Apr 07

Out on the tiles

I’ve been experimenting with tiling window managers recently. I tried out awesome and xmonad, and read documentation on several others including dwm and wmii. The prompt cause is that I’ve been doing a lot of surgery on large repositories recently, and when you get up to 50K commits that’s enough to create serious memory pressure on my 4G of core (don’t laugh, I tend to drive my old hardware until the bolts fall out). A smaller, lighter window manager can actually make a difference in performance.

More generally, I think the people advocating these have some good UI arguments – OK, maybe only when addressing hard-core hackers, but hey we’re users too. Ditching the overhead of frobbing window sizes and decorations in favor of getting actual work done is a kind of austerity I can get behind. My normal work layout consisted of just three big windows that nearly filled the screen anyway – terminal, Emacs and browser. Why not cut out the surrounding cruft?

I wasn’t able to settle on a tiling wm that really satisfied, though, until my friend HedgeMage pointed me at i3. After a day or so of using it I suspect I’ll be sticking with it. The differences from other tiling wms are not major but it seems just enough better designed and documented to cross a threshold for me, from interesting novelty to useful tool. Along with this change I’m ditching Chatzilla for irsii; my biggest configuration challenge in the new setup, actually, was teaching irssi how to use libnotify so I get visible IRC activity cues even when irsii itself is hidden.

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Apr 02

Natural rights and wrongs?

One of my commenters recently speculated in an accusing tone that I might be a natural-rights libertarian. He was wrong, but explaining why is a good excuse for writing an essay I’ve been tooling up to do for a long time. For those of you who aren’t libertarians, this is not a parochial internal dispute – in fact, it cuts straight to the heart of some long-standing controversies about consequentialism versus deontic ethics. And if you don’t know what those terms mean, you’ll have a pretty good idea by the time you’re done reading.

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Apr 01

AGW panic ending with a whimper

This is how the AGW panic ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The Economist, which (despite a recent decline) remains probably the best news magazine in the English language, now admits that (a) global average temperature has been flat for 15 years even as CO2 levels have been rising rapidly, (b) surface temperatures are at the lowest edge of the range predicted by IPCC climate models, (c) on current trends, they will soon fall clean outside and below the model predictions, (c) estimates of climate sensitivity need revising downwards, and (d) something, probably multiple things, is badly wrong with AGW climate models.

Do I get to say “I told you so!” yet?

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Mar 28

What does crowdfunding replace or displace?

In How crowdfunding and the JOBS Act will shape open source companies, Fred Trotter proposes that crowdfunding a la Kickstarter and IndieGoGo is going to displace venture capitalists as the normal engine of funding for open-source tech startups, and that this development will be a tremendous enabler. Trotter paints a rosy picture of idealistic geeks enabled to do fully open-source projects because they’ll no longer feel as pressed to offer a lucrative early exit to VCs on the promise of rent capture from proprietary technology.

Some of the early evidence from crowdfunding successes does seem to point at this kind of outcome, especially near 3D printing and consumer electronics with a lot of geek buy-in. And I’d love to believe all of Trotter’s optimism. But there’s a nagging problem of scale here that makes me think the actual consequences will be more mixed and messy than he suggests.

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Mar 24

Python speed optimization in the real world

I shipped reposurgeon 2.29 a few minutes ago. The main improvement in this version is speed – it now reads in and analyzes Subversion repositories at a clip of more than 11,000 commits per minute. This, is, in case you are in any doubt, ridiculously fast – faster than the native Subversion tools do it, and for certain far faster than any of the rival conversion utilities can manage. It’s well over an order of magnitude faster than when I began seriously tuning for speed three weeks ago. I’ve learned some interesting lessons along the way.

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Feb 26

Mode of the Reposturgeon!

It was inevitable, I suppose; reposurgeon now has its own Emacs mode.

The most laborious task in the reposurgeon conversion of a large CVS or Subversion repository is editing the comment history. You want to do this for two reasons: (1) to massage multiline comments into the summary-line + continuation form that plays well with git log and gitk, and (2) lifting Subversion and CVS commit references from, e.g., ’2345′ to [[SVN:2345]] so reposurgeon can recognize them unambiguously and turn them into action stamps.

In the new release 2.22, there’s a small Emacs mode with several functions that help semi-automate this process.

Fear the reposturgeon!

Feb 24

Norovirus alert – how to avoid spreading it

For about 24 hours beginning last Wednesday evening I had what I thought at the time was a bout of food poisoning. It wasn’t, because my wife Cathy and then our houseguest Dave Täht got it. It was a form of extremely infectious gastroenteritis, almost certainly a new strain of norovirus that is running through the U.S. like wildfire right now. Here’s what you need to know to avoid getting it and giving it to others:

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Feb 14

Penguicon Party Preannouncement

No details yet, but this is a heads-up: I will be at Penguicon 2013, 26-28 April in Pontiac Michigan…and there will be a second annual paty for friends of Armed & Dangerous (or FOAD – now where have I seen that before?)

Convention info at http://2013.penguicon.org/

Feb 03

Sugar turns twenty

This is a bulletin for Sugar’s distributed fan club, the hackers and sword geeks and other assorted riff-raff who have guested in our commodious basement. The rest of you can go about your business.

According to the vet’s paperwork, our cat Sugar turned 20 yesterday. (Actually, the vet thinks she may be 19, but that would have required her to be only 6 months old when we got her which we strongly doubt – she would have had to have been exceptionally large and physically mature for a kitten that age, which seems especially unlikely because her growth didn’t top out until a couple of years later.)

Even 19 would be an achievement for any cat – average lifespan for a neutered female is about 15, and five years longer is like a human hitting the century mark. It’s especially remarkable since this cat was supposed to be dead of acute nephritis sixteen months ago. Instead, she’s so healthy that we’ve been letting the interval between subcutaneous hydrations slip a little without seeing any recurrence of the symptoms we learned to associate with her kidney troubles (night yowling, disorientation, poor appetite).

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Feb 02

Is closed source worth it for performance?

The following question appeared in my mailbox today:

If a certain program (that you need) was proprietary, and its open-source counterpart was (currently) 40% slower. Which would you use, the open-source one or the proprietary one?

The answer is: it depends. I’m going to answer this one in public because it’s a useful exercise in thinking about larger tradeoffs.

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Jan 28

Coding Freedom: a review

My usual audience is well aware why I am qualified to review Gabriella Coleman’s book, Coding Freedom, but since I suspect this post might reach a bit beyond my usual audience I will restate the obvious. I have been operating as the hacker culture’s resident ethnographer since around 1990, consciously applying the techniques of anthropological fieldwork (at least as I understood them) to analyze the operation of that culture and explain it to others. Those explanations have been tested in the real world with large consequences, including helping the hacker culture break out of its ghetto and infect everything that software touches with subversive ideas about open processes, transparency, peer review, and the power of networked collaboration.

Ever since I began doing my own ethnographic work on the hacker culture from the inside as a participant, I have keenly felt the lack of any comparable observation being done by outsiders formally trained in the techniques of anthropological fieldwork. I’m an amateur, self-trained by reading classic anthropological studies and a few semesters of college courses; I know relatively little theory, and have had to construct my own interpretative frameworks in the absence of much knowledge about how a professional would do it.

Sadly, the main thing I learned from reading Gabriella Coleman’s new book, Coding Freedom, is that my ignorance may actually have been a good thing for the quality of my results. The insight in this book is nearly smothered beneath a crushing weight of jargon and theoretical elaboration, almost all of which appears to be completely useless except as a sort of point-scoring academic ritual that does less than nothing to illuminate its ostensible subject.

This is doubly unfortunate because Coleman very obviously means well and feels a lot of respect and sympathy for the people and the culture she was studying – on the few occasions that she stops overplaying the game of academic erudition she has interesting things to say about them. It is clear that she is natively a shrewd observer whose instincts have been only numbed – not entirely destroyed – by the load of baggage she is carrying around.

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Jan 24

Charisma: a how-to

A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me how he could become more charismatic.

Because the term “charismatic” has unhelpful religious connotations, let’s begin by being clear what he was actually asking. A person is “charismatic” when he or she has the ability to communicate a vision to others in a way that makes them sign up for making it real. Sometimes the vision is large (“Change the world!”) sometimes it is relatively small (“Become as cool as me!”).

My friend asked me how he could become more charismatic because he has seen me do the charisma thing a lot. This relates to my previous blogging on practical prophecy. A prophet has to be charismatic, it’s a requirement to get people to actually move.

Before he asked me about it, I would not have thought charisma was something that could be explained in detail. But questions properly posed sometimes elicit knowledge the person answering was not consciously aware of holding. That happened in this case; I found myself explaining four modes of charisma.

Here is what I told him.

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Jan 21

How to fix cable messes

A friend of mine recently posted this image of a hideous network-cable tangle:

A hideous tangle of network cable

A hideous tangle of network cable.

I have invented an algorithm for fixing this kind of mess. Probably other people have developed the same technique before, but it wasn’t taught to me and I’ve never seen it written down. Here it is…

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Jan 08

How do you bait a trap for the soul?

You bait a trap for a mouse with tasty food. How do you bait a soul-trap for people too smart to fall for conventional religion? With half-truths, of course.

I bailed out of an attempt to induct me into a cult tonight. The cult is called Landmark Forum or Landmark Education, and is descended from est, the Erhard Seminars Training. The induction attempt was mediated by a friend of mine who shall remain nameless. He has attended several Landmark events, praises the program to the skies, and probably does not realize even now that he has begun to exhibit classic cult-follower symptoms (albeit so far only in a quite a mild form – trying as hard as he did to to recruit me is the main one so far).

“But Eric. How did you know it was a cult?”

Oh, I dunno. Maybe it was all the shiny happy Stepford people with the huge smiles and the nameplates and the identical slightly glassy-eyed affect greeting us several times on the way to the auditorium. Maybe it was the folksy presenter with the vaguely Southern accent spewing pseudo-profundities about “living into your future” and “you will get Nothing from this training” (yes, you could hear the capital N). Maybe it was the parade of people telling stories about how broken they were until they found Landmark.

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