May 20

California Dreamin’

If it is impossible for something to continue indefinitely, it will eventually stop.

The politics of the modern redistributionist state is founded on the assumption that politicians can buy votes by promising voters ever more munificent entitlements – from federal deposit insurance against bank failures to government-subsidized medical care – with the money for these things always somehow being painlessly extracted from somebody else.

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May 17

Is Danish Dying?

Some years ago I did a speaking tour in Scandinavia that involved staying in Denmark for a couple of days. Denmark, like the other Scandinavian nations I’ve visited, is a tidy little country full of intelligent, civilized, and agreeable people. As long as you can get along with gray sub-arctic weather and gray, characterless food these are interesting places to be – well, at least for someone with my strong interest in history and archeology. Historical museums, here I come!

But while I was in Denmark I kept tripping over odd facts that pointed to a possibly disturbing conclusion: though the Danes don’t seem to notice it themselves, their native language appears to me to be dying. Here are some of the facts that disturbed me:

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May 07

Engage the balonium generator, Scotty!

I enjoy a game called “Commands and Colors: Ancients”, which I’ve blogged about here before. It’s a simulation of tactical ancient warfare that uses special dice to resolve battles. In any given battle you can consider each six-sided die to have faces labeled with the symbols Miss, Miss, Hit, Sword, Helmet, Flag. To improve my play, I decided to generate and study a table of the odds of getting a specified number of hits when a specified number of dice is rolled. I set out to write a Python program to do this.

There are special circumstances under which flags and helmets convert to hits, so the program actually needs to print out several tables and is not entirely trivial. Still, it is computing on a mathematically simple model with strictly bounded computational cost – except for war elephants. These units have the special ability that when they roll a sword, the sword is counted as a hit and then rerolled. (This may make more sense if you think of a sword roll as representing impact damage.) You keep rolling and marking hits as long as the die keeps coming up swords.

To calculate the non-elephant probabilities I enumerated eight entire state spaces for each of 1 to 8 dice (the most you can ever roll under the rules – takes Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar leading a Heavy unit with the the Clash of Shields +2 bonus active), then counted up instances of each distinct outcome (so many misses, hits, swords, flags, banners) to assign a probability mass to each.

(Statisticians often think in terms of probability mass or probability weight, which has to be conserved as a distribution changes. It’s analogous to thinking of electricity as a fluid.)

I then had to write code to mutate a copy of each distribution according to the elephants’ sword-reroll rule. To do this, each outcome containing a sword hit needs its probability mass divided by six and reallocated to itself and five other outcomes with one fewer sword apiece; you stop reallocating when the probability mass on a sword-containing outcome drops below a very low noise level.

That particular piece of code gave me more trouble than the rest of the program put together. At one point I grumbled to a friend who had been following the project “I’m having persistent bugs in my probability mass reallocator.”

He looked right back at me and said, with a perfectly straight face, “Have you considered reversing the polarity of the neutron flow?”

May 06

What I have learned from science fiction

I began reading science fiction almost exactly 40 years ago, when my family was passing through Orly airport in Paris while moving from London to Rome. My parents liked to encourage all five of their kids to read; we were told we could have one magazine of our choice from the newsstand. I picked a copy of Analog, a magazine I’d never seen before. It had a gorgeous Kelly Freas cover featuring a man being menaced by a dinosaur-like creature with gorgeous polychrome scales. I have it still.

Science fiction has given me entertainment and escapism, for sure – but it has given me ever so much more than just that. It has given me puzzles to chew on, examples to admire, philosophical questions to mull over. By thinking about fictional worlds, I learned a perhaps surprising amount about the real one – not so much facts as useful habits of thought, perspectives, fruitful ways of asking questions.

Here are some of them…

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May 02

I may have to disable IntenseDebate

I may have to disable IntenseDebate. The interface for approving/deleting/spam-flagging posts seems broken since sometime yesterday; I suspect some sort of database problem at intensedebate.com, as my local Javascript hasn’t changed.

If you have left a comment which has not appeared, have patience. I will try untangling the mess from my home machine Sunday night when I get home from my current road trip.

Apr 30

Irrational Expectations

The reactions to my posting on the economic case against the GPL reminded me yet again why failure to understand basic economics often becomes more toxic in people who think they understand a bit about the subject. In this mini-essay, I’ll take a look at the most important (and misleading) of the superficially clever arguments I saw in responses.

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Apr 27

RMS issues ukase against Software as a Service – and I agree it’s an iffy idea

In a recent O’Reilly interview, Richard Stallman utters an anathema against software-as-a-service arrangements, calling them “non-free” and saying “you must not use it!” It would be easy to parody RMS’s style of uttering grave moralistic sonorities as though he were the Pope speaking ex-cathedra, but I’m going to resist the temptation because I think in this case his concerns are quite valid.

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Apr 02

Hyperpower and high finance

In a 2002 blog entry, Imperialists by necessity?, I wrote:

There is precedent [for civilizing barbarians by force]; the British did a pretty good job of civilizing India and we did a spectacularly effective one on Japan. And the U.S. would be well equipped to do it again; our economy is now so large that we could run a globe-spanning empire from the petty-cash drawer. Seriously. The U.S, a hyperpower so dominant that no imaginable coalition of other nations could defeat it at conventional warfare, spends a ridiculously low percentage of GNP (6%, if I recall correctly) on its military.”

A commenter ask how the financial crisis in the U.S. (and elsewhere) changes this, and others brought up the possibility that the U.S. could be starved of critical resources . My answers are: it changes less than you might think, and a hearty guffaw. There are a couple of facts on the ground that it’s easy to lose sight of during the political panic of the week.

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Mar 29

Freeing technical standards

I grew up on Internet RFCs, so technical standards issued under licenses that forbid free redistribution offend me. Every such document, whether intentionally or not, is a device for hindering open-source software projects and privileging closed-source developers with big budgets and lawyers to hand.

They offend me even more when (as, for example, when the GPS reporting standard NMEA 0183) the proprietary “standard” is so badly designed that a mob of crack-addled rhesus monkeys could have done a better job – and for this they want me to pay? They offend me the absolute most when the “standard” is distribution-restricted, expensive, badly written, and its topic is a safety-critical technology – so that people could actually die because some jerk wants to collect a trivial amount of secrecy rent on a standard that was crappy to begin with.

Fortunately, there is a way to monkeywrench the organizations that perpetrate this sort of thing – and I’ve spent a substantial part of the last couple of weeks doing exactly that. I’m writing about it here to encourage others to do likewise.

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Mar 26

Please forget to FLOSS

In email to a third party, copied to me, Linux activist and long-time friend Rick Moen comments on the acronym FLOSS (usually explanded “Free, Libré, and Open Source”.

I continue to find it difficult to take seriously anyone who adopts an excruciatingly bad, haplessly obscure acronym associated with dental hygiene aids. We learned in the late 1990s a number of lessons about how not to market free / open source, and the idiots who keep coming up with bad ideas like “FLOSS” and “FOSS” are determined to rush, like urban-legend lemmings, off the very cliff of PR incompetence that we so painfully learned to finally avoid, a decade ago. I’m sorry, but those people need to be cluebombed and routed around until they stop shooting at everyone’s feet.

I couldn’t have put it better myself, so I’m not going to try.

Near as I can figure, the only appeal this term has is a sort of lily-livered political correctness, as though people think they’d be making an ideological commitment that will cause petulant screaming from a million basements if they pick “open source” or “free software”.

Well, speaking as the guy who promulgated “open source” to abolish the colossal marketing blunders that were associated with the term “free software”, I think “free software” is less bad than “FLOSS”. Somebody, please, shoot this pitiful acronym through the head and put it out of our misery.

Rick adds:

The problem with [FOSS and FLOSS] isn’t merely that that they sound like goofy nutjob organisation investigated by Emma Peel and John Steed. Worse, it is that neither term can be understood without first understanding both free software and open source, as prerequisite study.

That isn’t merely gross marketing failure; it’s a semantic black hole that sucks marketing into it, never to be seen again. It’s a finely executed study in nomenclature incompetence – and I can’t help noticing it’s promoted by, among others, the same crowd who were doing such a masterful job of keeping free software an obscure ideology prior to 1998.

Er. Yes. Quite…

Mar 18

Doug McIlroy makes my day

Yeah, that’d be the Doug McIlroy. Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie’s boss when they were inventing Unix, himself one of its early co-designers, and the inventor of the Unix pipe.

He was very helpful when I was doing The Art of Unix Programming in 2003. Hadn’t heard from him since then until he emailed me out of the blue today to say good things about the manual I wrote for GNU PIC. Good Web rendering here; googling may turn up other copies.

He said:

I just read your manual for gnu pic. It’s a great job.
I’ve found that almost invariably follow-on descriptions of
Unix are either (1) too verbose or (2) too incomplete. When I
saw the page count I instinctively assigned this document to
category 1. But I had to read it, for man pic on Linux is
category 2. Only after I had finished and revised my opinion
to “this is a real keeper” did I go back to the title page to
see who wrote it.

Praise from the master is praise indeed. I am a happy Eric today.

I haven’t felt quite like this since Donald Knuth emailed me a bug fix for INTERCAL…

Mar 14

Sugar and the Bathroom Demon

I am now going to blog about my cat.

No, I have not succumbed to the form of endemic Internet illness in which someone believes the cuteness of his or her feline surpasses all bounds and must therefore be shared with the entire universe. But my cat’s behavior raises some interesting questions about animal (and human!) ethology, which seem worth a little thinking time. There are three things that puzzle me in particular: the nature of the bathroom demon, some aspects of her nurturing behavior, and the mystery of the purr.

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