Mar 08

Why I won’t mourn Mozilla

An incredibly shrinking Firefox faces endangered species status, says Computerworld, and reports their user market share at 10% and dropping. It doesn’t look good for the Mozilla Foundation – especially not with so much of their funding coming from Google which of course has its own browser to push.

I wish I could feel sadder about this. I was there at the beginning, of course – the day Netscape open-sourced the code that would become Mozilla and later Firefox was the shot heard ’round the world of the open source revolution, and the event that threw The Cathedral and the Bazaar into the limelight. It should be a tragedy – personally, for me – that the project is circling the drain.

Instead, all I can think is “They brought the fate they deserved on themselves.” Because principles matter – and in 2014 the Mozilla Foundation abandoned and betrayed one of the core covenants of open source.

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Feb 25

Beware cut-price Korean monitors!

There have been a flood of big, cheap monitors (2560×1440 and up) becoming available on TigerDirect and other similar sites recently. But I’m here to tell you that these should come with warning labels, and explain why.

I’ve had some dolorous experiences with the no-name pair of big flatscreens I bought back in 2013 – the things called Aurias that I described in The Agony, the Ectasy, the Dual Monitors. Very recently I finally got both to finally work with enough stability that I’m sure I’ll be keeping them for a while.

But the troubleshooting process was arduous. Along the way I learned some important things, mainly because two friends who are unusually capable hardware troubleshooters actually took the suckers apart in my presence and explained things about the internals and the surrounding market.

Here are some of the things I learned…

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Feb 22

GPSD 3.12 has shipped – bulletproofed from below

I’ve been radio silent the last couple of weeks mainly because I’ve been concentrating furiously on getting a GPSD release out the door. This one is a little more noteworthy than usual because it may actually have fixed a well-hidden flaw or vulnerability of some significance.

Regular readers may recall from back in 2013 that I published a heads-up titled No, GPSD is not the battery-killer on your Android! addressing a power-drain bug reported from a handful of Android phones.

I believed at the time that the proximate cause of the bug was in the kernel serial device-drivers somewhere specific to particular hardware on those phones. I still believe that, because if it had been a purely GPSD problem the error would likely have been much more widespread and I’d have been flooded with complaints.

However, I’ve been concerned ever since that GPSD might not have been doing everything it could to armor itself against bugginess in the layers below it. And a couple of weeks ago I found a problem…

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Feb 02

Me for a Campbell Award? Huh?

It has come to my attention that the Evil League of Evil is attempting to get me shortlisted for the John W. Campbell award.

For those of you not in the know, this is an annual award intended to go to the most promising new writer in SF. It is taken pretty seriously. And my reaction to hearing that I’m being promoted for this is…consternation.

OK, I will stipulate that I think my one published work of SF, the short story Sucker Punch, isn’t bad. If it were someone else’s and I was wearing my reviewer hat, I’d probably say something encouraging about it being a solid, craftsmanlike first effort that delivers what its opening promises and suggests the author might be able to deliver quality work in the future.

But, Campbell Award material? A brilliant comet in the SF firmament I am not. I don’t really feel like I belong on that shortlist – and if I’m wrong and I actually do, I fear for the health of the field.

What bothers me more is the suspicion that my name has been put forward for what amount to political reasons. So here’s what I have to say about that

I’m not going to object to anyone voting for me. But by the Great God Ghu and the shade of Robert Heinlein, please don’t do it because you think I have the right politics, or to get up the nose of people you think have the wrong politics. Vote for me only if you think the actual work merits it.

It’s not that I necessarily object to politically-focused awards in principle. If I were to write an excellent libertarian SF novel and get nominated for a Prometheus partly because libertarians liked the politics, that would be OK. It won’t happen, because I’m one of the judges for that award, but in an alternate universe I wouldn’t mind.

But I didn’t write Sucker Punch as a political argument. I wrote it as a way of beginning to give something back to the SF field for all it has given me, and I want it to be judged on its merits as part of that tradition, not as a counter in a tribal political scrum.

To push the point further…I have, as it happens, an unfinished SF novel set in a libertarian future in my trunk. But, supposing I finish and publish Shadows and Stars, I won’t want to have it judged more by its politics than by its quality as a work of SF in the classic style. S&S isn’t a political argument, and I would therefore be disappointed if it were received as one.

If you vote for a Campbell award nominee, or a Hugo, or any other award, this is my plea: screw the partisanship. Vote on merit. And if I get any votes I promise to be pleasantly shocked.

Jan 15

Love is the simplest thing

There’s an idea circulating that two people who want to be in romantic love can get there by performing a simple procedure that steps them through asking and answring 35 questions and ends with staring into each others’ eyes for 4 minutes.

I don’t know if these reports are true or not. But I’m writing to oppose the gut reaction I think most people have on hearing them, which is that it can’t possibly be that easy because romantic love is this tremendously complex mysterious mystery thing. And if it is that simple, it’s wrong.

I don’t think so. Even if this procedure doesn’t actually have a high success rate, there will be one that does, given certain basics. The basics are: the participants must be of mutually compatible sexual orientations and must smell good to each other.

Why do I believe this? Because of what romantic love is for.

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Jan 12

Review: Gun Control in the Third Reich

Stephen P. Halbrook’s Gun Control in the Third Reich is a book that every advocate of “gun control” in the modern U.S. and elsewhere should read – but almost certainly never will.

Most other historians have ignored or outright suppressed the role of weapons law and weapons confiscations in the Nazi imposition of totalitarianism on Germany before World War II. Thus it is forgotten that the legal pretext for the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938 was the confiscation of all firearms from Jewish owners. And that most of the first major wave of Jews sent to the concentration camps went there on charges of illegal possession of weapons.

Gun control was not an incidental feature of Nazi tyranny, it was one of the central tools of totalitarian repression and genocide. If Halbrook’s book had no other virtues, the reminder of this stark fact would be enough to recommend it.

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Jan 05

How do we explain the nonstandard nerd?

I spent parts of the the last couple of days reading the archives of the very thought-provoking blog Slate Star Codex. Two posts on it, Untitled and Why No Science Of Nerds? have reawakened my interest in the question of what exactly we mean when we describe someone as a “nerd” or a “geek”.

I’ve been applying the techniques of anthropological fieldwork to hackers and various allied subcultures such as SF fandom for more than a quarter century now. I think I can fairly claim to know a geek or nerd when I meet one. I’ve written before about Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers: on language boundaries. Yet what Slate Star Codex reminds me of is that all we have to explain about why this population and its cluster of linked subculture exists is a cloud of not-very-well-confirmed folk theory.
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Which is maybe a problem, because geeks and nerds matter. Modern civilization couldn’t function without them – its tech infrastructure would collapse. Might be nice if we could optimize these people – help them be happier and more productive.

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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.