May 30

Defect attractors

There’s a phrase I’ve used on this blog more than once that I had reason to Google just now and found that (to my surprise) the top hits are mostly my writings. It is “defect attractor”.

In this post I’m going to explain why I think this is an important concept that needs to be in the toolkit of every software engineer, and talk about the practice it implies.

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May 28

The new science of Indo-European origins

I’ve had a strong amateur interest in historical linguistics since my teens in the early 1970s.

Then, as today, a lot of the energy in that field was focused in the origins and taxonomy of the Indo-European family – the one that includes English and the Latin-derived and Germanic languages and Greek and also a large group of languages in northern India and Persia. This is not only because most linguists are Europeans, it’s because there’s a massively larger volume of ancient literature in this family than can be found anywhere else in the world – there’s more to go on.

People have been trying to pin down the origin of the Indo-European language family and identify the people who spoke its root language for literally centuries. Speculations that turn out not to have been far wrong go back to the 1600s(!) and serious work on the problem, some of which is still considered relevant, began in the late 1700s.

However, until very recently theory about Indo-European origins really had to be classed as plausible guesses rather than anything one could call well-confirmed. There were actually several contending theories, because linguistic reconstruction of the root PIE (Proto-Indo-European) language was sort of floating in midair without solid enough connections to archaeological and genetic evidence to be grounded.

This has changed – dramatically – in the last five years. But there isn’t yet any one place you can go to read about all the lines of evidence yet; nobody has written that book as of mid-2018. This post is intended to point readers at a couple of sources for the new science, simply because I find it fascinating and I think my audience will too.

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May 25

A touch in the night

Occasionally I have dreams that seem to be trying to assemble into the plot of an SF novel – weird and fractured as dreams are, but with something like a long-form narrative struggling to develop.

Occasionally I have nightmares. I don’t know how it goes for anybody else – and one reason I’m posting this is to collect anecdotal data in the comments – but if I wake up from a nightmare and then fall asleep shortly afterwards, it may grab hold of me again.

Yesterday morning I woke up about 5AM remembering one I’d just had. This is how it went, and how it ended…

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May 23

Review: The Fractal Man

The Fractal Man (written by J.Neil Schulman, soon to be available on Amazon) is a very, very funny book – if you share enough subcultural history with the author to get the in-jokes.

If you don’t – and in particular if you never met Samuel Edward Konkin – the man known as known as “SEKIII” to a generation of libertarians and SF fans before his tragically early death in 2004 – it will still be a whirligig of a cross-timeline edisonade, but some bits might leave you wondering how the author invented such improbabilities. But I knew SEKIII, and if there was ever a man who could make light of having a 50MT nuclear warhead stashed for safekeeping in his apartment, it was him.

David Albaugh is a pretty good violinist, a science-fiction fan, and an anarchist with a bunch of odd and interesting associates. None of this prepares him to receive a matter-of-fact phone call from Simon Albert Konrad III, a close friend who he remembers as having been dead for the previous nine years.

His day only gets weirder from there, as SAKIII and he (stout SF fans that they are) deduce that David has somehow been asported to a timeline not his own. But what became of the “local” Albaugh? Before the two have time to ruminate on that, they are both timeshifted to a history in which human beings (including them) can casually levitate, but there is no music.

Before they can quite recover from that, they’ve been recruited into a war between two cross-time conspiracies during which they meet multiples of their own fractals – alternate versions of themselves, so named because there are hints that the cosmos itself has undergone a kind of shattering that may have been recent in what passes for time (an accident at the Large Hadron Collider might have been involved). One of Albaugh’s fractals is J. Neil Schulman.

It speeds up to a dizzying pace; scenes of war, espionage, time manipulations, and a kiss-me/kill-me romance between Albaugh and an enemy agent (who also happens to be Ayn Rand’s granddaughter), all wired into several just-when-you-thought-it-couldn’t-go-further-over-the-top plot inversions.

I don’t know that the natural audience for this book is large, exactly, but if you’re in it, you will enjoy it a lot. Schulman plays fair; even the weirdest puzzles have explanations and all the balls are kept deftly in the air until the conclusion.

Assuming you know what “space opera” is, this is “timeline opera” done with the exuberance of a Doc Smith novel. Don’t be too surprised if some of it sails over your head; I’m not sure I caught all the references. Lots of stuff blows up satisfactorily – though, not, as it happens, that living-room nuke.

May 13

I saw Brand X live a few hours ago

I saw Brand X live a few hours ago. Great jazz-fusion band from the 1970s, still playing like genius maniacs after all these years. Dropped $200 on tickets, dinner for me and my wife, and a Brand X cap. Worth. Every. Penny.

Yeah, they saved “Nuclear Burn” for the encore…only during the last regular number some idiot managed to spill water on Goodsall’s guitar pedals, making it unsafe for him to play. So that blistering guitar line that hypnotized me as a college student in 1976 had to be played by their current keyboardist, Scott Weinberger. And damned if he didn’t pull it off!

Brilliant performance all round. Lots of favorites, some new music including a track called “Violent But Fair” in which this band of arcane jazzmen demonstrated conclusively that they can out-metal any headbanger band on the planet when they have a mind to. And, of all things, a whimsical cover of Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions”.

The audience loved the band – nobody was there by accident, it was a houseful of serious prog and fusion fans like me. The band loved us right back, cracking jokes and goofing on stage and doing a meet-and-greet after the show.

I got to shake Goodsall’s hand and tell him that he had rocked my world when I first heard him play in ’76 and that it pleases me beyond all measure that 40 years later he’s still got it. You should have seen his smile.

Gonna wear that Brand X cap next time I go to the pistol range and watch for double-takes.

“Nuclear Burn” by Brand X

May 12

Draining the manual-page swamp

One of my long-term projects is cleaning up the Unix manual-page corpus so it will render nicely in HTML.

The world is divided into two kinds of people. One kind hears that, just nods and says “That’s nice,” having no idea what it entails. The other kind sputters coffee onto his or her monitor and says something semantically equivalent to “How the holy jumping fsck do you think you’re ever going to pull that off?”

The second kind has a clue. The Unix man page corpus is scattered across tens of thousands of software projects. It’s written in a markup – troff plus man macros – that is a tag soup notoriously resistent to parsing. The markup is underspecified and poorly documented, so people come up with astoundingly perverse ways of abusing it that just happen to work because of quirks in the major implementation but confuse the crap out of analysis tools. And the markup is quite presentation oriented; much of it is visual rather than structural and thus difficult to translate well to the web – where you don’t even know the “paper” size of your reader’s viewer, let alone what fonts and graphics capabilities it has.

Nevertheless, I’ve been working this problem for seventeen years and believe I’m closing in on success in, maybe, another five or so. In the rest of this post I’ll describe what I’m doing and why, so I have an explanation to point to and don’t have to repeat it.

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May 09

Embrace the SICK

There’s a very interesting article just out, C Is Not a Low-level Language;. in which David Chisnall punctures the comforting illusion that C is really a “close-to-the-metal” language and relates this illusion to the high costs of Spectre and other processor-level bugs.

Those of us who think seriously about language design have long been aware that C’s flat-address-space model is increasingly at odds with the real world of memory-caching hierarchies. Chisnall’s main contribution is to notice that speculative execution, the feature at the bottom of the Spectre and Meltdown bugs, is essentially a hack implemented to allow C programmers to maintain the illusion that they’re running on a really fast serial machine.  But he has other interesting points as well.

I recommend reading Chisnall’s article before you go further with this post.

It’s no news to my regulars that I’ve been putting increasing investment into the Go language and now believe it a plausible candidate to replace C and C++ over most of C/C++’s range – that is, outside  of kernels and hard realtime.  So the question that immediately occurred to me upon reading the article was: Is Go necessarily productive of the same kind of kludge that Chisnall is calling out?

Because if it is – but something else isn’t – that could be a reason not to overcommit to Go.  The twin pressures of demand for lower security defects and the increasing complexity costs of speculative execution are bound to toll heavily against Go if it does demand massive speculative execution and there’s any realistic alternative that does not. Do we need something much more divergent from C (Erlang? Ocaml? Even perhaps Haskell?) for systems programming to follow where the hardware is going?

So let’s walk through Chisnall’s discussion points, bounce Go off each one, and see what we can see.  What we’ll find implies, I think, some more general conclusions about what will and won’t work in matching language design to real-world workloads and processor architectures.

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May 05

Friends of Armed & Dangerous gathering 2018

The 2018 edition of the annual Friends of Armed & Dangerous FTF will be held in room 821 of the Southfield Westin in Southfield, MI between 9 p.m. and 12 p.m. this evening.

If you are at Penguicon, or in the neighborhood and can talk yourself yourself in, come join us for an evening of scintillating conversation and mildly exotic refreshments.

May 02

Review: The Mutineer’s Daughter

I greatly enjoyed Thomas Mays’s first novel, A Sword Into Darkness, and have been looking forward to reading the implied sequel. His new collaboration with Chris Kennedy, The Mutineer’s Daughter, isn’t it.

Instead, we get a crossover YA/space-opera that is a bit cramped by having been written to the conventions of the YA form. Also because, if a reliable source is reliable, it was Mays writing to an outline by Kennedy. Where Mays’s heart is – in the space-opera parts – the result has some sparkle and a bit of originality. In the YA parts it is competently executed but strictly from tropeville.

For a plot and setting teaser see its Amazon page -accurate enough, if empurpled. It is also worth noting that this is another book in which the author(s) carefully studied the Atomic Rockets website and gained much thereby.

This is not a bad book; Mays gave it craftsmanlike attention. If you like things going boom in space, you will probably enjoy it even if you are ever so slightly irritated by the insert-plucky-girl-here plot. It proceeds from premise to conclusion with satisfactory amounts of tension and conflict along the way. As long as you don’t set your expectations much above “genre yard goods” it is an entertainment worth your money.

But I’m left thinking that not only can Mays do better on his own, but in fact already has. I want that sequel.