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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Feb 23

Why GPSes suck, and what to do about it

I’m the lead of the GPSD project, a service daemon that monitors GPS receivers on serial or USB ports and provides TPV (time-position-velocity) reports in a simple format on on a well-known Internet port. GPSD makes this job looks easy. But it’s not — oh, it’s decidedly not — and thereby hangs an entertaining tale of hacker ingenuity versus multiple layers of suck.

Continue reading

Feb 12

Translation Errors

God Wants You Dead is an entertaining and subversive little book that reminded me of a well-known controversy in the translation of the Judeo-Christian Bible. Most educated people probably know that in Isaiah 7:14 it is prophesied that the Messiah will be born of an ‘almah’ of the House of David — and thereby hangs an ambiguity over which much ink and blood have been spilled.

Reading this, I was reminded of something most people don’t know — that a similar translation problem lurks even nearer the root of Christian theology…

Continue reading

Jan 26

The sound of empire falling, episode 2

From “200 Laptops Break a Business Model” in the pages of the New York Times:

So who’s up, who’s down and who’s out this time around? Microsoft’s valuable Windows franchise appears vulnerable after two decades of dominance. Revenue for the company’s Windows operating system fell for the first time in history in the last quarter of 2008. The popularity of Linux, a free operating system installed on many netbooks instead of Windows, forced Microsoft to lower the prices on its operating system to compete.

Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin!

Continue reading

Jan 13

Scenes from Mixed Martial Arts

There’s a classic Warner Brothers cartoon from 1951 1948 in which Bugs Bunny takes on a huge, evil bruiser of a fighter called the Crusher. One of the funniest bits is a scene where Bugs is grunting and straining in an attempt to shift one of the Crusher’s legs. The viewpoint pans back and we se the Crusher completely ignoring this feeble effort, playing solitaire on the wrestling mat.

Continue reading

Jan 11

Master Foo and the Nervous Novice

There was a novice who learned much at the Master’s feet, but felt something to be missing. After meditating on his doubts for some time, he found the courage to approach Master Foo about his problem.

“Master Foo,” he asked “why do Unix users not employ antivirus programs? And defragmentors? And malware cleaners?”

Master Foo smiled, and said “When your house is well constructed, there is no need to add pillars to keep the roof in place.”

The novice replied “Would it not be better to use these things anyway, just to be certain?”

Master Foo reached for a nearby ball of string, and began wrapping it around the novice’s feet.

“What are you doing?” the novice asked in surprise.

Master Foo replied simply: “Tying your shoes.”

Upon hearing this, the novice was enlightened.

(Other koans here.)

Jan 10

The Politics of Lexicography, or How To Become Normative Without Really Trying

One of many hats I wear is that of a lexicographer. In 1990 I began maintaining the Jargon File, still available on my website and released as three paper editions in 1991, 1993, and 1996. At the time, I was a bit nervous about what I might learn if a “real” lexicographer ever showed up to critique the work. Would I be told that my efforts were amateurish, shoddy, and marred by methodological error?

Continue reading

Jan 09

My comment to the FCC on DRM

This comment is not confidential; I grant unconditional permission to republish it in full.

DRM is a disaster for everyone involved with it, because it cannot do what it claims but imposes large costs in the process of failing. The people who have sold DRM technologies to Big Media are frauds playing on the ignorance of media executives, and both the media companies and the consumer have suffered greatly and unnecessarily as a result.

DRM cannot do what it claims for at least three reasons. First, pirates readily bypass it by duplicating physical media. Second, DRM algorithms cannot “see” any data that the host device does not present to them; thus, they can always be spoofed by a computer emulating an environment in which the DRM algorithm thinks release is authorized. Third, for humans to view or hear the content it must at some point exit the digital realm of DRM to a screen and speakers; re-capturing the data stream at that point bypasses any possible protections.

DRM can make casual copying difficult, but cannot thwart any determined attack. Piracy operations operating on a scale sufficient to affect the revenue streams of media companies laugh at DRM. They know it is sucker bait, injuring ordinary consumers but impeding piracy not one bit.

In the process of failing, the DRM fraud imposes large costs. DRM makes consumer electronics substantially more expensive, failure-prone, and subject to interoperability failures than it would otherwise be. It makes media content less valuable to honest consumers by making that content difficult to back up, time-shift, or play on “unauthorized” devices. All too commonly, technical failures somewhere in a chain of DRM-equipped hardware lock consumers out of access to content they have paid for even in the manner the vendor originally intended to support.

But the worst effect of the DRM fraud is that it generates pressure to cripple general-purpose computers in an attempt to foil emulation attacks. As a society, we can live with silly restrictions on device-shifting the latest blockbuster movie, but we cannot tolerate (for example) attempts to prevent PCs from running software not certified in advance by a consortium of Big Media companies. Yet that – and even more draconian restrictions – is where the logic of the DRM fraud inexorably leads. Such measures have already been advocated under the misleading banner “trusted computing”, and half-attempts at them routinely injure today’s computer users.

I would not ask the FCC to ban DRM, even if that were within its remit. Markets will teach the media companies that DRM is folly, just as markets taught software companies that “copy protection” was a losing game back in the 1980s. What the federal government can and should do is decline to prop up the DRM fraud with laws or mandates.

Specifically, if the “broadcast flag” or any other similar measure is again proposed, the FCC should reject it. To the extent that FCC regulatory or administrative action can mitigate the damage and chilling effects caused by the DMCA’s so-called “anti-circumvention” provisions, that should be attempted. Most generally, the FCC should make policy with the understanding that when media companies claim that DRM is useful and effective, they are not only misleading the FCC but deluding themselves.