly affects hackers’ collaborative styles. We found that our observations matched quite closely.

Presented for your amusement: Three stereotypical hackers from three different countries, described relative to the American baseline.

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Apr 09

What if it really was like that?

If you read any amount of history, you will discover that people of various times and places have matter-of-factly believed things that today we find incredible (in the original sense of “not credible”). I have found, however, that one of the most interesting questions one can ask is “What if it really was like that?”

That is, what if our ancestors weren’t entirely lying or fantasizing when they believed in…say…the existence of vampires? If you’re willing to ask this question with an open mind, you might discover that there is a rare genetic defect called “erythropoietic porphyrinuria” that can mimic some of the classical stigmata of vampirism. Victims’ gums may be drawn back on the teeth, making said teeth appear fanglike; they are likely to be photophobic, shunning bright light; and, being anemic, they may develop a craving for blood…

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Apr 07

Out on the tiles

I’ve been experimenting with tiling window managers recently. I tried out awesome and xmonad, and read documentation on several others including dwm and wmii. The prompt cause is that I’ve been doing a lot of surgery on large repositories recently, and when you get up to 50K commits that’s enough to create serious memory pressure on my 4G of core (don’t laugh, I tend to drive my old hardware until the bolts fall out). A smaller, lighter window manager can actually make a difference in performance.

More generally, I think the people advocating these have some good UI arguments – OK, maybe only when addressing hard-core hackers, but hey we’re users too. Ditching the overhead of frobbing window sizes and decorations in favor of getting actual work done is a kind of austerity I can get behind. My normal work layout consisted of just three big windows that nearly filled the screen anyway – terminal, Emacs and browser. Why not cut out the surrounding cruft?

I wasn’t able to settle on a tiling wm that really satisfied, though, until my friend HedgeMage pointed me at i3. After a day or so of using it I suspect I’ll be sticking with it. The differences from other tiling wms are not major but it seems just enough better designed and documented to cross a threshold for me, from interesting novelty to useful tool. Along with this change I’m ditching Chatzilla for irsii; my biggest configuration challenge in the new setup, actually, was teaching irssi how to use libnotify so I get visible IRC activity cues even when irsii itself is hidden.

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Apr 02

Natural rights and wrongs?

One of my commenters recently speculated in an accusing tone that I might be a natural-rights libertarian. He was wrong, but explaining why is a good excuse for writing an essay I’ve been tooling up to do for a long time. For those of you who aren’t libertarians, this is not a parochial internal dispute – in fact, it cuts straight to the heart of some long-standing controversies about consequentialism versus deontic ethics. And if you don’t know what those terms mean, you’ll have a pretty good idea by the time you’re done reading.

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Apr 01

AGW panic ending with a whimper

This is how the AGW panic ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The Economist, which (despite a recent decline) remains probably the best news magazine in the English language, now admits that (a) global average temperature has been flat for 15 years even as CO2 levels have been rising rapidly, (b) surface temperatures are at the lowest edge of the range predicted by IPCC climate models, (c) on current trends, they will soon fall clean outside and below the model predictions, (c) estimates of climate sensitivity need revising downwards, and (d) something, probably multiple things, is badly wrong with AGW climate models.

Do I get to say “I told you so!” yet?

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