Dec 27

Pave the rainforests!

For decades – and I do mean decades – I’ve been saying that any environmentalist who is really serious about reducing fossil-fuel use and CO2 emission should be agitating to switch the power infrastructure to using nuclear plants for the baseload as fast as possible.

But when the facts change, I change my mind. I was wrong. There is new, direct, observational evidence that the most effective thing we could do to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere is pave over the tropical rainforests.

Don’t believe me? Look at this map of CO2 emissions by region. It’s brand-new data from NASA’s just-lofted Orbiting Carbon Observatory.

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Dec 24

Self-sacrifice as hacker-culture glue

I’ve just had an insight I find a bit disturbing. Though perhaps I shouldn’t.

Occasionally I visit Scott Alexander’s excellent and thoughtful blog, Slate Star Codex. Today’s entry reminded me of Laurence Iannaccone’s research on Sacrifice and Stigma, which argues that onerous religious requirements are effective ways of building in-group trust because they are commitment signals that are difficult to fake.

It occurred to me to wonder: do hackers do this? And…I think we do.

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Dec 22

The temptation to choose sides

One of the most unfortunate social behaviors of human beings is that in the presence of any dispute, they feel a strong need to choose a side. And then stick with it, even when their chosen side behaves very badly.

I’m reminded of this with particular force in the aftermath of Ismaayil Brinsley’s revenge assassination of two policemen in New York. The facts couldn’t really be any clearer here; Brinsley planned to murder police in retaliation for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, announced what he planned, did it, and then shot himself through the head to avoid capture.

Since then, reactions to the incident have divided along predictable lines – made more predictable by Brinsley’s being nearly as perfect a real-life nexus of evil as one could ask for. Marxist? Check. Koran-spouting jihadi? Check. Violent felon? Check. Nutcase? Check? (I think we can stipulate that shooting his own girlfriend in the stomach establishes the last.)

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Dec 19

Open source theory is rooted in evolutionary psychology

Yesterday I realized, quite a few years after I should have, that I have never identified in public where I got the seed of the idea that I developed into the modern economic theory of open-source software – that is, how open-source “altruism” could be explained as an emergent result of selfish incentives felt by individuals. So here is some credit where credit is due.

Now, in general it should be obvious that I owed a huge debt to thinkers in the classical-liberal tradition, from Adam Smith down to F. A. Hayek and Ayn Rand. The really clueful might also notice some connection to Robert Trivers’s theory of reciprocal altruism under natural selection and Robert Axelrod’s work on tit-for-tat interactions and the evolution of cooperation.

These were all significant; they gave me the conceptual toolkit I could apply successfully once I’d had my initial insight. But there’s a missing piece – where my initial breakthrough insight came from, the moment when I realized I could apply all those tools.

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Dec 14

“Riding the Red Horse” is out

Step right up for my first SF sale, the lead story in Riding The Red Horse. That’s the Amazon link; it’s also available as DRM-free epub direct from Castalia.

Also included, my nonfiction analysis of the effect of battlefield lasers on military airpower, a development likely to transform warfare in the coming century as radically as the deployment of automatic weapons did around the beginning of the last one.

Dec 13

Progress towards the extinction of CVS

The Great Beast, designed for converting large CVS repos, is now in full production. It hasn’t killed off any specimens in the wild yet (and I’ll explain why in a bit), but it’s doing spectacularly well on our test repositories.

As a representative large example, the entire Emacs CVS history, 1985-2009, 113309 CVS commits, lifts clean in 37 seconds at a sustained rate of 3K CVS commits a second. Yes, three thousand.

The biggest beast known to us, the NetBSD src repository, converts in 22 minutes. To give some idea of what a speedup this is, the first time I ran a lift on it – on one of Wendell’s Xeon machines – it took a bit under six hours. That’s about a factor of seventeen, there.

Judging by performance on the other project devs’ machines the Beast is good for a 2x to 3x speedup over a conventionally-balanced PC design (that is, one with worse RAM latency, narrower caches, more cores but somewhat lower single-thread speed). That’s a big enough advantage to validate the design and be practically significant on large repositories.

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Dec 12

Another step on the martial path

Cathy and I passed our Level 6 test in kuntao last night.

That’s the hybrid martial art we study, part traditional wing chun and part Philippine kali. The empty hand stuff is mostly wing chun, a South Chinese close-fighting style which … OK, if you don’t know much about martial arts just imagine the fights in The Matrix without the high kicks. The weapons stuff is mostly kali, knife and stick and (relatively short) sword.

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Dec 07

The Great Beast is here!

The good folks from TekSyndicate showed up yesterday with a pile of parts and did final assembly of the Beast in my dining room. A&D regular John Bell remoted in last night to finish the setup. I’m actually blogging on it now as the last of my work environment transfers over from the old snark.

What a beautiful machine it is! The interior of the NZXT case is even more impressive live than it is in photos. It runs whisper-quiet.

During the next several hours we’ll be filming documentary and interview footage. I’ll announce here when and where the video is available.

UPDATE: I have now had a chance to profile performance on some of the benchmark repos. I’m seeing speedups of between a factor of three (on Emacs CVS) and twenty (on groff CVS). The entire NetBSD src repository, 288K commits and 37GB of content, converts in 22 minutes.

Dec 06

Worse than racism

Recently, in New York City, a man named Eric Garner was strangled to death on the street by police. It was all caught on video. It was a nightmare sequence that made me think of George Orwell’s description of the future in 1984: a boot stamping on a human face, forever.

Eric Garner was black. The policeman who choked him to death was white.

Some people want to make this horror about race. I find myself wishing they were right – that just once, the racial grievance peddlers weren’t basically making up inflammatory crap that canonizes thug trash like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Because as bad as violent racism is, I’m afraid that what actually killed Eric Garner was something far worse.

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Dec 04

Me and Less Wrong

I’ve gotten questions from a couple of different quarters recently about my relationship to the the rationalist community around Less Wrong and related blogs. The one sentence answer is that I consider myself a fellow-traveler and ally of that culture, but not really part of it nor particularly wishing to be.

The rest of this post is a slightly longer development of that answer.

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Nov 29

Why labor unions have lost their moxie

A lot of U.S. economic policy is distorted by the belief that manufacturing jobs are a magic bullet against declining incomes. Manufacturing’s false promise of a decent payday punctures that illusion.

One of the dumb, predictable responses to articles like this is “We need a stronger union movement”. Sorry, but no. Declining manufacturing wages aren’t an effect of the weakening of unions and can’t be reversed by strengthening them. Explanation follows.

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Nov 25

Like a football player, head down

OK, this is interesting: From some tabloid, we have the following quote:

The unidentified witness wrote that the 18-year-old Brown “has his arms out with attitude,” while “The cop just stood there.” The witness added, “Dang if that kid didn’t start running right at the cop like a football player. Head down.”

This is exactly how I reconstructed the event in This picture tells a shooting story. I said: the reason I’m sure Brown was moving is the extreme torso angle suggested by the lack of exit wounds on the back. A human trying to do that standing still would overbalance and fall, which is why I think he was running or lunging when he took the bullets.

The witness said “arms out with attitude”. I said “with his right arm stretched forward [...] probably while Brown was grabbing for Wilson or the pistol with his right hand.”

So much for “Hands up – don’t shoot.” It’s as I thought: Brown autodarwinated, bull-rushing an armed policeman he had already injured once.

UPDATE: I failed to make clear before that this account was part of the evidence dump from the grand jury proceedings, not just some random the tabloid turned up.

Nov 16

SRC 0.9: Ready for the less adventurous now

I just shipped SRC 0.9, and you no longer need to be adventurous to try it. It has a regression-test suite and real users.

Remarkably, SRC has had real users since 0.3, two days after it was born. Even more remarkably, the count of crash reports and botched operations from those users is zero. Zero. This is what you can gain from keeping code simple – I have has a couple of bug reports but they were both about filename quoting in the fast-export code, which is not a central feature.

Next, I’ll make a couple of what I think are important points about writing for zero defects. Then I’ll talk about a subtle issue or two in the design, and our one known behavioral glitch.

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