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!

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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.

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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?

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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.

Dec 23

Alzheimer’s and Herpes

There’s been a major breakthrough in the understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. Every face-to-face friend I’ve told about this has found it fascinating, and one of my regulars has rightly suggested I should blog it. It seems many cases of Alzheimer’s may be due to brain infection by the herpes simplex Type I virus — the one that gives you cold sores. Researchers at the University of Manchester have found herpes-simplex DNA in the abnormal beta-amyloid plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The implications are huge.

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Dec 19

From Scythia to Camelot with Thud and Blunder

I am not sure when or where I first encountered it, but the theory that the Arthurian cycle of legends might be rooted in the mythology of Scythia and the Sarmathians instantly struck me as not only plausible but almost certainly correct. The Sarmatians (and the closely-related or identical tribe of Alans) introduced armored heavy cavalry using the shock charge with lance to Europe: the Sarmatian hypothesis would neatly explain several otherwise very peculiar features of the Arthurian material, including the fact that even very early versions insistently describe a style of war gear and knightly combat with slashing swords on horseback that would not become actually typical in Europe until the later Middle Ages.

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Dec 17

Old physicists fade away

A commenter writes, replying to my previous post on Eric and the Quantum Experts:

>Eric, you may still have a chance to revolutionize physics, since decoherence by itself may not completely solve the problem.

Alas, I am probably too old now. There is a way outside chance I could do it, yes, but,…hmm…how to explain this…

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Dec 15

Where the men are

A commenter wrote:

Think about it: guys like Leo Dicaprio or Owen Wilson for example.
These guys are not exactly manly men but seem more like teen boys.

There’s no need to invoke exotic theories like endocrine disruptors; they’re just reflecting the zeitgeist. I just turned 51, and a disturbingly large percentage of men in their twenties and thirties seem like spoiled narcissistic man-children to me. I thought for a while that this might mean I was turning into the sort of crusty old fart I laughed at when I was twenty-five, until I noticed that the percentage of man-children varied a great deal depending on my social context.

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Nov 22

Victory in Iraq Day

It’s Victory in Iraq day today. The good guys – Western civilization, the Coalition of the Willing, the United States, and the people of Iraq – won this war. The bad guys – Saddam Hussein’s regime, al-Qaeda’s jihadis, all their allies and enablers – lost it. The entire world will be a better place because of this victory. And that is a proper thing to celebrate.

Nov 20

The sound of empire falling

I predicted years ago that what would eventually do Microsoft in was white-box PC makers defecting because they needed to claw back profit margin as the Windows license became the largest single item in their bills of material.

And here’s the confirmation I’ve been awaiting: Microsoft Missing Netbook Growth as Linux Wins Sales. The boring biz-journalism headline is guarding some startling facts.

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Nov 16

moogly pwns the iPhone!?!

I got a chance last night to play with my friend Beth Matuszek’s iPhone, while she played with my G1. I’ve been blogging that I think the G1 is serious competition for the iPhone, but I must say I expected the iPhone to look better than the G1 when Beth and I did side-to-side testing of parallel functions, like browsing the Instapundit blog page.

It doesn’t. In theory the G1 and iPhone have the same resolution, but the cruel truth is that the G1’s display is superior – stronger luminance contrasts, better colors, generally crisper. It’s not a subtle difference, it really jumped out at both of us.

That’s not the shocking part, though. Beth has a first-generation iPhone that’s about a year old; some of the above differences might be simple phosphor decay. The shocking part is that Android does font rasterization and anti-aliasing better. The difference is really noticeable on small fonts; compared to the G1 the iPhone has an obtrusive case of jaggies. Hello? Hello? Apple? You’re supposed to be the world-beaters at this sort of thing; what have you been smoking lately?

UPDATE: Mystery partly and perhaps entirely solved. The physical sizes of the G1 and iPhone display are different. The iPhone’s is substantially larger, which means it has lower DPI. At the same font size in millimeters, therefore, the edges of a font glyph on the iPhone are doomed to look grainier unless the antialiasing is really dramatically better — which apparently it isn’t.