May 06

What I have learned from science fiction

I began reading science fiction almost exactly 40 years ago, when my family was passing through Orly airport in Paris while moving from London to Rome. My parents liked to encourage all five of their kids to read; we were told we could have one magazine of our choice from the newsstand. I picked a copy of Analog, a magazine I’d never seen before. It had a gorgeous Kelly Freas cover featuring a man being menaced by a dinosaur-like creature with gorgeous polychrome scales. I have it still.

Science fiction has given me entertainment and escapism, for sure – but it has given me ever so much more than just that. It has given me puzzles to chew on, examples to admire, philosophical questions to mull over. By thinking about fictional worlds, I learned a perhaps surprising amount about the real one – not so much facts as useful habits of thought, perspectives, fruitful ways of asking questions.

Here are some of them…

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May 02

I may have to disable IntenseDebate

I may have to disable IntenseDebate. The interface for approving/deleting/spam-flagging posts seems broken since sometime yesterday; I suspect some sort of database problem at, as my local Javascript hasn’t changed.

If you have left a comment which has not appeared, have patience. I will try untangling the mess from my home machine Sunday night when I get home from my current road trip.

Apr 30

Irrational Expectations

The reactions to my posting on the economic case against the GPL reminded me yet again why failure to understand basic economics often becomes more toxic in people who think they understand a bit about the subject. In this mini-essay, I’ll take a look at the most important (and misleading) of the superficially clever arguments I saw in responses.

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Apr 27

RMS issues ukase against Software as a Service – and I agree it’s an iffy idea

In a recent O’Reilly interview, Richard Stallman utters an anathema against software-as-a-service arrangements, calling them “non-free” and saying “you must not use it!” It would be easy to parody RMS’s style of uttering grave moralistic sonorities as though he were the Pope speaking ex-cathedra, but I’m going to resist the temptation because I think in this case his concerns are quite valid.

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Apr 02

Hyperpower and high finance

In a 2002 blog entry, Imperialists by necessity?, I wrote:

There is precedent [for civilizing barbarians by force]; the British did a pretty good job of civilizing India and we did a spectacularly effective one on Japan. And the U.S. would be well equipped to do it again; our economy is now so large that we could run a globe-spanning empire from the petty-cash drawer. Seriously. The U.S, a hyperpower so dominant that no imaginable coalition of other nations could defeat it at conventional warfare, spends a ridiculously low percentage of GNP (6%, if I recall correctly) on its military.”

A commenter ask how the financial crisis in the U.S. (and elsewhere) changes this, and others brought up the possibility that the U.S. could be starved of critical resources . My answers are: it changes less than you might think, and a hearty guffaw. There are a couple of facts on the ground that it’s easy to lose sight of during the political panic of the week.

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Mar 29

Freeing technical standards

I grew up on Internet RFCs, so technical standards issued under licenses that forbid free redistribution offend me. Every such document, whether intentionally or not, is a device for hindering open-source software projects and privileging closed-source developers with big budgets and lawyers to hand.

They offend me even more when (as, for example, when the GPS reporting standard NMEA 0183) the proprietary “standard” is so badly designed that a mob of crack-addled rhesus monkeys could have done a better job – and for this they want me to pay? They offend me the absolute most when the “standard” is distribution-restricted, expensive, badly written, and its topic is a safety-critical technology – so that people could actually die because some jerk wants to collect a trivial amount of secrecy rent on a standard that was crappy to begin with.

Fortunately, there is a way to monkeywrench the organizations that perpetrate this sort of thing – and I’ve spent a substantial part of the last couple of weeks doing exactly that. I’m writing about it here to encourage others to do likewise.

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Mar 26

Please forget to FLOSS

In email to a third party, copied to me, Linux activist and long-time friend Rick Moen comments on the acronym FLOSS (usually explanded “Free, Libré, and Open Source”.

I continue to find it difficult to take seriously anyone who adopts an excruciatingly bad, haplessly obscure acronym associated with dental hygiene aids. We learned in the late 1990s a number of lessons about how not to market free / open source, and the idiots who keep coming up with bad ideas like “FLOSS” and “FOSS” are determined to rush, like urban-legend lemmings, off the very cliff of PR incompetence that we so painfully learned to finally avoid, a decade ago. I’m sorry, but those people need to be cluebombed and routed around until they stop shooting at everyone’s feet.

I couldn’t have put it better myself, so I’m not going to try.

Near as I can figure, the only appeal this term has is a sort of lily-livered political correctness, as though people think they’d be making an ideological commitment that will cause petulant screaming from a million basements if they pick “open source” or “free software”.

Well, speaking as the guy who promulgated “open source” to abolish the colossal marketing blunders that were associated with the term “free software”, I think “free software” is less bad than “FLOSS”. Somebody, please, shoot this pitiful acronym through the head and put it out of our misery.

Rick adds:

The problem with [FOSS and FLOSS] isn’t merely that that they sound like goofy nutjob organisation investigated by Emma Peel and John Steed. Worse, it is that neither term can be understood without first understanding both free software and open source, as prerequisite study.

That isn’t merely gross marketing failure; it’s a semantic black hole that sucks marketing into it, never to be seen again. It’s a finely executed study in nomenclature incompetence – and I can’t help noticing it’s promoted by, among others, the same crowd who were doing such a masterful job of keeping free software an obscure ideology prior to 1998.

Er. Yes. Quite…

Mar 18

Doug McIlroy makes my day

Yeah, that’d be the Doug McIlroy. Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie’s boss when they were inventing Unix, himself one of its early co-designers, and the inventor of the Unix pipe.

He was very helpful when I was doing The Art of Unix Programming in 2003. Hadn’t heard from him since then until he emailed me out of the blue today to say good things about the manual I wrote for GNU PIC. Good Web rendering here; googling may turn up other copies.

He said:

I just read your manual for gnu pic. It’s a great job.
I’ve found that almost invariably follow-on descriptions of
Unix are either (1) too verbose or (2) too incomplete. When I
saw the page count I instinctively assigned this document to
category 1. But I had to read it, for man pic on Linux is
category 2. Only after I had finished and revised my opinion
to “this is a real keeper” did I go back to the title page to
see who wrote it.

Praise from the master is praise indeed. I am a happy Eric today.

I haven’t felt quite like this since Donald Knuth emailed me a bug fix for INTERCAL…

Mar 14

Sugar and the Bathroom Demon

I am now going to blog about my cat.

No, I have not succumbed to the form of endemic Internet illness in which someone believes the cuteness of his or her feline surpasses all bounds and must therefore be shared with the entire universe. But my cat’s behavior raises some interesting questions about animal (and human!) ethology, which seem worth a little thinking time. There are three things that puzzle me in particular: the nature of the bathroom demon, some aspects of her nurturing behavior, and the mystery of the purr.

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Feb 23

Why GPSes suck, and what to do about it

I’m the lead of the GPSD project, a service daemon that monitors GPS receivers on serial or USB ports and provides TPV (time-position-velocity) reports in a simple format on on a well-known Internet port. GPSD makes this job looks easy. But it’s not — oh, it’s decidedly not — and thereby hangs an entertaining tale of hacker ingenuity versus multiple layers of suck.

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Feb 12

Translation Errors

God Wants You Dead is an entertaining and subversive little book that reminded me of a well-known controversy in the translation of the Judeo-Christian Bible. Most educated people probably know that in Isaiah 7:14 it is prophesied that the Messiah will be born of an ‘almah’ of the House of David — and thereby hangs an ambiguity over which much ink and blood have been spilled.

Reading this, I was reminded of something most people don’t know — that a similar translation problem lurks even nearer the root of Christian theology…

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