Aug 27

Risk, Verification, and the INTERCAL Reconstruction Massacree

This is the story of the INTERCAL Reconstruction Massacree, an essay in risk versus skepticism and verification in software development with a nod in the general direction of Arlo Guthrie.

About three hours ago as I began to write, I delivered on a promise to probably my most distinguished customer ever – Dr. Donald Knuth. Don (he asked me to call him that, honest!) had requested a bug fix in INTERCAL, which he plans to use as the subject of a chapter in his forthcoming book Selected Papers on Fun And Games. As of those three hours ago Donald Knuth’s program is part of the INTERCAL compiler’s regression-test suite.

But I’m not actually here today to talk about Donald Knuth, I’m here to talk about risk versus skepticism and verification in software engineering – in five part harmony and full orchestration, using as a case study my recent experiences in (once again) calling INTERCAL forth from the realm of the restless dead.

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Aug 24

Three kinds of teleology

Some comments on my last post sidetracked into a discussion of evolution, teleology and design and under what circumstances the language of “purpose” or “intention” can reasonably applied to a natural system. I’ve had a new insight while thinking about that discussion, so I’m going to write about it a bit more. And yes, I am aware that this discussion may appear to overlap with Daniel Dennett’s notion of the intentional stance, but I’m actually addressing a different set of issues.

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Aug 23

Organic guilt

I have a confession to make. I buy “organic” food, and I feel rather guilty about it.

My wife and I were in the local Wegman’s the other day (Wegman’s is worth a rant by itself; I’ll get back to Wegman’s) poking around in the “Nature’s Market” section where they keep the organic food. “Aha!” says my wife, “here’s something you’d like,” and held up a small bag labeled “Gone Nuts: Cilantro Lime Mojo” with, underneath it in smaller type, “Pistachios and Pepitas”.

I seized the bag and looked on the back. “Pure food ingredients” it trumpeted.
“No weird stuff added. INGREDIENTS: Raw Pistachios, Sprouted Organic Pumpkin Seeds, Organic Lime Juice, Organic Fresh Cilantro, Organic Spices, Organic Jalapeno, Organic Cold Pressed Olive Oil, Himalayan Crystal Salt and Lime Oil.” My mouth watered. “Oh Goddess,” I muttered in her direction, “it’s packaged crack for me…”

Ah, but then came the deadly disclaimers. “VEGAN GLUTEN-FREE NO GMOs NO TRANS FAT.” and “We support local and fair-trade sources growing certified organic, transitional, and pesticide-free products.” Aaaarrrgggh! Suddenly my lovely potential snack was covered with an evil-smelling miasma of diet-faddery, sanctimony, political correctness, and just plain nonsense. This, I find, is a chronic problem with buying “organic”.

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Aug 22


I saw The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone’s I-want-to-be-a-blockbuster action flick, just after it opened. I found it a curiously listless affair, considering all the star power and special-effects money lavished on it, but it’s taken me a week to realize why. Stallone, who wrote and directed and stars in the film, misses his target by a mile. Or, more likely, he couldn’t decide where to aim.

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Aug 13

I cast a wish into the air

Being admired by lots of open-source geeks can be useful in unexpected ways. Probably the most extreme example I can recall is the Linux user group that once asked me to speak at a conference in Kansas City and rewarded me by paying for the ammunition at a local gun range where I got to fire fully-automatic weapons for the first and so far only time in my life. Though, come to think of it, the Korean LUG that gave me a tour of the DMZ complete with a trip down a captured North Korean infiltration tunnel was up there, too.

I was thinking about some of the more unusual experiences I’ve had of the road earlier today and it occurred to me that there’s one that almost happened, at Linucon 1, but didn’t because some insurance or municipal-health bureaucrat forced the conference to cancel the event. I’ve regretted it ever since.

So here it is. I don’t do a lot of road trips any more, but if your LUG or university is thinking about how to get me to give a talk, I have an unfulfilled wish…

Someday, I want to help judge a chili cook-off.

Hey, I like chili. I have some foodie tendencies and a good nose; I’d probably do the judging thing as competently as anybody who isn’t a professional cook. There it is; maybe some geek in a chiliaceous part of the U.S. will see this and go “Yeah. We could do that…” And a good time would be had by all.

A barbecue cook-off would also be quite acceptable :-)

Aug 13

Oracle sues Google over Java implementation methods.

Oracle has just sued Google over implementation methods used in the Dalvik virtual machine at the heart of the Android operating system. The complaint alleges knowing and willful infringement of seven patents originally issued to Sun Microsystems.

Oracle has retained Boies, Schiller & Flexner. One wonders if they’ll be any more competent than they were on the SCO lawsuit…

Results of a quick skim of the patents follow.

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Aug 11

A world without “ESR”

One of my commenters speculated as follows:

Perhaps I overestimate him, but I suspect that without Eric our choice would be Richard Stallman or Bill Gates without much in between. That isn’t a pretty picture. Maybe Linus Torvalds would have help fill the vacuum, or perhaps someone else would have stepped up.

Because I think at least part of the time like a historian/anthropologist, I’ve actually spent a fair amount of effort contemplating what the world might look like if I hadn’t affected it. The more general and interesting question this touches (and what makes this particular instance actually worth thinking about) is a familiar one in historiography: to what extent the times make the man versus the man making the times.

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Aug 10

Shameless name-dropping

I hold in my hand an extract of a draft manuscript paper-mailed to me by Donald Knuth.

It is titled “TPK in INTERCAL” and it has a handwritten note from Don offering a bug bounty of 0x$1.00.

In it, I am quoted three times.

If my grin were any wider, it would hurt.

I believe the proper item of contemporary slang for me to utter would be “Squee!”

Aug 09

Breaking free of the curse of the gifted

In what threatens to become a semi-regular series, I give you a plea for help that landed in my mailbox this morning, anonymized, and my response. Querent’s situation is not unique; what’s unusual is his ability to self-diagnose and his willingness to ask for help.

I have diagnosed myself with what you described (here) as ‘the curse of the gifted’. I am currently seeking advice as to how to correct this and would greatly appreciate it if you could help me.

When I was a boy, pretty much everybody would call me ‘genius’. I got top grades in school and yadda-yadda. I am now but a shadow of what people would think of me: I have really hit the point where my brains alone can’t take me any further. I have to work hard, but I don’t know how.

Problem is, I’m so far down this rabbit hole that I’m actually afraid of failure. I know I should be taking risks and doing my best, but I simply can’t. I didn’t leave my country to look for a better future in a bigger one because I was afraid to leave the safety of my parent’s house. I stick to my day job because here there are so many ways to hide from real work and real challenges. I don’t contribute to open source or even start my own pet projects because I know that at the first obstacle I’m gonna drop them.

I often find myself wishing that I still were the “genius” that I was before (which I think to be a clear symptom of the condition), thinking that If something doesn’t come smoothly to me than I shouldn’t even bother.

How to cure this? How to learn discipline? How to learn how to work hard?

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Aug 08

Android the Inexorable

CNET reported a few days ago (while I was busy at the World Boardgaming Championships, or I’d have blogged on this sooner) that Android hits top spot in U.S. smartphone market.

There’s a boatload of bad news in the numbers for Apple fans, but no surprises for anyone who has been following my strategic analyses for the last seven months. In the first quarter Android new sales passed Apple’s but ran second behind Blackberry sales; in the second quarter, Android has passed Blackberry and opened up an 11% gap in front of iPhone sales.

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Jul 31

Spam inundation may result in lost posts

The amount of bot-spam being posted to this blog has gone up by an order of magnitude in the last week.

I wouldn’t bother my readers about this, except that if one of your posts happens to trigger the spam filter, the odds that I will notice and rescue it have dropped significantly. It’s easier to notice the ham in a dozen putative items of spam, which was the typical length of queue last week, than when the queue is 217 items long as it was just now.

This probably means akismet, the WordPress shared spamtrap that I use, needs some tuning. But I don’t know when or even if that problem will be fixed. Apologies for any inconvenience.

Jul 28

Sometimes, ancestry matters

I’ve written before, on several occasions, about solving the problem of racism by strict individualism – a studied refusal to allow what we know about genetic population differences and differing means in measures like IQ to distort our judgment of individuals. The bell curve is not the point; the mass is not the individual. Ancestry is not destiny. Sanity demands that we recognize the difference.

But ancestry may matter after all. I’m going to tell you a personal story now about one of the most powerful moments in my life. I’m not sure what it meant, or if it meant anything at all. But it was certainly interesting to live through.

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Jul 27

How not to sign NDAs

If you’re any kind of consultant or contract programmer, and you’re an open-source person, one of the persistent minor (and sometimes not-so-minor) irritations of doing business is NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements). Your client will often want you to sign one. About 1% of the time they’re protecting actual business-critical information; the other 99% they’re suffering from an unfounded delusion that they’re protecting business-critical information – but the rigamarole is 100% annoying 100% of the time. Besides, even if (like me) you consider it a point of personal honor not to blab things you’ve been told in confidence, you probably have a philosophical objection to being gagged.

I haven’t signed an NDA in least the last 12 years of active consulting, and over my entire 27 years of such I’ve maybe signed a grand total of two NDAs, and I’ll never sign one again. Herewith, a short course in how to evade them.

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Jul 21

Double Vision

Yesterday I discovered that Donald Knuth at least occasionally reads my blog. I only half-jokingly reported a vague feeling that I ought to be falling to my knees and crying “I’m not worthy!” In response, a “v. m. smith” popped up in my comments to say this:

Dude, you have written at least two books (that I have read) and possibly more. I have never read any of Knuth’s books, so I am forced to consider this hypothesis:

You might be worthy.

Of course, it’s only a hypothesis.

At this I laughed so hard that my eyes watered. That last line! I’m going to be giggling about it for weeks. But, you know, once I calmed down, I realized that “v. m. smith” had an actual point. Which led me to some interesting thoughts about fame, double vision and personal identity – how we choose to become what we are.

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Jul 20

Donald Knuth reads my blog?

Received in email from Donald Knuth’s secretary:

I know from your blog that you’re doing lots of real important stuff these days. So I’m sure you want a break; you clearly must be ready to hack INTERCAL just once more.

Huh…Donald Knuth reads my blog?

Um…Donald Knuth reads my blog?

Wha…Donald Knuth reads my blog?

Eric clutches the nearest piece of furniture as the universe spins dizzily around him.

Eric successfully resists a vague feeling that he ought to fall to his knees and cry out “I’m not worthy!”

Er. Well then. I guess I’ll have to ship another release of INTERCAL, won’t I?

Jul 18


Good causes sometimes have bad consequences. Blacks, women, and other historical out-groups were right to demand equality before the law and the full respect and liberties due to any member of our civilization; but the tactics they used to “raise consciousness” have sometimes veered into the creepy and pathological, borrowing the least sane features of religious evangelism.

One very notable pathology is a form of argument that, reduced to essence, runs like this: “Your refusal to acknowledge that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…} confirms that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}.” I’ve been presented with enough instances of this recently that I’ve decided that it needs a name. I call this general style of argument “kafkatrapping”, and the above the Model A kafkatrap. In this essay, I will show that the kafkatrap is a form of argument that is so fallacious and manipulative that those subjected to it are entitled to reject it based entirely on the form of the argument, without reference to whatever particular sin or thoughtcrime is being alleged. I will also attempt to show that kafkatrapping is so self-destructive to the causes that employ it that change activists should root it out of their own speech and thoughts.

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Jul 17

Jobs Crashing to Earth

The stench of desperation must be getting pretty thick on the Infinite Loop. Can it be that the generator for Steve Jobs’s notorious Reality Distortion Field has finally broken down?

Two days ago, we learned that Jobs knew of the iPhone 4’s antenna problem before launch. They had warnings both from an in-house antenna engineer and “carrier partner”, presumably AT&T. Yes, this means all the Apple fanboys who had hissy fits at me when I said fifteen days ago that Apple was lying about the problem now get to go sit in the stupid corner.

Also two days ago, New York Senator Charles Schumer issued an open letter to Steve Jobs regarding the iPhone 4 antenna issues. Chuckie Schumer is the worst sort of political bottom-feeder, a power-worshiping greaseball with a spine of pure jelly; when such as he thinks it’s good politics to pile on Apple, you may be sure that Jobs’s teflon coating has definitively worn off.

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Jul 16

Smartphone, the Eater-of-Gadgets

I’ve been thinking for some time now that the smartphone has achieved a kind of singularity, becoming a black hole that sucks all portable electronics into itself. PDAs – absorbed. Music players – consumed. Handset GPSes – eaten. Travel-alarm clocks, not to mention ordinary watches – subsumed. Calculators – history. E-readers under serious pressure, and surviving only because e-paper displays have lower battery drain and are a bit larger. Compasses – munched. Pocket flashlights – crunched. Fobs for keyless locks – being scarfed down as we speak, though not gone yet.

This raises an interesting question: what else is natural prey for the smartphones of the future? Given my software interests, one low-hanging fruit that seems obvious to me is marine AIS receivers. If the frequency of any of the RF receiver stages in a phone were tunable, writing an app that would pull AIS data out of the air wouldn’t be very difficult. I’ve written a lot of the required code myself, and I know where to find most of the rest.

But in an entertaining inversion, one device of the future actually works on smartphones now. Because I thought it would be funny, I searched for “tricorder” in the Android market. For those of you who have been living in a hole since 1965, a tricorder is a fictional gadget from the Star Trek universe, an all-purpose sensor package carried by planetary survey parties. I expected a geek joke, a fancy mock-up with mildly impressive visuals and no actual function. I was utterly gobsmacked to discover instead that I had an arguably real tricorder in my hand.

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