Aug 14

Summer vacation 2013

The last couple of weeks have been my vacation, and full of incident.This explains the absence of blogging.

First, World Boardgaming Championships. I did respectably, making quarter- and semi-finals in a couple of events, but failed in my goal to make the Power Grid finals again this year and place higher than fifth.

I did very well in Conflict of Heroes, though; my final game – with the tournament organizer – was a an epic slugfest that attracted the attention of Uwe Eickert (the game’s designer) who watched the last half enthralled. I lost by only 1 point and was told I’d be put on the Wall of Honor. I like my chances at the finals next year.

Then Summer Weapons Retreat. Huge fun as usual; I spent most of the week working on Florentine (two-sword) technique. with some excursions into polearm and hand-and-a-half sword. I’ve posted a few pictures on my G+ feed.

First full day I was home, a thunderstorm blew out the router in my basement. Yes I had it on a UPS, but ground surges (though rare) do happen; this one toasted the Ethernet switch. Diagnosing, replacing, and dealing with the second-order effects of that ate most of yesterday.

Now life is back to relatively normal, though it will take a few days for the muscle aches from a week of hard training to entirely subside. Blogging will resume.

Jul 28

Victory is sweet

Ever since the open-source rebranding in 1998, I’ve been telling people that “open source” should not be capitalized because it’s an engineering term of art, and that we would have achieved victory when the superiority of (uncapitalized) open source seeped into popular culture as a taken-for-granted background assumption.

There’s a thriller writer named Brad Thor who I never heard of until he publicly offered to buy George Zimmerman any weapon he likes as a replacement for the pistol the police impounded after the Trayvon Marin shooting. What Thor was really protesting, it seems, was the fact that Zimmerman didn’t get his pistol back when he was acquitted; instead, the federal Justice Department has impounded it while they look into trumping up civil-rights charges against Zimmerman.

This made me curious. The books are pretty routine airport-novel stuff, full of exotic locations and skulduggery and firefights. Like a lot of the genre, they have a substantial component of equipment porn – lovingly detailed descriptions of weapons and espionage devices.

Amidst all this equipment porn the characters casually use “open source” (specifically of encryption software) as a way of conveying that it’s the best available. And the author writes as though he expects his readers to understand this.

Victory is sweet.

Jul 26

Preventing visceral racism

I’ve been writing about race and politics a lot recently. Now I’m going to reveal the reason: in the relatively recent past I had a very disturbing, novel, and unwelcome educational experience. For the first time in the fifty-five years of my life I found out what it was like to feel racist, from the inside.

I think I now understand the pathology behind racism better than I did before, and have some ideas about what is required to prevent and cure it. And no, my prescription won’t be any of the idiotic nostrums normally peddled by self-described “anti-racists”; in fact what I have to say is likely to offend most of them – which I don’t mind a bit.

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Jul 17

Objective evidence against racism

A theme I have touched on several times in my blogging is that the best way to defeat racism and other forms of invidious discrimination is to develop and apply objective psychometric tests.

Usually I make this argument with respect to IQ. But: one of my commenters, an obnoxious racist who I refrain from banning only on free-speech principle, recently argued that drug use should be (as, in fact, it now often illegally is) treated differently by police depending on the subject’s race.

His argument (if you want to call it that) is that blacks, due to a low baseline level of self-regulation, are significantly more prone to criminality and violence than whites when intoxication further impairs that ability. Thus, the law should treat these cases differently as a matter of public safety.

As presented, this prescription is racist, repugnant, and wrong. Because even if you believe that blacks as a group have less ability on average to self-regulate, this belief tells you nothing about any individual black person. Acting on it would infringe the foundational right of individuals to be treated equally by the law.

But now let’s perform a thought experiment. Actually, a couple of related ones.

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Jul 06

After such knowledge…

I have read very little in the last few decades that is as shocking to me as this: Essay by a teacher in a black high school.

My first reaction was that I wanted to believe it was a bigot’s fabrication. I’d still like to believe that, but it was reposted by a black man who claims it is representative of “dirty laundry”: bad stuff [known among blacks] about black folk never to be said around whites.

My second reaction, afterwards, was: for those of us who insist that people ought to be judged by the content of their characters rather than the color of their skins, what emotionally compelling argument do we have against anti-black racism that reading this doesn’t blow to smithereens?

This is a question with more point now than it would have had thirty or fifty years ago, because of one thing this account makes harrowingly clear. White people didn’t impose the depraved, thuggish underculture it describes on black people; they did it to themselves, using a debased form of the rhetoric of white “anti-racists” and multiculturalists as rationalization.

Of course, all the rational arguments against racism are still sound; I’ve written about them pretty extensively on this blog. The mass is not the individual, etcetera, etcetera. Nothing about the ugly, barbaric rampaging of these high-schoolers predicts the behavior of the blacks of the same age or older I know from martial-arts schools, SF conventions, and other places where the lives of black individuals intersect with mine.

But if this is really where they came from – if this is what they’re right-end-of-the-bell-curve exceptions to, and that reality becomes widely known or believed – rational argument won’t be enough. How can we keep the bigots from winning?

UPDATE: I’ve replaced the link I got from the blog “Maggie’s Farm” with a link to what seems to be the original. The Maggie’s-Farm link is now behind the word “reposted”.

Jun 27

Keyboards are not a detail!

I’ve been thinking a lot about keyboards lately. Last Sunday I founded the Tactile Keyboards community on Google+ and watched it explode in popularity almost immediately. Spent most of the next couple of days boning up on keyboard lore so I could write a proper FAQ for the group.

On my journey of discovery I learned of geekhack.org, a site for people whose obsession with keyboard customization and modding makes my keen interest in these devices seem like the palest indifference by comparison. Created an account and announced myself in the manner they deem proper for new members. Got a reply saying, more or less, that it’s nice “ESR” attends to details like keyboards.

What? What? What? Your keyboard is not a detail, dammit!

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Jun 25

Indestructible cat is indestructible

Those of you not in our cat’s fan base can ignore this.

Sugar, at twenty years and five months of age, had her annual checkup today and was pronounced almost indecently healthy. The usual chorus of “Wow, she doesn’t look old!” occurred.

Yes, we do have to hydrate her about once a week. And we can tell she needs it when the night yowling starts – but, in general, indestructible cat continues to be indestructible. Nobody expected her to live this long, much less as an active cat who looks about half her actual age.

Cathy and I are pleased and proud. Of course this is is probably mostly good genes, but we like to think all the affection Sugar has collected from us and our geeky ailurophilic friends has contributed to her longevity.

Looks like she’ll be entertaining visiting hackers in our basement for some time to come.

Jun 23

Announcing: Keyboards with crunch

I’ve founded a G+ community for fans of the Model M and other buckling-spring keyboards. Here it is:

Keyboards with crunch

Buckling-spring keyboards are wonderful devices for the discriminating hacker, vastly superior to the mushy dome-switch devices more common these days. But for various reasons (including the mere fact that they contain a lot of mechanical switches) they can be tempermental beasts requiring a bit of troubleshooting and care.

This community is for people who want to know how to find, care for, and troubleshoot their clicky keyboards.

UPDATE: After research and feedback, the name is now “Tactile Keyboards”.

Jun 06

Hugh Daniel is dead – in frighteningly familiar circumstances

Hugh Daniel, a very well known hacker and cypherpunk, was found dead in his apartment a few days ago. Hugh was a terrific guy and a friend of all the world, the kind of cheerfully-larger-than-life personality that makes things a little merrier and more interesting wherever it goes. He’s going to leave a big Hugh-shaped hole in a lot of lives, including mine.

But I had a presentiment when I heard the first report of Hugh’s death, which was borne out when the first information came out about probable cause. Friends report that the coroner is fingering stroke or heart disease – but I’ve seen this movie before.

Because I’ve seen this movie before, I make a prediction. If they autopsy Hugh, they will find evidence of undiagnosed type II diabetes, non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver, serious coronary plaque, and probably marginal function in the kidneys and other organs. He will present similarly to a victim of long-term, low-grade poisoning.

About three years ago, another friend of mine, a gamer named Richard Butler, died with these symptoms. The two were about the same age when they died; both physically large men with big booming voices, happily extroverted geeks with a knack for making friends wherever they went, and the kind of zest for life that can make someone seem unkillable.

And both looked prematurely aged in photographs I saw shortly before their deaths. The energy was still there, but in retrospect the body was beginning to fail.

I think I know what actually killed Hugh and Richard. I don’t think it was old age in the normal sense; neither of them was even 60, if I’m any judge. I’m sounding an alarm because I think a significant number of my peers could die the same, preventable death.

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May 11

Adobe in cloud-cuckoo land

Congratulations, Adobe, on your impending move from selling Photoshop and other boring old standalone applications that people only had to pay for once to a ‘Creative Cloud’ subscription service that will charge users by the month and hold their critical data hostage against those bills. This bold move to extract more revenue from customers in exchange for new ‘services’ that they neither want nor need puts you at the forefront of strategic thinking by proprietary software companies in the 21st century!

It’s genius, I say, genius. Well, except for the part where your customers are in open revolt, 5000 of them signing a petition and many others threatening to bail out to open-source competitors such as GIMP.

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May 11

On the road, blogging limited

Blogging will be limited for the next week.

I’ve received several requests for posts on a bunch of meaty topic, including (a) Adobe’s Creative Cloud move, (b) The Defence Distributed takedown notice, (b) the utility of power-projection navies, (d) current state of the terror war, and others. I won’t get to all of these anytime soon, because I’m swamped with work and will be travelling today to an undisclosed city for a meeting I can’t talk about yet.

Sorry to go all international-man-of-nystery on everybody but all will be revealed later this year. It will have been worth the wait.

May 04

Destroying the middle ground, redux

A few weeks ago I blogged an alternate-history story in which the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was abused and distorted in the same ways the Second Amendment has been in our history. The actual point of the essay, though, was not about either amendment; it was about how strategic deception by one side of a foundational political dispute can radicalize the other and effectively destroy the credibility of moderates as well.

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May 02

The true meaning of moral panics

In my experience, moral panics are almost never about what they claim to be about. I am just (barely) old enough to remember the tail end of the period (around 1965) when conservative panic about drugs and rock music was actually rooted in a not very-thinly-veiled fear of the corrupting influence of non-whites on pure American children. In retrospect it’s easy to understand as a reaction against the gradual breakdown of both legally enforced and de-facto racial segregation in the U.S.

But moral panics are by no means a monopoly of cultural conservatives. These days the most virulent and bogus examples are as likely to arrive from the self-described “left” as the “right”. When they do, they’re just as likely to be about something other than the ostensible subject.

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Apr 26

Penguicon party 2013!

My blogging will be light or nonexistent over the next week. I’m on the road in Michigan, at Penguicon; the Friends of Armed and Dangerous party will be here at 9:00 tonight.

It really is the 21st century. Yesterday I merged a bunch of patches, ran acceptance tests, and then polished and shipped a reposurgeon release – while in the passenger seat of a car tooling down I-80. The remarkable thing is that this no longer seems remarkable.

I discovered in the process that while i3 is the best thing since sliced bread on a 2560×1440 display, a tiling window manager is pretty uncomfortable on a laptop-sized 1366×768 display. The problem is that even dividing the laptop screen only in half produces shell and Emacs windows that are narrower than their natural 80-column size rather than wider as on the larger display; one gets the text in email and source code wrapping unpleasantly. I’ve fallen back to XFCE for laptop use.

In two hours, Geeks With Guns. Going to be a full day.

Apr 19

Iranian connection in the Boston bombing

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the terrorist who died in a firefight with the Boston police with a kettle bomb strapped to him, had a YouTube page. Examining an image of it, I found an approving link to a movie titled “The Black Flags of Khorasan”.

Because, unlike the politically-correct idiots who infest our nation’s newsrooms, I’ve actually studied the history of Islam in some detail, that title had immediate resonance for me. I thought I knew what it meant, and I googled.

What I found confirmed my hunch. Not just that Black Flags from Khorasan is a jihadist propaganda movie, but that it’s a jihadi movie of a particularly interesting kind – Mahdist, and almost certainly radical Shi’a. Mahdism is present in Sunni but much less central, and in any case the region of Khorasan has been the heart country of Shi’a for nearly a thousand years.

Domestic terrorism, my ass. As usual, the mainstream media was slavering to pin this on some Richard-Jewell-like native-born conservative (bonus points if they get to say “Tea Party”). As usual, it’s a jihadi atrocity in which fundamentalist Islam was causal.

But that film is a more specific clue. If the investigators have even a microgram of brains, they’re looking for an Iranian connection now.

Apr 16

Building a better IRC client

I’ve been thinking about how to build a better IRC client recently.

The proximate cause is that I switched to irssi from chatzilla recently. In most ways it’s better, but it has some annoying UI quirks. Thinking they’d be easy to fix, I dug into the codebase and discovered that it’s a nasty hairball. We’ve seen projects where a great deal of enthusiasm and overengineering resulted in code that is full of locally-clever bits but excessively difficult to modify or maintain as a whole; irssi is one of those. Even its maintainers have mostly abandoned it; there hasn’t neen an actual release since 2010.

This is a shame, because despite its quirks it’s probably the best client going for serious IRC users. I say this because I’ve tried the other major contenders (chatzilla, BitchX, XChat, ircii) in the past. None of them really match irsii’s feature set, which makes it particularly unfortunate that the codebase resembles a rubble pile.

I’m nor capable of stumbling over a situation like this without thinking about how to fix it. And yesterday…I had an insight.

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Apr 15

Destroying the middle ground

Here’s a thought experiment for you. Imagine yourself in an alternate United States where the First Amendment is not as a matter of settled law considered to bar Federal and State governments from almost all interference in free speech. This is less unlikely than it might sound; the modern, rather absolutist interpretation of free-speech liberties did not take form until the early 20th century.

In this alternate America, there are many and bitter arguments about the extent of free-speech rights. The ground of dispute is to what extent the instruments of political and cultural speech (printing presses, radios, telephones, copying machines, computers) should be regulated by government so that use of these instruments does not promote violence, assist criminal enterprises, and disrupt public order.

The weight of history and culture is largely on the pro-free-speech side – the Constitution does say “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. And until the late 1960s there is little actual attempt to control speech instruments.

Then, in 1968, after a series of horrific crimes and assassinations inspired by inflammatory anti-establishment political propaganda, some politicians, prominent celebrities, and public intellectuals launch a “speech control” movement. They wave away all comparisons to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, insisting that their goal is not totalitarian control but only the prevention of the most egregious abuses in the public square.

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Apr 14

Thanks again to those of you who hit the tip jar

This is a postscript to my saga of the graphics-card disaster.

Thank you. everybody who occasionally drops money in my PayPal account. In the past it has bought test hardware for GPSD. This week I had enough in it to pay for the Radeon card, the one that actually works.

Your donations help me maintain software that serves a billion people every day. Thank you again.