Sep 30

Underestimate Terry Pratchett? I never have.

Neil Gaiman writes On Terry Pratchett, he is not a jolly old elf at all.. It’s worth reading.

I know that what Neil Gaiman says here is true, because I’ve known Terry, a little. Not as well as Neil does; we’re not that close, though he has been known to answer my email. But I did have one experience back in 2003 that would have forever dispelled any notion of Terry as a mere jolly elf, assuming I’d been foolish enough to entertain it.

I taught Terry Pratchett how to shoot a pistol.

(We were being co-guests of honor at Penguicon I at the time. This was at the first Penguicon Geeks with Guns event, at a shooting range west of Detroit. It was something Terry had wanted to do for a long time, but opportunities in Britain are quite limited.)

This is actually a very revealing thing to do with anyone. You learn a great deal about how the person handles stress and adrenalin. You learn a lot about their ability to concentrate. If the student has fears about violence, or self-doubt, or masculinity/femininity issues, that stuff is going to tend to come out in the student’s reactions in ways that are not difficult to read.

Terry was rock-steady. He was a good shot from the first three minutes. He listened, he followed directions intelligently, he always played safe, and he developed impressive competence at anything he was shown very quickly. To this day he’s one of the three or four best shooting students I’ve ever had.

That is not the profile of anyone you can safely trivialize as a jolly old elf. I wasn’t inclined to do that anyway; I’d known him on and off since 1991, which was long enough that I believe I got a bit of look-in before he fully developed his Famous Author charm defense.

But it was teaching Terry pistol that brought home to me how natively tough-minded he really is. After that, the realism and courage with which he faced his Alzheimer’s diagnosis came as no surprise to me whatsoever.

Sep 29

Announcing: Time, Clock, and Calendar Programming In C

The C/UNIX library support for time and calendar programming is a nasty mess of historical contingency. I have grown tired of having to re-learn its quirks every time I’ve had to deal with it, so I’m doing something about that.

Announcing Time, Clock, and Calendar Programming In C, a document which attempts to chart the historical clutter (so you can ignore it once you know why it’s there) and explain the mysteries.

What I’ve released is an 0.9 beta version. My hope is that it will rapidly attract some thoroughgoing reviews so I can release a 1.0 in a week or so. More than that, I would welcome a subject matter expert as a collaborator.

Sep 29

Shellshock, Heartbleed, and the Fallacy of False Prominence

In the wake of the Shellshock bug, I guess I need to repeat in public some things I said at the time of the Heartbleed bug.

The first thing to notice here is that these bugs were found – and were findable – because of open-source scrutiny.

There’s a “things seen versus things unseen” fallacy here that gives bugs like Heartbleed and Shellshock false prominence. We don’t know – and can’t know – how many far worse exploits lurk in proprietary code known only to crackers or the NSA.

What we can project based on other measures of differential defect rates suggests that, however imperfect “many eyeballs” scrutiny is, “few eyeballs” or “no eyeballs” is far worse.

I’m not handwaving when I say this; we have statistics from places like Coverity that do defect-rate measurements on both open-source and proprietary closed source products, we have academic research like the UMich fuzz papers, we have CVE lists for Internet-exposed programs, we have multiple lines of evidence.

Everything we know tells us that while open source’s security failures may be conspicuous its successes, though invisible, are far larger.

Sep 28

Commoditization, not open source, killed Sun Microsystems

The patent-troll industry is in full panic over the consequences of the Alice vs. CLS Bank decision. While reading up on the matter, I ran across the following claim by a software patent attorney:

“As Sun Microsystems proved, the quickest way to turn a $5 billion company into a $600 million company is to go open source.”

I’m not going to feed this troll traffic by linking to him, but he’s promulgating a myth that must be dispelled. Trying to go open source didn’t kill Sun; hardware commoditization killed Sun. I know this because I was at ground zero when it killed a company that was aiming to succeed Sun – and, until the dot-com bust, looked about to manage it.

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Sep 27

Program Provability and the Rule of Technical Greed

In a recent discussion on G+, a friend of mine made a conservative argument for textual over binary interchange protocols on the grounds that programs always need to be debugged, and thus readability of the protocol streams by humans trumps the minor efficiency gains from binary packing.

I agree with this argument; I’ve made it often enough myself, notably in The Art of Unix Programming. But it was something his opponent said that nudged at me. “Provable programs are the future,” he declaimed, pointing at sel4 and CompCert as recent examples of formal verification of real-world software systems. His implication was clear: we’re soon going to get so much better at turning specifications into provably correct implementations that debuggability will soon cease to be a strong argument for protocols that can be parsed by a Mark I Eyeball.

Oh foolish, foolish child, that wots not of the Rule of Technical Greed.

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Sep 26

Halfway up the mountain

Last night, my wife Cathy and I passed our level 5 test in kuntao. That’s a halfway point to level 10, which is the first “guro” level, roughly equivalent to black belt in a Japanese or Korean art. Ranks aren’t the big deal in kuntao that they are in most Americanized martial arts, but this is still a good point to pause for reflection.

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Sep 25

Announcing microjson

If you’ve ever wanted a JSON parser that can unpack directly to fixed-extent C storage (look, ma, no malloc!) I’ve got the code for you.

The microjson parser is tiny (less than 700LOC), fast, and very sparing of memory. It is suitable for use in small-memory embedded environments and deployments where malloc() is forbidden in order to prevent leaked-memory issues.

This project is a spin-out of code used heavily in GPSD; thus, the code has been tested on dozens of different platforms in hundreds of millions of deployments.

It has two restrictions relative to standard JSON: the special JSON “null” value is not handled, and object array elements must be homogenous in type.

A programmer’s guide to building parsers with microjson is included in the distribution.

Sep 19

Request for help – I need a statistician

GPSD has a serious bug somewhere in its error modeling. What it effects is position-error estimates GPSD computes for GPSes that don’t compute them internally themselves and report them on the wire. The code produces plausible-looking error estimates, but they lack a symmetry property that they should have to be correct.

I need a couple of hours of help from an applied statistician who can read C and has experience using covariance-matrix methods for error estimation. Direct interest in GPS and geodesy would be a plus.

I don’t think this is a large problem, but it’s just a little beyond my competence. I probably know enough statistics and matrix algebra to understand the fix, but I don’t know enough to find it myself.

Hundreds of millions of Google Maps users might have reason to grateful to anyone who helps out here.

UPDATE: Problem solved, see next post.

Sep 11

Review: Infinite Science Fiction One

Infinite Science Fiction One (edited by Dany G. Zuwen and Joanna Jacksonl Infinite Acacia) starts out rather oddly, with Zuwen’s introducton in which, though he says he’s not religious, he connects his love of SF with having read the Bible as a child. The leap from faith narratives to a literature that celebrates rational knowability seems jarring and a bit implausible.

That said, the selection of stories here is not bad. Higher-profile editors have done worse, sometimes in anthologies I’ve reviewed.

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Sep 11

Review: Collision of Empires

Collision of Empires (Prit Buttar; Osprey Publishing) is a clear and accessible history that attempts to address a common lack in accounts of the Great War that began a century ago this year: they tend to be centered on the Western Front and the staggering meat-grinder that static trench warfare became as outmoded tactics collided with the reality of machine guns and indirect-fire artillery.

Concentration on the Western Front is understandable in the U.S. and England; the successor states of the Western Front’s victors have maintained good records, and nationals of the English-speaking countries were directly involved there. But in many ways the Eastern Front story is more interesting, especially in the first year that Buttar chooses to cover – less static, and with a sometimes bewilderingly varied cast. And, arguably, larger consequences. The war in the east eventually destroyed three empires and put Lenin’s Communists in power in Russia.

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Sep 10

Review: A Call to Duty

A Call To Duty (David Weber, Timothy Zahn; Baen Books) is a passable extension of Baen Book’s tent-pole Honorverse franchise. Though billed as by David Weber, it resembled almost all of Baen’s double-billed “collaborations” in that most of the actual writing was clearly done by the guy on the second line, with the first line there as a marketing hook.

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Sep 08

Review: The Abyss Beyond Dreams

The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Peter F. Hamilton, Random House/Del Rey) is a sequel set in the author’s Commonwealth universe, which earlier included one duology (Pandora’s Star, Judas Unchained) and a trilogy (The Dreaming Void, The The Temporal Void, The Evolutionary Void). It brings back one of the major characters (the scientist/leader Nigel Sheldon) on a mission to discover the true nature of the Void at the heart of the Galaxy.

The Void is a pocket universe which threatens to enter an expansion phase that would destroy everything. It is a gigantic artifact of some kind, but neither its builders nor purpose are known. Castaway cultures of humans live inside it, gifted with psionic powers in life and harvested by the enigmatic Skylords in death. And Nigel Sheldon wants to know why.

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Sep 03

Reality is viciously sexist

Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female insists an article at It’s complete bullshit.

What you find when you read the linked article is an obvious, though as it turns out a superficial problem. The linked research doesn’t say what the article claims. What it establishes is that a hair less than half of Viking migrants were female, which is no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. The leap from that to “half the warriors were female” is unjustified and quite large.

There’s a deeper problem the article is trying to ignore or gaslight out of existence: reality is, at least where pre-gunpowder weapons are involved, viciously sexist.

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Sep 02

Adverse selection and old technology

Yesterday I shipped cvs-fast-export 1.15, with a significant performance improvement produced by replacing a naive O(n**3) sort with a properly tuned O(n log n) version.

In ensuing discussion on G+, one of my followers there asked if I thought this was likely to produce a real performance improvement, as in small inputs the constant setup time of a cleverly tuned algorithm often dominates the nominal savings.

This is one of those cases where an intelligent question elicits knowledge you didn’t know you had. I discovered that I do believe strongly that cvs-fast-export’s workload is dominated by large repositories. The reason is a kind of adverse selection phenomenon that I think is very general to old technologies with high exit costs.

The rest of this blog post will use CVS as an example of the phenomenon, and may thus be of interest even to people who don’t specifically care about high version control systems.

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