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.

Nov 14

Linux-Hater’s Blog, considered

One of the advantages of having helped found the open-source movement that I cherish most is that nobody can criticize me when I criticize it. I’m a gadfly by nature, disgusted by cant even (actually, especially!) when it’s my own insights being reflected back at me as dogma. Anyone who actually does that is likely to flip me into full Discordian rascal-guru mode.

So I was actually pleased to learn of the existence of Linux-Hater’s Blog. I rather looked forward to winnowing through it for nuggets with which I could shock the more fanboyish members of my community by agreeing. Alas: when I finally went there with intent to read, I discovered that the never-actually-identified author of the blog had ended the project. I read the entire archives anway.

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Nov 13

Net neutrality: what’s a libertarian to do?

One of my commenters asked, rather plaintively:

You mentioned net neutrality. I’ve read about this, and the opposition to it. I’ve read about this, and the opposition to it. As far as I can tell, net neutrality is more supported by liberals/democrats, while the opposition is made up more of conservatives/republicans. But for the life of me I can’t figure out which is the the more libertarian position.

Your confusion is entirely reasonable. I’ve hung out with network-neutrality activists and tried to give them what I thought was useful advice. Their political fixations didn’t permit them to hear me. Here’s a summary of the issues and one libertarian’s take on them.

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Nov 12

Why Android matters

I’ve posted a couple of times about how kewl I think my Android G1 is. But I’m not jazzed about a mere gadget; the really exciting thing about Android is going to be the second- and third-order effects of the software, and how these tie into Google’s strategic interests and the future of open source.

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Nov 05

Open Source — Can It Innovate?

There’s an argument commonly heard these days that open-source software is all very well for infrastructure or commodity software where the requirements are well-established, but that it can’t really innovate. I laugh when I hear this, because I remember when the common wisdom was exactly the opposite — that we hackers were great for exploratory, cutting-edge stuff but couldn’t deliver reliable product.

How quickly people forget. We built the World Wide Web, fer cripessakes! The original browser and the original webservers were built by a hacker at CERN, not in some closed-door corporate shop. Before that, years before we got Linux and our own T-shirts, people who would later identify their own behavior correctly as open-source hacking built the Internet. (I was part of the tail end of that process myself; sometime I’ll blog about how and why the domain-name gold-rush is arguably my fault.)

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Nov 05

Obama won it

The crackup I thought I was seeing in the Obama campaign didn’t happen. I underestimated the ability of the mainstream media to cover for Obama’s weaknesses. We may all have underestimated the effectiveness of ACORN’s vote-fraud machine.

I’m glad we’ve elected a black man president; I’m sorry it’s one who looks quite so much like a sort of latter-day Manchurian Candidate programmed by his hard-left associates to hate his own country.

I hope we don’t all come to regret this day horribly. We can only hope that Obama is a better man than his influences.

UPDATE: At least one response to this post went way over the top. Who ever it was who started spouting about concentration camps… I don’t think there’s any way Obama is that evil. Bill Ayers or whatzisname the firebreathing black pastor Obama threw under the bus might be, but fortunately neither of them got elected. Obama is not a demon; at worst, he’s an idealist who’s been taught to hate his country until it’s made over in the transnational-Left’s image.

Worrying about an Obama administration trashing the economy, reinstituting the grossly misnamed “Fairness Doctrine”, and nationalizing health care is justified. Talk of concentration camps as if they were a near-term prospect isn’t, and I do not welcome that sort of fear-mongering here.

Oct 01

Why I Hate Proprietary Software

I’ve spent a lot of time writing arguments for why open-source software is a good idea and everyone should do it. On the evidence, I’m pretty good at this. I achieved that goodness through a strategy of making rational, technical, utility-maximization arguments in which I explicitly disclaimed having any normative or moralizing agenda.

While I’m happy with the results I’ve gotten from that strategy, it means there are people in the world who think they can persuade me to give proprietary software a second look by making rational, utility-maximizing arguments of their own. One of my regular commenters wrote this recently: “Eric, you may want to give MSDN, Windows, and their developer tools a second, unprejudiced look; they really are better than what Linux has to offer.”

It’s not going to happen. Ever. And the fact that anyone could say that to me, and believe for a nanosecond they might get any other answer, means that I need to explain something in public: why I hate proprietary software.

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Sep 30

The Unix Hater’s Handbook, Reconsidered

A commenter on my post pre-announcing Why C++ Is Not Our Favorite Programming Language asked “esr, from the perspective of a graybeard, which chapters did you consider good and which chapters did you consider bad?”

(Technical note: I do not in fact have a beard, and if I did it would not be gray.)

Good question, and worthy of a blog entry. I was the first technical reviewer for the manuscript of this book back when it was in preparation — IDG published it, but I think it was passed to me through MIT Press. As I noted in the same comment thread, I worked hard at trying to persuade the authors to tone down the spleen level in favor of making a stronger technical case, but didn’t have much success. They wanted to rant, and by Ghod they were gonna rant, and no mere reviewer was gonna stop ‘em.

I’ve thought this was a shame ever since. I am, of course, a long-time Unix fan; I’d hardly have written The Art of Unix Programming otherwise. I thought a book that soberly administered some salutary and well-directed shocks to the Unix community would be a good thing; instead, many of their good points were obscured by surrounding drifts of misdirected snark.

You can browse the Handbook itself here. What follows is my appraisal of how it reads 14 years later, written in real-time as I reread it. After the chapter-by-chapter re-review I’ll sum up and make some general remarks.

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Sep 25

C++ Considered Harmful

My blogging will be sporadic to nonexistent for a while, as my friend Rob Landley and I are concentrating heavily on writing a paper together. The working (and probably final) title is “Why C++ is Not Our Favorite Programming Language”. It begins:

C++ is an overcomplexity generator. It was designed to solve what
turned out to be the wrong problems; as a result, it lives in an
unhappy valley between two utility peaks in language-design space,
with neither the austere elegance of C nor the expressiveness and
capability of modern interpreted languages. The layers, patches, and
added features designed to lift it out of that valley have failed to
do so, resulting in a language that is bloated, obfuscated, unwieldy,
rigid, and brittle. Programs written in C++ tend to inherit all
these qualities.

In the remainder of this paper we will develop this charge into
a detailed critique of C++ and the style it encourages. While we
do not intend to insult the designers of C++, we will not make
excuses for them either. They repeatedly made design choices that
were well-intentioned, understandable in context, and wrong. We
think it is long past time for the rest of us to stop suffering
for those mistakes.

Yes, we are attempting to harpoon the Great White Whale of modern programming languages. I’m announcing this here to give my commenters the opportunity to contribute. If you know of a particularly good critical analysis of C++, or technically detailed horror story around it, please cite. Superb apologetics for the language would also be interesting.

The paper is developing primarily from a software-engineering perspective rather than out of formal language theory. I’m particularly looking for empirical studies on the importance of manual memory management as a defect attractor (I have the Prechelt paper from the year 2000). I’m also interested in any empirical studies comparing the productivity impact of nominative vs. structural vs. duck typing.

After about 3 days of work our draft is over 600 lines of clean narrative text in asciidoc. It’s going well.

Sep 22

Why Alternative Energy Isn’t

As oil prices recede from all-time dollar highs and some of the hot air gets let out of energy policy debates, it’s a good time to remember that here’s a key concept missing from almost every popular discussion of the subject: energy density. Specialist economists get it, but almost nobody else does. It is important to understanding why most forms of “alternative energy” are mirages, and what a sane energy policy would actually look like.

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Sep 20

The Limits of Open Source

A mailing list I frequent has been discussing the current financial meltdown, specifically a news story claiming that Wall Street foooled its own computers by feeding them risk assumptions the users knew were over-optimistic.

This is also a very strong case for F/OSS software. Had such software been in use, I strongly feel that the inherent biases programmed in would have been found.

But then, that’s also true for voting machine software.

As the original begetter of the kind of argument you’re making, I’d certainly like to think so…but no, not in either case.

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Sep 17

Sarah Palin, American Centrist

In the fusillade of accusations that has been flung at Sarah Palin since McCain chose her as VP-nominee, there is one thread in common; that Palin is an extreme right-winger. There are several possible reasons for an accuser to take this position, but it occurred to me yesterday that the most important one may be accusers who are honestly confused about where the American center actually is.

Of course, the political map is not neatly describable as a one-dimensional spectrum. I myself, as an anarcho-capitalist radical quite willing to dump on both Left and Right, am an existence proof of that. Nevertheless, we actually have a lot of psephological information on where the “center” falls, in the sense that if you choose polar “Left” and “Right” stands on particular issues, polling can locate the position between them held by the median number of Americans.

One can then at least ask the question “Where is Palin with respect to that median?” I’m in an interesting position to address that question, because on pretty much all of the hot-button “culture wars” issues I have radical positions opposed to Palin’s but nevertheless believe on good evidence that her position is closer to the median than mine.

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Sep 15

The Post-Racial Hall of Mirrors

Two days ago, while on a quest to find one of the vanishing breed of waterbed stores, my wife and I had to drive through a slum section of Wilmington, Delaware. The streets were full of black people, and I had a strong “Ugh! Don’t want this kind anywhere near me!” reaction. Only it wasn’t to their blackness. It was because, with a few teenage exceptions, they were graceless and ugly and fat. Women wearing sack dresses in garish floral prints that would look bad even on a mattress liner, men in wife-beater T-shirts, rolling oceans of sloppy adipose tissue, not a smidgen of self-respect or good taste in sight. Awful…

I might not have written about this, except that later in the day I was reading a blog discussion of the Bradley Effect and its possible impact on the 2008 presidential race, and someone’s comment noted that it could be caused not only by hidden racism but by fear of seeming a racist even if one is opposed to Obama but knows oneself to be innocent of actual racist sentiment.

Then I flashed back to my experience in the Delaware slums a few hours previously and realized there is a third and subtler possibility. If I were a left-liberal rather than a libertarian, might I have confused my own reaction to the black people in that slum with racism, and felt eager to expiate it with displays of pro-blackness like telling posters I’m an Obama fan? Is it possible the Bradley effect is largely a rebound phenomenon driven not by “hidden racism” but by unjustified white guilt?

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Sep 14

Heh — “Read My Lipstick”

I am slack-jawed with admiration tonight.

The source of my amazement is reports that female McCain/Palin supporters have started making and distributing T-shirts that say “Read My Lipstick: MCain/Palin 2008”. And wearing them in large numbers.

This is deployment of multi-leveled irony as an offensive weapon. They are taking Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” remark and slugging him in the face with it. They are taking the MSM’s vile smears and insinuations about Palin’s sex life and sexual presence and slugging them in the face with that. They are kicking Gloria Steinem and every desexualized “Palin isn’t a woman” harridan in their collective teeth. Yes, they’re saying, you can be a former beauty queen who looks good in stockings and makeup and a pit bull at the same time, and we love you for it.

“Lipstick”, on pit bulls, on pigs, and on women, has been bouncing around as a loaded signifier in this campaign ever since the Palin nomination (was that only a couple of weeks ago?). With this move, the Palin supporters have appropriated it for their own. I predict that their opponents are not going to get it back; that every reference to lipstick from now on is going to remind everyone of the merciless, scurrilous rumor-mongering about Palin and how she has survived it with style just by unapologetically being who she is.

Whatever Sarah Palin’s substantive qualifications for VP may or may not be, I am an aficionado of political mockery and this is the sweetest, sharpest bit of street theater I have seen in decades. It’s a satirical body-slam of every dismissive talking head who has tried to declare Palin unqualified and unserious. It’s worthy of the Yippies in their heyday.

It’s not mainly Sarah Palin I’m admiring tonight, it’s her supporters, for cleverness and sheer brass. But OK, Palin deserves admiration too, for being the kind of person who can survive the most disgusting farrago of baseless shit I’ve ever seen flung at a politician, and for being the kind of person about whom this slogan can be such a devastating counterpunch.

Poor Obama. You have been so quickly and utterly outclassed at the charisma game. And by a gun-toting rural hick from a state nobody trendy ever goes to. That’s gotta hurt.

Of course, for Palin supporters that’s the final turn of the screw. Obama has already been responding to Palin’s presence in the race more than is tactically smart; that’s how he wound up uttering the “lipstick on a pig” gaffe they’re playing off of. He’s fraying, losing his cool. This is a shot — and a shrewd one, I’d say — at driving Obama completely bugfuck, increasing the odds he will melt down with a national audience watching.

None of it has anything to do with substance or issues of course. But considered purely as mindfuck it is beautiful. The Discordian in me bows in awe and respect.

I’m also a bit puzzled. When did conservatives — of all people — learn how to play this sort of game? Obviously while I wasn’t looking…

Sep 12

Timing the Entitlements Crash

Investor’s Business Daily ran a story recently, Tax To The Max, on a Congressional Budget Office study of the U.S. finances.What it says is that spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs is unsustainably high. The study projects tax increases of 150%, with the lowest income-tax bracket going from 10% to 25% and top rates going from 35% to 88%.

The IBD correctly notes: “Allowed to grind on without real reform, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will do what no invading army or cabal of terrorists has done or will ever do: bring this mighty republic to its knees. Increasing federal taxes by 150% will strangle economic growth.”

I think the IBD is too optimistic. Even pushing tax rates to 100% confiscation wouldn’t finance the entitlements black hole at the rate we can expect the client population’s needs to grow — especially not after 2050, when the demographics of the U.S. will tilt in a distinctly less favorable direction. A mere 150% increase in current rates certainly won’t do it. One way or another, the Federal entitlements system seems headed for a terminal crash. The only question is when it will happen.

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