Jul 11

Killing the Founder

During the controversy I described in Condemning Censorship, Even of Werewolves one of the parties characterized me as “nuts and in decline.”. This failed to bother me, and not because I’m insulated against such insults by my natural arrogance. OK, I am largely insulated against such insults by my natural arrogance, but that’s not the main reason I easily shed this one.

In general I’m much less bothered about people who think I’m crazy than they usually think I should be because I know a lot about the life cycle of reform movements. I studied this topic rather carefully in early 1998, just after Netscape announced its intention to release the Mozilla sources, when I noticed that a burgeoning reform movement seemed to need me to lead it. I was particularly influenced in my thinking by the history of John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community.

Here is part of what I learned: There comes a point in the development of every reform movement at which it has to kill the founder. Or anathematize him, or declare him out of his mind. Or neutralize him in a more subtle way by putting him on a pedestal so high that he can’t actually influence events on the ground.

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Jul 07

The Model M: A timeless classic

I just found an informative article about the origin, life, and astonishing persistence of my favorite keyboard. Nearly every article on this blog was hammered out on the same Unicomp Model M I’m typing on now. The design is 25 years old and still going strong, a nearly unique longevity in computing devices.

I endorse every bit of snarkiness and ergonomic wisdom in that article. I find the lack of tactile feeback and noise from modern “soft-touch” keyboards disconcerting and uncomfortable. It does my heart good to know the model M is still being produced, now with USB interfaces even. I expect I’ll be using these until I die or we get brain/computer interfaces, whichever comes first.

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Jul 07

What is truth?

[This may become part of a book.]

What is truth? There are complicated ways of explaining “truth” that get all tangled up in questions about reality and perception, but we’re going to use a very simple one: truth is what makes the future less surprising.

No matter what you think you are and no matter what “reality” may be, the experience that you have to deal with (like every other human being) is of being thrown into a surrounding that does things independently of your thoughts. Shit happens, and you have to deal with it. The first step to dealing with it is to be able to predict it.

So, for example, if somebody says to you “It’s raining outside,” the meaning of that claim is a bundle of implied predictions, including “If you go outside without a hat, hood, or umbrella your head will get wet.” You test the truth of that claim by checking if those predictions are true. You don’t have to know what water “really is”, or for that matter what “reality” is. (We’ll get to what “reality” is later; it’s not actually very complicated when you start from here.)

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Jul 06

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Oh Thoth Trismegistus, oh Ma’at, oh Ganesha, oh sweet lady Eris…I have not laughed so hard in years!

Eliezer Yudkowsky is one of the brightest people I’ve ever met in a lifetime of seeking out gifted- to genius-grade thinkers because people who aren’t usually bore me pretty quickly. Eliezer has spent years studying the deep structure of rationality and probably understands the systematic sources of bias and irrationality in the shared architecture of the human mind as comprehensively as anyone alive. I have previously commented on some of his writings.

Usually Eliezer thinks about questions like how to build human-compatible ethical reasoning into AIs. Serious, deep stuff. When he turns the vast and imponderable force of his intellect to writing, of all things, Harry Potter fanfic, a quite unexpected degree of hilarity ensues.

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Jul 03

FroYo, yum yum!

The over-the-air update for Android 2.2, aka FroYo, landed on my Nexus One this morning.

The WiFi hotspot feature works perfectly when tested with my ThinkPad X61 running Linux.

I am liberated. No more per-diem WiFi charges in hotels. No more cursing as I discover that the airport hotspots are all pay-for-play. Internet on my laptop in the shotgun seat of the car!

This feature will be a must for road warriors everywhere. And the iPhone 4 doesn’t have it. The screams of denial from the Apple fanboys as that absence costs Apple another hunk of market share that it will never get back should be most entertaining.

UPDATE: Have verified that USB tethering just works, too. Plug it in and go!

Jul 02

Apple gets egg on its face — single platform = single doom

One of the predictable responses to my recent writings on the smartphone market and the rise of Android has been a deluge of scornful invective by Apple fans confidently predicting that Android’s 1Q2010 surge in unit share represented a bubble that would pop under pressure from Apple’s “superior user experience”.

Then came the flap over the iPhone4’s antenna problems, and the silence of the fans. Yeah, that’s a superior user experience, all right – huge percentages of dropped calls (including reports that it drops 100% of calls when the bottom left corner is touched), and Steve Jobs telling iPhone 4 users it’s all their fault because they’re holding their phones wrong. The satirical backlash at Jobs on the Internet has been merciless, and completely deserved. Nokia even had the cheek to post a blog entry on the many ways you can hold your Nokia phone.

Now comes Apple’s attempt to spin the problem out of existence. The tone of desperation is palpable. “Oops…” Apple says “…we fucked up the display algorithm for the signal strength meter.” Oh, yeah, that’s a superior user experience all right. It’s Apple, and It Just Works!(tm).

But there’s a story behind this story. Actually, two stories. One is that Apple is lying outright about the scope and nature of the problems. And the second, more important one, is that the fragility of the single-carrier, single-platform strategy for iOS has come around to bite Apple hard. There’s a lesson here for the future.

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Jul 01

After the McDonald decision: what next?

Monday’s decision in McDonald vs. City of Chicago is a major victory for civil rights. Yes, it was 5-4 and the ruling was weaker than it could have been, but the basic holding that the Second Amendment is incorporated against states and all lower levels of government can be a powerful tool for positive change if we wield it correctly. The legal climate for full restoration of firearms rights in the U.S. is now better than it’s been since the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968.

Much remains to be done, however. The Heller ruling in 2008, while affirming that firearms ownership is a fundamental individual right, allowed “reasonable regulation” and failed to specify a standard of scrutiny for what is “reasonable”; the McDonald decision does not specify this either. The constitutionally correct position, of course, is that laws infringing on Second Amendment liberties should have to meet the same strictest-scrutiny standard applied where the First Amendment is concerned — but the City of Chicago has already made plain its intent to nullify the Heller and MacDonald rulings by equating “reasonable” with “prohibitive”.

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Jun 22

Reports of PC’s Impending Death Greatly Exaggerated

One Farhad Manjoo has attracted some attention by projecting in an article written for Slate that desktop PCs are headed for extinction, outcompeted by laptops and netbooks.

I have seen the future and I say “Balderdash!” It is undoubtedly true that computers will continue to get smaller and lighter and more portable. Indeed, I’m expecting that for most people, descendants of smartphones will become their primary computing devices. I am, however also certain that this does not imply the demise of “desktop” systems.

Manjoo, and other enthusiasts for the imminent death of the desktop PC, are missing a basic ergonomic point. Computers themselves could shrink to the size of a matchbox without inconveniencing anyone – but some of the things attached to them are scaled to humans and don’t shrink so easily. Of these, the two most significant are display screens and keyboards.

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Jun 19

A Specter is Haunting Genetics

Had my life gone a little differently, I might have been a molecular geneticist and hip-deep in what is now called bioinformatics. When I was twelve or thirteen or so I came to intellectual grips with the fact that I have congenital cerebral palsy; shortly thereafter I dove into the science of congenital defects, developmental biology, and from there into genetics. Eventually I taught myself a fair chunk of organic chemistry before becoming fascinated by linguistics and theoretical mathematics, and a few twists and turns from there got me into software engineering; but my interest in genetics and human developmental biology didn’t cease so much as become pushed into the background. I give this background to explain why I’ve been paying closer attention to genetics than most people do ever since.

In the wake of the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, I’ve seen three or four forward-looking articles about the implications of cheap genomic analysis (most recently a quite good one in The Economist) all of which are are haunted by a common fear. It’s almost like they’re written to a template; glowing projections of accelerated drug discovery, personalized medicine, and deep insight into the nature of humanity, ended on a worried note about what we’ll find when we discover just how much of human variation is genetically rather than environmentally controlled. Sometimes the prognosticator can only bring himself to drop hints, but the braver ones come out and ask the question: what if it turns out that genetic differences among races are real and actually matter?

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Jun 11

Hanging nicely: a practical tip for pistol-wearers

I made a minor but useful discovery about pistol holsters this morning. It may be something a million shooters have figured out sooner, but since it took me over a year of constant carry to notice there are probably at least as many who haven’t. Therefore the following tip.

I use several carry methods depending on conditions. One of them is a DeSantis MiniSlide, a smallish leather belt holster designed for concealed carry; my belt threads through slots in the holster’s side flaps. While this rig is generally satisfactory, it has shown some tendency to slide around, and adjusting the rig when it slips into an uncomfortable position is something I prefer not to do in public.

This morning it occurred to me that I could cut down on the shifting by threading my belt through the rear slot in the holster, under one of the keeper loops on my Levis, and then through the front slot of the holster. This does two good things: (1) it snugs down the belt between the holster slots, slightly increasing the inward pressure on the flaps so slippage is decreased, and (2) it prevents the weapon from sliding any further forward or back than the point at which one side will hang up on the keeper in the middle.

That is all.

Jun 10

Missing the point: The real stakes in the smartphone wars

The responses to my last several posts on the smartphone wars (The iPhone 4: Too little, too late; More dispatches from the smartphone wars; Steve Jobs’ Snow Job; Flattening the Smartphone Market; Now’s a bad time to be an Apple fanboy…; Android Rising) demonstrate that many of my readers continue to miss the real stakes in the smartphone wars and the real point of my analyses of them.

It’s not about whether or not Apple will be crushed. It’s not about who makes the “best” products, where “best” is measured by some interaction between the product and the speaker’s evaluation of the relative importance of various features and costs. It’s about what the next generation of personal computing platforms will be. Down one fork they’ll be open, hackable, and user-controlled. Down the other they’ll be closed, locked down, and vendor-controlled. Though there are others on each side of this struggle, in 2010 it comes down to whether Apple or Android wins the race to over 50% smartphone market share; after that point, network effects will become self-reinforcing until the next technology disruption.

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Jun 07

The iPhone 4: Too little, too late

As I write, the announcement of the iPhone 4 at WWDC is just a few hours old. See the Engadget coverage for details. The bottom line? This is too little, too late to stop the Android deluge.

There are some very cool individual features on this phone, no doubt. The two that stand out the most to me are the onboard gyroscope and the “retina display” – yes, 960 x 640 at 326ppi will be damn nice, and if I were writing apps I would seriously lust for that six-axis motion sensing. But the improvements are mainly in the hardware; Apple has conspicuously failed to address the areas where it has fallen behind Android 2.2 in software. There’s no progress on voice recognition, Flash, or WiFi hotspot capability. And even the hardware falls short of where it needs to be; while 802.11n is nice, the “G” after that “4” is conspicuously missing.

If I were an Apple marketing guy, I’d be asking “How the hell can I compete against the EVO 4G with this?”

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Jun 04

More dispatches from the smartphone wars

Well, it was fun carrying the most advanced smartphone on the planet. For a whole 32 days. But the Sprint EVO 4G launched today and its specs – especially the larger OLED display and WiMAX capability – put the Nexus One in the shade.

The bigger story today, though, is the ripple effects of AT&T consigning its unlimited-data plans to the dustbin of history. Gizmodo’s take, AT&T Just Killed Unlimited Wireless Data (and Screwed Everybody in the Process), is pretty representative.

Because I understand how network costs scale I’m more sanguine about the longer-term prospects than Gizmodo is. Unlimited flat rate will return when someone – probably Sprint, given the nature of their network buildout – decides it’s a useful competitive weapon. That will force others to follow suit; the market-equilibrium condition will be all flat rate, same as it is in voice calling today and for exactly the same reasons.

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Jun 01

AIS “security” considered harmful

One Kelly Sweeney is publicly advocating that public access to AIS ship information should be prohibited in order to foil pirates and terrorists.

I must respectfully disagree with the premise of this article. I’m the lead of GPSD, a widely-used open-source GPS/AIS monitor daemon, and I am thus both a domain expert on AIS and a systems architect who is required to think about data security issues all the time. Attempting to “secure” AIS data would harm the public and have no security benefits. In fact, the second-order effects would be seriously bad.

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May 28

I am twitter-enabled, mainly for gaming purposes

Those of you who wish to follow me on Twitter can now do so.

You’ll find much of my Twitter content a bit strange, as I am using it mainly to play an on-line game called EchoBazaar. All the tweets labeled #ebz are game stuff.

EchoBazaar has an interesting business model: you play for free, but can buy Fate Points useful in game. I understand this has been done before, but it’s the first time I’ve encountered it.

(Someone else has twitter ID “esr”, alas.)

May 26

The Iron Laws of Network Cost Scaling

The shape of the cost curves that show up as we build and run communications networks have properties that seem counterintuitive to many people, but that have been surprisingly consistent across lots of different technologies since at least the days of the telegraph, and probably further back than that.

Herewith, the Iron Laws of Network Cost Scaling:

1. Upgrade cost per increment of capacity decreases as capacity rises.

2. Network costs scale primarily with the number of troubleshooters required to run them, not with capacity.

3. Under market pressure, network pricing evolves from metered to flat-rate.

When you learn to apply all three of these together, you can make useful qualitative predictions across a surprisingly broad set of real-world cases.

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May 25

Flattening the Smartphone Market

Common cellphone operating systems like Android, WebOS, and Maemo are depriving cellphone carriers of one of their most treasured means of keeping customers in the dark and feeding them bullshit. They’re making smartphones comparable to each other, and by doing so brutally intensifying the competitive pressure on the carriers.

Before these common platforms, one of the ways carriers had to quell customer demand for features like tethering was simply that the feature sets of different phones were difficult for customers to compare in meaningful ways, and there was no real benchmark for what a cellphone could or should do (I mean, other than make phone calls).

That’s all changed now. To see how, consider the impact of the Froyo announcement – Android 2.2. This was a feature list of what upcoming cellphones would be able to do that wasn’t censored by a carrier. Every actual Android phone offering from now on will be compared against the Froyo feature list and against all other Android cellphones. And if any come out with an Android feature disabled or available only at extra cost, the pressure won’t be on Google – it will be on the carrier.

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May 23

Now’s a bad time to be an Apple fanboy…

It’s an unhappy day for Apple fanboys. Dan Lyons Newsweek’s tech correspondent just ditched the iPhone for Android, slamming the phone and Steve Jobs’s control-freak strategy in very harsh terms.

It might be tempting to dismiss this on the grounds that Dan Lyons is, not to put too fine a point on it, a fool whose confidence in his own judgment is in inverse proportion to its quality; his gullibility about SCO’s allegations in their lawsuit against IBM became legendary, and some of the stuff he’s written about blogging is hilariously stupid. Given his track record, betting directly against his technology and market projections would be smarter than betting on them.

Yes, but…Newsweek is an awfully big megaphone. And the larger news isn’t the bad stuff that pushed him away from Apple, it’s the good stuff the pulled him towards Android. The Android 2.2 feature list is a body blow from which the iPhone, already trailing Android devices in unit sales, may not be able to recover.

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