Oct 31

Cognitive disinhibition: not the whole story of genius

Here’s an interesting article with a stupid and misleading title on the role of what the author calls “cognitive disinhibition” – a fancy term for “allowing oneself to notice what others miss” – in enabling creative genius.

While in many ways I could be a poster child for Simonton’s thesis (and I’ll get to those) I also think there are some important things missing from his discussion, which is why I’m blogging about it. The most crucial problem is that his category of “madness” is not sharp enough. I know how to fine it down in a way that I think sheds considerable light on what he is trying to analyze.

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Oct 29

When hackers grow old

Lately I’ve been wrestling with various members of an ancient and venerable open-source development group which I am not going to name, though people who regularly follow my adventures will probably guess which one it is by the time I’m done venting.

Why it so freaking hard to drag some people into the 21st century? Sigh…

I’m almost 56, an age at which a lot of younger people expect me to issue semi-regular salvos of get-off-my-lawn ranting at them. But no – I find, that, especially in technical contexts, I am far more likely to become impatient with my age peers.

A lot of them really have become grouchy, hidebound old farts. And, alas, it not infrequently falls to me to be the person who barges in and points out that practices well-adapted for 1995 (or, in the particular case I’m thinking of, 1985) are … not good things to hold on to decades later.

Why me? Because the kids have little or no cred with a lot of my age peers. If anyone’s going to get them to change, it has to be someone who is their peer in their own perception. Even so, I spend a lot more time than seems just or right fighting inertia.

Young people can be forgiven for lacking a clue. They’re young. Young means little experience, which often leads to unsound judgment. It’s more difficult for me to forgive people who have been around the track often enough that they should have a clue, but are so attached to The Way It’s Always Been Done that they can’t see what is in front of their freaking noses.

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Oct 24

Moving the NetBSD repository

Some people on the NetBSD tech-repository list have wondered why I’ve been working on a full NetBSD repository conversion without a formal request from NetBSD’s maintainers that I do so.

It’s a fair question. An answer to it involves both historical contingency and some general issues about moving and mirroring large repositories. Because of the accident that a lot of people have recently dropped money on me in part to support an attack on this problem, I’m going to explain both in public.

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Oct 20

Building the perfect beast

I’ve attempted to summarize the discussion of build options for the repository-surgery machine. You should see a link at the top of the page: if not, it’s here

I invite all the commenters who have shown an interest to critique these build proposals. Naturally, I’d like to make sure we have a solid parts list with no spec conflicts before we start spending money and time to build this thing.

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Oct 18

Black magic and the Great Beast

Something of significance to the design discussion for the Great Beast occurred today.

I have finally – finally! – achieved significant insight into the core merge code, the “black magic” section of cvs-fast-export. If you look in merge.c in the repo head version you’ll see a bunch of detailed comments that weren’t there before. I feel rather as Speke and Burton must have when after weeks of hacking their way through the torrid jungles of darkest Africa they finally glimpsed the source of the Nile…

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Oct 17

Spending the “Help Stamp Out CVS In Your Lifetime” fund

I just shipped cvs-fast-export 1.21 much improved and immensely faster than it was two weeks ago. Thus ends one of the most intense sieges of down-and-dirty frenzied hacking that I’ve enjoyed in years.

Now it comes time to think about what to do with the Help Stamp Out CVS In Your Lifetime fund, which started with John D. Bell snarking epically about my (admittedly) rather antiquated desktop machine and mushroomed into an unexpected pile of donations.

I said I intend to use this machine wandering around the net and hunting CVS repositories to extinction, and I meant it. If not for the demands of the large data sets this involves (like the 11 gigabytes of NetBSD CVS I just rsynced) I could have poked along with my existing machine for a good while longer.

For several reasons, including wanting those who generously donated to be in on the fun, I’m now going to open a discussion on how to best spend that money. A&D regular Susan Sons (aka HedgeMage) built herself a super-powerful machine this last February, and I think her hardware configuration is sound in essentials, so that build (“Tyro”) will be a starting point. But that was eight months ago – it might be some of the choices could be improved now, and if so I trust the regulars here will have clues to that.

I’ll start by talking about design goals and budget.

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Oct 16

A low-performance mystery: Sometimes you gotta simplify

This series of posts is increasingly misnamed, as there is not much mystery left about cvs-fast-export’s performance issues and it is now blazingly, screamingly, bat-out-of-hell fast. As in both threaded and unthreaded version convert the entire history of groff (15593 CVS deltas in 1549 files in 13 seconds flat. That would be about 10K CVS commits per minute, sustained; in practice the throughput will probably fall off a bit on very large repositories.

I achieved the latest doubling in speed by not succumbing to the temptation to overengineer – a trap that lays in wait for all clever hackers. Case study follows.

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Oct 14

A low-performance mystery: the adventure continues

The mystery I described two posts back has actually been mostly solved (I think) but I’m having a great deal of fun trying to make cvs-fast-export run even faster, and my regulars are not only kibitzing with glee but have even thrown money at me so I can upgrade my PC and run tests on a machine that doesn’t resemble (as one of them put it) a slack-jawed yokel at a hot-dog-eating contest.

Hey, a 2.66Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo with 4GB was hot shit when I bought it, and because I avoid bloatware (my window manager is i3) it has been sufficient unto my needs up to now. I’m a cheap bastard when it comes to hardware; tend to hold onto it until I actually need to upgrade. This is me loftily ignoring the snarking from the peanut gallery, except from the people who actually donated money to the Help Stamp Out CVS In Your Lifetime hardware fund.

(For the rest of you, the PayPal and Gratipay buttons should be clearly visible to your immediate right. Just sayin’…)

Ahem. Where was I? Yes. The major mystery – the unexplained slowdown in stage 3 of the threaded version – appears to have been solved. It appears this was due to a glibc feature, which is that if you link with threads support it tries to detect use of threads and use thread locks in stdio to make it safe. Which slows it down.

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Oct 12

A low-performance mystery, part deux

Well, the good news is, I get to feel wizardly this morning. Following sensible advice from a couple of my regulars, I rebuilt my dispatcher to use threads allocated at start time and looping until the list of masters is exhausted.

78 LOC. Fewer mutexes. And it worked correctly first time I ran it. W00t – looks like I’ve got the hang non-hang of this threads thing.

The bad news is, threaded performance is still atrocious in exactly the same way. Looks like thread-spawn overhead wasn’t a significant contributor.

In truth, I was expecting this result. I think my regulars were right to attribute this problem to cache- and locality-busting on every level from processor L1 down to the disks. I believe I’m starting to get a feel for this problem from watching the performance variations over many runs.

I’ll profile, but I’m sure I’m going to see cache misses go way up in the threaded version, and if I can find a way to meter the degree of disk thrashing I won’t be even a bit surprised to see that either.

The bottom line here seems to be that if I want better threaded performance out of this puppy I’m going to have to at least reduce its working set a lot. Trouble is, I’m highly doubtful – given what it has to do during delta assembly – that this is actually possible. The CVS snapshots and deltas it has to snarf into memory to do the job are intrinsically both large and of unpredictably variable size.

Maybe I’ll have an inspiration, but…Keith Packard, who originally wrote that code, is a damn fine systems hacker who is very aware of performance issues; if he couldn’t write it with a low footprint in the first place, I don’t judge my odds of second-guessing him successfully are very good.

Ah well. It’s been a learning experience. At least now I can say of multi-threaded application designs “Run! Flee! Save yourselves!” from a position of having demonstrated a bit of wizardry at them myself.

UPDATE: One of my regulars found a minor bug in the mutex handling that cost some performance. Alas, fixing this didn’t have any impact above the noise level of my profiling. Also, I managed to unify the threaded and non-threaded dispatchers; the LOC specific to threading is now down to about 30.

Oct 11

A low-performance mystery

OK, I’ll admit it. I’m stumped by a software-engineering problem.

This is not a thing that happens often, but I’m in waters relatively unknown to me. I’ve been assiduously avoiding multi-threaded programming for a long time, because solving deadlock, starvation, and insidious data-corruption-by-concurrency problems isn’t really my idea of fun. Other than one minor brush with it handling PPS signals in GPSD I’ve managed before this to avoid any thread-entanglement at all.

But I’m still trying to make cvs-fast-export run faster. About a week ago an Aussie hacker named David Leonard landed a brilliant patch series in my mailbox. Familiar story: has a huge, gnarly CVS repo that needs converting, got tired of watching it grind for days, went in to speed it up, found a way. In fact he applied a technique I’d never heard of (Bloom filtering) to flatten the worst hot spot in the code, an O(n**3) pass used to compute parent/child links in the export code. But it still needed to be faster.

After some discussion we decided to tackle parallelizing the code in the first stage of analysis. This works – separately – on each of the input CVS masters, digesting them into in-core revision lists and generating whole-file snapshots for each CVS delta; later these will become the blobs in the fast-export stream. Then there’s a second stage that merges these per-file revision lists, and a third stage that exports the merged result.

Here’s more detail, because you’ll need it to understand the rest. Each CVS master consists of a sequence of deltas (sequences of add-line and delete-line operations) summing up to a sequence of whole-file states (snapshots – eventually these will become blobs in the translated fast-import-stream). Each delta has an author, a revision date, and a revision number (like 1.3 or Implicitly they form a tree. At the top of the file is a tag table mapping names to revision numbers, and some other relatively unimportant metadata.

The goal of stage 1 is to digest each CVS master into an in-core tree of metadata and a sequence of whole-file snapshots, with unique IDs in the tree indexing the snapshots. The entire collection of masters is made into a linked list of these trees; this is passed to stage 2, where black magic that nobody understands happens.

This first stage seems like a good target for parallelization because the analysis of each master consists of lumps of I/O separated by irregular stretches of compute-intensive data-shuffling in core. In theory, if the program were properly parallelized, it would seldom actually block on an I/O operation; instead while any one thread was waiting on I/O, the data shuffling for other masters would continue. The program would get faster – possibly much faster, depending on the time distribution of I/O demand.

Well, that’s the theory, anyway. Here’s what actually happened…

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Oct 09

Implementing re-entrant parsers in Bison and Flex

In days of yore, Yacc and Lex were two of the most useful tools in a Unix hacker’s kit. The way they interfaced to client code was, however, pretty ugly – global variables and magic macros hanging out all over the place. Their modern descendants, Bison and Flex, have preserved that ugliness in order to be backward-compatible.

That rebarbative old interface generally broke a lot of rules about program structure and information hiding that we now accept as givens (to be fair, most of those had barely been invented at the time it was written in 1970 and were still pretty novel). It becomes a particular problem if you want to run multiple instances of your generated parser (or, heaven forfend, multiple parsers with different grammars) in the same binary without having them interfere with each other.

But it can be done. I’m going to describe how because (a) it’s difficult to extract from the documentation, and (b) right now (that is, using Bison 3.0.2 and Flex 2.5.35) the interface is in fact slightly broken and there’s a workaround you need to know.

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Oct 05

In which I have reason to sound like Master Po

This landed in my mailbox yesterday. I reproduce it verbatim except for the sender’s name.

> Dear authors of the RFC 3092,
> I am writing this email on behalf of your Request For Comment “Etymology of
> ‘Foo’.” We are currently learning about the internet organizations that set
> the standards of the internet and our teacher tasked us with finding an RFC
> that was humorous. Me and my two friends have found the “Etymology of
> ‘Foo'” and have found it to be almost as ridiculous as the RFC about
> infinite monkeys; however, we then became quite curious as to why you wrote
> this. Obviously, it is wrote for humor as not everything in life can be
> serious, but did your manager task you to write this? Are you a part of an
> organization in charge of writing humorous RFC’s? Are you getting paid to
> write those? If so, where do you work, and how may we apply? Any comments
> on these inquiries would be greatly appreciated and thank you in advance.
> Sincerely,
> XXXXXXXXXXXXXX, confused Networking student

I felt as though this seriously demanded a ha-ha-only-serious answer – and next thing you know I was channeling Master Po from the old Kung Fu TV series. Reply follows…

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Oct 03

RFC for a better C calendaring library

In the process of working on my Time, Clock, and Calendar Programming In C document, I have learned something sad but important: the standard Unix calendar API is irremediably broken.

The document list a lot of consequences of the breakage, but here I want to zero in on what I think is the primary causes. That is: the standard struct tm (a) fails to be an unambiguous representation of time, and (b) violates the SPOT (Single Point of Truth) design rule. It has some other more historically contingent problems as well, but these problems (and especially (a)) are the core of its numerous failure modes.

These problems cannot be solved in a backwards-compatible way. I think it’s time for a clean-sheet redesign. In the remainder of this post I’ll develop what I think the premises of the design ought to be, and some consequences.

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Oct 03

48-hour release heads-up for Time-Clock-Calendar HOWTO

I’ve been gifted with a lot of help on my draft of Time, Clock, and Calendar Programming In C. I think it’s almost time to ship 1.0, and plan to do so this weekend. Get your last-minute fixes in now!

I will of course continue to accept corrections and additions after 1.0. Thanks to everyone who contributed. My blog and G+ followers were very diligent in spotting typos, helping fill in and correct standards history, and pointing out the more obscure gotchas in the API.

What I’ve discovered is that the Unix calendar-related API is a pretty wretched shambles. Which leads directly to the topic of my next blog entry…

Oct 02

Press silence, black privilege, and unintended consequences

A provocative article at the conservative blog Hot Air comments on a pattern in American coverage of violent interracial crimes. When the perps are white and the victims are black, we can expect the press coverage to be explicit about it, with predictable assumption of racist motivations. On the other hand, when the perps are black and the victims are white, the races of all parties are normally suppressed and no one dares speak the r-word.

If I were a conservative, or a racist, I’d go off on some aggrieved semi-conspiratorial rant here. Instead I’ll observe what Hot Air did not: that the race of violent black criminals is routinely suppressed in news coverage even in the much more common case that their victims are also black. Hot Air is over-focusing here.

That said, Hot Air seems to have a a separate and valid point when it notes that white victims are most likely to have their race suppressed from the reporting when the criminals are black – especially if there was any hint of racist motivation. There is an effective taboo against truthfully reporting incidents in which black criminals yell racial epithets and threats at white victims during the commission of street crimes. If not for webbed security-camera footage we’d have no idea how depressingly common this seems to be – the press certainly won’t cop to it in their print stories.

No conspiracy theory is required to explain the silence here. Reporters and editors are nervous about being thought racist, or (worse) having “anti-racist” pressure groups demonstrating on their doorsteps. The easy route to avoiding this is a bit of suppressio veri – not lying, exactly, but not uttering facts that might be thought racially inflammatory.

The pattern of suppression is neatly explained by the following premises: Any association of black people with criminality is inflammatory. Any suggestion that black criminals are motivated by racism to prey on white victims is super-inflammatory. And above all, we must not inflame. Better to be silent.

I believe this silence is a dangerous mistake with long-term consequences that are bad for everyone, and perhaps worst of all for black people.

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