Jul 17

A teaching story

The craft of programming is not a thing easily taught. It’s not so much that the low level details like language syntaxes are difficult to convey, it’s more that (as I’ve written before) “the way of the hacker is a posture of mind”.

The posture of mind is more essential than the details. I only know one way to teach that, and it looks like this…

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Jul 12

Fuzzbombing: abort() calls for great justice!

The Colossal Cave Adventure restoration is pretty much done now. One thing we’re still working on is getting test coverage of the last few corners in the code. Because when you’re up to 99.7% the temptation to push for that last 0.3% is really strong even if the attempt is objectively fairly pointless.

What’s more interesting is the technique one of our guys came up with for getting us above about 85% coverage. After that point it started to get quite difficult to hand-craft test logs to go to the places in the code that still hadn’t been exercised.

But NHorus, aka Petr Vorpaev, is expert at fuzz testing; we’ve been using American Fuzzy Lop, a well-designed, well-documented, and tasteful tool that I highly recommend. And he had an idea.

Want to get a test log that hits a particular line? Insert an abort() call right after it and rebuild. Then unleash the fuzzer. If you’ve fed it a good test corpus that gets somewhere near your target, it will probably not take long for the fuzzer to random-walk into your abort() call and record that log.

Then watch your termination times. For a while we’d generally get a result within hours, but we eventually hit a break after which the fuzzer would run for days without result. That knee in the curve is your clue that the fuzzer has done everything it can.

I dub this technique “fuzzbombing”. I think it will generalize well.

Jul 10

Managing modafinil

For the last year or so I have been deliberately experimenting with a psychoactive, nootropic drug.

You have to know me personally (much better than most of my blog audience does) to realize what a surprising admission this is. I’ve been a non-smoking teetotaller since I was old enough to form the decision. I went through college in the 1970s, the heyday of the drug culture, without so much as toking a joint. I have been open with my friends about having near enough relatives with substance-abuse problems that I suspect I have a genetic predisposition to those that I am very wary of triggering. And I have made my disgust at the idea of being controlled by a substance extremely plain.

Nevertheless, I have good reasons for the experiment. The drug, modafinil (perhaps better known by the trade name Provigil) has a number of curious and interesting properties. I’m writing about it because while factual material on effects, toxicology, studies and so forth is easy to find, I have yet to see useful written advice about why and how to use the drug covering any but the narrowest medical applications.

Before I continue, a caveat that may save both your butt and mine. In the U.S., modafinil is a Schedule IV restricted drug, illegal to use without a prescription. I use it legally. I do not – repeat, do not – advise anyone to use modafinil illegally. I judge the legal restriction is absurd – there are lots of over-the counter drugs that are far more dangerous (ibuprofen will do as an example) – but the law is the law and the drug cops can flatten you without a thought.

Another caveat: Your mileage may vary. This is a field report from one user that is consistent with the clinical studies and other large-scale evidence, but reactions to drugs can be highly idiosyncratic. Proceed with caution and skepticism and self-monitor carefully. You only have one neurochemistry and you won’t like what happens if you break it.

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Jul 05

Gift vs. reputation in hacker culture

A G+ follower pointed me at Note on Homesteading the Noosphere by Martin Sústrik. He concludes saying this:

In short: Labeling open source communities as gift cultures is not helpful. It just muddles the understanding of what’s actually going on. However, given that they are not exchange economies either, they probably deserve a name of their own, say, “reputation culture”.

I’m going to start by saying that I wish I’d seen a lot more criticism this intelligent. It bothers me that in 20 years nobody seems to have refuted or seriously improved on my theories – I see this as a problem, both for the study of hacker culture and in the field of anthropology.

That said, I think Sústrik gets a couple things wrong here. And don’t want them to obscure the large thing he’s gotten right.

First (possible) mistake: I have not observed that, as a matter of language, the term “gift culture” is as hard-edged and specific as he thinks it is. There’s a way we could both be right, though – it might be that terminology has shifted since I wrote HtN. Possibly this came about as part as the revival of interest in the concept that I seem to have stimulated.

But: one piece of evidence that anthropologists are still using “gift culture” in the inclusive sense Sústrik criticizes me for enmploying is that Sústrik himself feels, at the end of the article, that he needs to propose a contrasting term rather than citing one that is already established.

This so far is all about map rather than territory. As a General Semanticist I know better than to get over-invested in it.

Here’s the territory issue: Sústrik is not quite right about expectations of direct reciprocal exchange not being a shaping force. True enough that they aren’t salient at the macrolevel the way they were among the Kwakaka’wakwe. But if I download a piece of open source, and it’s useful to me, and I find a bug in it, I do indeed feel a reciprocal obligation to the project owner (not just an attenuated feeling about the culture in general) to gin up a fix patch if it is at all within my capability to do so – an obligation that rises in proportion to the value of his/her gift.

I should also point out that the cultures Sústrik think are paradigmatic for his strict sense of “gift culture” are mixed in the other direction. There is certainly an element of generalized reputation-seeking in the way individual Kwakaka’wakwe discharged their debts. There, and in the New Guinea Highlands, the “big man” is seen to have high status by virtue of his generosity – he overpays, on the material level, to buy reputation.

In the terms Sústrik wants to use, open-source culture is reputation-driven at both macro-level and microlevel, and also sometimes driven by gift reciprocation in his strict sense at microlevel. The macro-level reputation-seeking and micro-level gift reciprocity feed and reinforce each other.

This brings me to the large thing that Sústrik gets right. I think his distinction between “gift” and “reputation” cultures is fruitful – both testable and predictively useful. While I’m still skeptical about it being in general use among anthropologists, I rather hope I’m mistaken about that – better if it were.

Yes, real-world cultures are probably never pure examples of one or the other. But differentiating the mechanisms – and observing that the Kwakaka’wakwe and hacker culture are near opposing ends of the spectrum in how they combine – that is certainly worthwhile.

As a minor point, Sústrik is also quite right about reciprocal licenses being a red herring in this discussion. But I think he has the reason for their irrelevance mostly wrong. The important fact is they’re not mainly intended to regulate in-group behavior; they’re mainly a lever on the behavior of outsiders coming into contact with the hacker culture.

(It was actually my wife Cathy – a pretty sharp-eyed observer herself, and not coincidentally a lawyer – who brought this to my attention.)

Bottom line, however, is that this was high-quality criticism that got its most central point right. In fact, if I were writing HtN today I would use – and argue for – Sústrik’s distinction myself.