Apr 27

My open-source project is cooler than yours

Yes, GPSD is way cooler than your project. You know how I can tell?

Because my latest feature request is from a scientist who wants to use GPSD as part of the control software for an autonomous robot submarine. That’s how I can tell.

No word yet on whether the robot submarine will have a frickin’ laser mounted on its frickin’ head. But I’m hoping.

Apr 22

Apple, postmodern consumerism and the iPad

It’s not very often that I feel impelled to quote someone else’s blog post in its entirety, But Ann Althouse says of the iPad

I have it, and I feel like I could be using it. But I don’t really use it. Maybe I think I’m going to be using it. But I also think it’s possible that I’m never going to use it. I seem to have a need for it, but I have other things that fit that need that I go back to instead over and over again. And yet there it is, over there. I think I’m going to be going there, maybe later. Maybe tomorrow.

Amazing. The iPad is the ultimate Steve Jobs device – so hypnotic that not only do people buy one without knowing what it’s good for, they keep feeling like they ought to use it even when they have better alternatives for everything it does. It’s a triumph of style over substance, cool over utility, form over actual function. The viral YouTube videos of cats and two-years-olds playing with it speak truth in their unsurpassable combination of draw-you-in cuteness with utter pointlessness. It’s the perfect lust object of postmodern consumerism, irresistibly attractive but empty – you know you’ve been played by the marketing and design but you don’t care because your complicity in the game is part of the point.

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Apr 21


For any of you who happen to be in Southeast Michigan or its environs, Cathy and I will be attending Penguicon from April 30th to May 2nd.

A&D regular Ken Burnside will be there as well, sharing a room with us and hawking his excellent 3D space games – Attack Vector: Tactical, Squadron Strike and others. He’ll be teaching those games too, possibly with me at the table.

A&D regular Jay Maynard will be attending as well. Probably in full Tron Guy drag, at least part of the time.

Join us for a weekend of “You got your Linux geekery in my science fiction convention! Yeah, well, you got your science fiction stuff in my Linux convention!” Two great tastes that taste great together.

Apr 20

Hear, O Nobly Born: The Way of the Hacker

I get several requests in an average week from people who want me to teach them the way of hacking. Yesterday I got an unusually witty one in the form of a mystical poem, imploring me to accept the author as a disciple. I replied that I don’t know how to do what he seems to want, which is to pour the essence of hacking in through his ears or something. He replied that he was pretty sure I’d say that, but had been hoping for a reply in the manner of The Loginataka.

I told him “Sorry, I was distracted.” Then I wrote this:

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Apr 19

Incentives to be Open

A correspondent pointed me at a paper by Carliss Baldwin and Eric von Hippel, Modeling a Paradigm Shift: From Producer Innovation to User and Open Collaborative Innovation, which builds on my papers in some interesting ways. Here’s one of the money quotes:

Building on arguments of Ghosh (1998), Raymond (1999), and von Hippel and von
Krogh (2003), Baldwin and Clark (2006 b) showed formally that, if communication costs are low
relative to design costs, then any degree of modularity suffices to cause rational innovators that
do not compete with respect to the design being developed to prefer collaborative innovation
over independent innovation. This result hinges on the fact that the innovative design itself is a
non-rival good: each participant in a collaborative effort gets the value of the whole design, but
incurs only a fraction of the design cost.

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Apr 15

Pandora’s Biases

Back in February I experimented with Pandora Radio and loved it…enough that I bought a subscription within a few days. It’s my background music now; I might never own an analog radio again.

For a while I ran around telling all my friends about how Pandora was the greatest thing! since sliced bread! you should try it! But I’ve stopped doing that, because I’ve learned that it doesn’t work as well for other people…starting with my wife. I think I know why, and it reveals an interesting failure mode of all such systems.

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Apr 12

Adventures in feline ethology, part three

A while back, in Sugar and the Bathroom Demon, I blogged about the knotty questions of evolutionary biology and ethology that engage me when I interact with my cat. I returned to this theme in The Nose of Peace.

And today I have something new to report. My cat, at the age of 16, has noticed something novel in the world: the cat in the mirror. This is interesting because it feeds into a fascinating theory: we produce cognitive uplift in our pets.

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Apr 08

IBM: Now trying to dig out…

IBM has issued another statement on the TurboHercules imbroglio. This one is reported by the Linux Foundation, but comes from Dan Frye. Dan Frye heads IBM’s Linux Technology Center and was actually at the top of my mental shortlist of likely voices of sanity over there. (Full disclosure: Dan kept me supplied with IBM Thinkpads for a couple of years as a thank-you gesture.)

The good news is that Dan says IBM will stand by the letter of its 2005 pledge. Furthermore, the second sentence of Dan’s pledge leaves no room for doubt that Hercules is a covered project. This is in flat contradiction to whatever brainless droid the Wall Street quoted yesterday on IBM reserving some right to decide that Hercules is ineligible. It also contradicts the previous implication that IBM is prepared to go to court over those two patents.

The bad news is that Dan leaves open the possibility that IBM may sue over the other close to 200 patents. I think it’s important not to overreact to this; his statement was clearly immediate damage control rather than a final ukase. The effect is that IBM now looks as though somebody with a clue has woken up to how much reputation damage their previous blunders have done them.

My guess is that the matter is now being debated (or soon will be) at a level higher than Frye or either of the pair of clowns who had previously made IBM’s posture look so very wrong. This might, still, blow over.

But IBM should hear this, loud and clear: the letter of your pledge is not enough. You cannot simultaneously hold yourself forth as an ally of open source and conduct patent warfare against an open-source project. Betrayal stings; we won’t abide it, and I wouldn’t argue that we should even if I thought I could win that argument. If you try to have this both ways, you will enrage the community more than if you had been a frank enemy all along.

Understand that our intransigence on this score this is only partly on behalf of Hercules itself. We detest the patent weapon, even in the hands of a sometime ally, because we fear it so much. What IBM does in this matter will set a precedent for the behavior of others; if IBM chooses to set the wrong precedent, it will make enemies of us.

Apr 08

You have ascended

Redoubtable hacker Chip Salzenberg wrote me last night with the subject line “You have ascended”. I quote in full:

Long time no chat. Hope you are well. In fact, I don’t have to hope, because I just read this in a book:

Raymond in his brilliant The Cathedral and the Bazaar [2001] …

That’s all well and good, and I know enough authors not to be excessibly impressed by publication.

Thing is, this book is by Fred Brooks. As in, Brooks’ Law.

Oh My Lack Of God.

Do you have a halo now, or maybe a relic to protect you from feature creep?

After boggling for a few minutes, I wrote back:

I can almost top this. Donald Knuth once sent me a bug fix. For INTERCAL.

Hmmm.. Now, where did I stash that Amulet of Yendor?

If you found the preceding exchange cryptic, you need to get out more are probably a normal human being with, like, a life. How sad for you.

Apr 07

IBM: Digging itself in deeper

Yesterday I blogged about the escalating dispute between IBM and TurboHercules SAS. I said, and will repeat now, that the central issue for the open-source community in this matter is not the antitrust allegations, but rather the fact that IBM has raised a patent threat alleging that Hercules violates its intellectual property. And especially, that IBM in doing so has cited two patents that were explicitly listed in its 2005 pledge to the open-source community.

IBM has now made matters worse. Much worse.

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Apr 06

IBM: Back to the Bad Old Days?

Sadly, Florian Mueller’s scream of outrage (IBM breaks the taboo and betrays its promise to the FOSS community is not an April Fool’s joke. IBM has done what it swore not to in 2005 – picked up the patent weapon and aimed it to block an open-source project.

I was thoroughly briefed on this about ten days ago by Jay Jurata, a lawyer working for CCIA (Computer and Communications Industry Association), which is even now bringing an antitrust action against IBM over the matter. Assisting him was Jay Maynard, an Armed & Dangerous regular who happens to be the lead of a project called Hercules.

Hercules is an open-source emulator for IBM mainframes. Words cannot easily describe my degree of bogglement the first time Jay brought it up an a Linux laptop in my presence and I saw the unmistakable arcane runes of a 360 boot sequence – and in an old-school band-printer-style font, too. Now, after 11 years during which IBM nodded when its own employees used and contributed to Hercules, Big Blue has brought down the hammer.

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Apr 05

The iPad: Second Coming of the Newton?

The just-released and much hyped iPad is Apple’s second foray into hawking a tablet computer. And all the reasons Steve Jobs would like us to forget that are, in fact, good reasons to remember the Newton and the fact that it never became more than an early-adopter status toy. It, too, was greeted with hosannahs by rapturous Apple fans and a bedazzled trade press back in 1992 – but who remembers it today?

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Mar 31

Autotools must die

Me, on the GPSD mailing list:

Once upon a time, I did not hate autotools. Yea verily, it was the morning of the world and all things (even autotools) seemed fresh and new). I’d say this innocence lasted until about, oh, 1995.

But autotools was a kluge. And it did accrete kluges and crocks around it, adding layers of complexity until it became sore difficult to tell which end was up. And lo, it became a festering pile of special cases and obscure semi-documented rules, leading to a combinatorial explosion of unplanned interactions and obscure lossage.

Like, say, the fact that our make check insists on running gps-makeregress twice and in spite of being a genuine autotools expert with fifteen years of experience bear-wrestling the sorry fscker I cannot figure out why it is doing this.

Oh, there’s a reason, all right. And if I were willing to quintuple the three hours I just spent poking at our build setup I’m sure I could find it. But that was three hours wasted as far as solving any real problem was concerned. Life is too short for such nonsense.

Autotools has reached the Chandrasekhar mass limit of software and become a black hole of suck that consumes endless hours of bright peoples’ time without any good result. It is well past time for it to die.

Mar 24

Scenes from the Life of a System Architect

I’ve been doing some heavy work on the core code of gpsd recently, and realized it would be a good idea to explain the whys and wherefores to my co-developers on the project. After I wrote my explanation and reread it, I realized I had managed to generate something that might be relatively accessible, and perhaps even interesting, to people who aren’t intimate with the GPSD codebase.

I guess I’m aiming this at junior programmers and particularly curious non-programmers. It’s a slice of what software systems design — the thing that project leads and architects do — is like in the real world, where the weight of history is often as pressing as today’s requirements list. I think this note shows an example of doing it right, or at least not getting it too badly wrong.

If you find the technicalese in here difficult, it may be useful to refer back to some of my previous posts about this project:

GPSD and Code Excellence

GPSD-NG: A Case Study in Application Protocol Evolution

Why GPSes suck, and what to do about it

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Mar 23

Victimology bites

Dr. Richard Friedman’s Sabotaging Success, but to What End?, published 2010-03-22 in the New York Times, is about an instantly recognizable pattern — people who sabotage themselves so they can feel like martyred victims of an uncaring world.

The piece is insightful and even funny in a bleak sort of way, but as I read through it I felt an increasing sense that there was something missing from this story. I was nearly at the end before I realized what had been lurking unspoken in Dr. Friedman’s account. But the crucial clue had been there from the beginning, when he writes of one patient “In fact, her status as an injured party afforded her a psychological advantage: she felt morally superior to everyone she felt had mistreated her. This was a role she had no intention of giving up.” Where…now, where had I heard that song before?

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Mar 17

In search of: FTL taxonomy

I’ve been troping again. This time I found and repaired the TV Tropes page on Faster Than Light Travel. It had previously made a distinction between three subtypes of FTL drive: “jump”, “warp”, and “shortcut”. The “shortcut” category was confused and confusing, and I’ve renamed it to “portal” and fixed the definitions of both “portal” and “warp” subtropes.

I’m now looking for earliest occurrences and trope codifiers on these subtypes. I think I have one nailed down, but I can’t push the other two back very far. Instances and cites are solicited.

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Mar 13

Subversion to GIT Migration: A Tale of Two Gotchas

I’ve been wanting to migrate the GPSD codebase off Subversion to a distributed version control system for many months now. GPSD has a particular reason for DVCS; our developers often have to test GPSD sensors outdoors and aren’t necessarily in range of WiFi when they do it.

GPSD also needs to change hosting sites, for reliability reasons I’ve written about before. Though I’m a fan of Mercurial, I determined that moving to git would give us a wider range of hosting options. Also, git and hg are similar enough to make intermigration really easy – from SVN to either is 90% of the way to the other.

This blog entry records two problems I ran into, and solutions for them. One is that the standard way of converting repos does unfortunate things with tags directories. The second is that the CIA hook scripts for git are stale and rather broken.

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