Feb 03

How…does this even work?

Here is a curious fact.

My wife Cathy is using Duolingo to learn German; she wants to be able to read sources on Iron Age and Viking costume in the original.

Duolingo takes her through a lot of pronunciation drills.

I’ve learned something by listening to her – which is that somehow, somewhere, I have internalized a very precise understanding of German phonology and phonotactics. As in, I not only know right pronunciation from wrong, I give her detailed advice on how to match Duolingo’s model speaker that we can both tell is correct.

What makes this weird is that I don’t speak German. At all. Nor have I ever lived where it’s spoken; I’ve visited Germany once, German-speaking Switzerland once, and that’s it.

This raises questions in my mind:

1. How the fuck? I mean, I suppose it’s related to my knack for generating names in the style of any specified language, and I could handwave about Markov-chain models, but…how the fuck?

2. What dialect of German have I templated on? Could there be any way to tell?

3. What other entire language phonologies have I swallowed … without … me … actually … noticing …

4. Does this happen to other people?

The human brain is a very odd thing.

Feb 01

Down the feminist rabbit hole

I fell down a rabbit hole today. By reading this: An Incomplete Guide to Feminist infighting. Bemused, I chased links and read manifestos and counter-manifestos for a couple of hours until the sources just began to repeat themselves. But in some respects my confusion was just beginning.

As I was falling through all these diatribes like Alice wondering how deep the rabbit hole goes, one of the thoughts uppermost in my mind was Poe’s Law: “Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.”

There was no humor down this rabbit hole. I found myself in the land beyond parody. On this evidence, I suspect it would be nigh-impossible to write a literate spoof of modern feminism that even many of its disputants wouldn’t blithely mistake for a real ideological position. And I found myself thinking of the Sokal Hoax.

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Jan 31

FOAD 2014 Party Pre-Announcemrnt

This is a pre-announcement of the second third Friends of Armed & Dangerous party.

FOAD 2014 will be held at Penguicon 2014, in Southfield, MI, almost certainly on the evening of Saturday May 3rd (but we don’t have a confirmed party-floor booking yet).

I believe John Bell is planning to run a Geeks with Guns the Friday before, so come equipped. Yes, personal weapons are considered an article of proper attire for the FOAD party – especially firearms or swords.

More details as they become available.

Jan 16

Dragging Emacs forward

This is a brief heads-up that the reason I’ve been blog silent lately is that I’m concentrating hard on a sprint with what I consider a large payoff: getting the Emacs project fully converted to git. In retrospect, choosing Bazaar as DVCS was a mistake that has presented unnecessary friction costs to a lot of contributors. RMS gets this and we’re moving.

I’m also talking with RMS about the possibility that it’s time to shoot Texinfo through the head and go with a more modern, Web-friendly master format. Oh, and time to abolish info entirely in favor of HTML. He’s not entirely convinced yet of this, but he’s listening.

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Jan 07

Tackling subjectivity head on

In a response to my previous post, on Acausality and the Scientific Mind, a commenter said: “The computationalist position necessarily entails that subjectivity does not really exist, and what looks like subjectivity is a mere illusion without causal force.”

There are, I’m sure, many vulgar and stupid versions of computationalism that have this as a dogma. But it is not at all difficult to construct a computationalist model in which there are features that map to “subjectivity” and have causal force. Here is a sketch:

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Jan 05

Reposturgeon and Santa Claus Against The Martians!

Here’s a late New Year’s gift for all you repository-editing fiends out there: the long-awaited and perhaps long-dreaded reposurgeon 3.0.

In Heads up: the reposturgeon is mutating! I described the downside of a strategy of incremental small language changes aimed at preserving compatibility: you can wind up trapped by suboptimal early decisions. Sometimes, you have to bust out and do the big redesign, which I did and why there’s a bump in the major version number (the last time that happened was when reposurgeon got the ability to read Subversion dump files directly).

The biggest change is that the command language syntax has mutated from VSO to SVO. What? You’re not up on your comparative linguistic morphology and gave no idea what I’m talking about? That’s Verb-Subject-Object to Subject-Verb-Object.

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Dec 28

Announcing cvs-fast-export 1.0

Not long ago I pulled the plug on one of the two CVS export utilities I was maintaining. One consequence of this is that I decided I needed to get the other one out of beta and into a state I would be willing to ship as 1.0.

And lo, it has come to pass. I just shipped cvs-fast-export 1.0. It has been well field-tested; a couple of weeks ago I used it to rescue the history of Gnu Troff.

There are several CVS exporters out there that suck pretty badly. (To be fair, the perversity of CVS is such that doing an even half-decent job of lifting CVS histories into a modern version-control system is quite difficult.) Now that this one is shipped I know of exactly two that don’t suck. The other one is Michael Haggerty’s cvs2git, which I’m working with him on improving.

Tradeoffs: cvs2git is slow and a bit clunky to use (I’m improving the latter but can’t fix the former). cvs-fast-export is blazingly fast (like, 3.7K commits a minute) but has a hard repository-size limit – above it you run out of core and the OS reaps the process in mid-flight. (Very few projects will hit this limit.)

For each tool there are weird CVS edge cases that it gets wrong. The sets of edge cases are different. cvs2git’s may be smaller, but I’m not sure of that; we haven’t set up head-to-head testing yet. Most projects will not trip over either set of problems.

cvs-fast-export is better documented, especially around error conditions.

Help stamp out CVS in our lifetime!

Dec 23

De-normalizing dissent

I really hadn’t been planning to comment on the Duck Dynasty brouhaha. But conservative gadfly Mark Steyn (a very funny, witty man even if you disagree with his politics) has described the actual strategy of GLAAD and its allies with a pithy phrase that I think describes wider circulation – “de-normalizing dissent”.

OK, let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Judged by his remarks in Esquire, Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson is an ignorant, bigoted cracker who reifies almost every bad redneck stereotype there is. His religion is barely distinguishable from a psychotic delusional system. Nothing I am about to say should be construed as a defense of the content of his beliefs.

On the other hand, Steyn has a point when he detects something creepy and totalitarian about the attempt to hound Robertson out of his job and out of public life. True, nothing GLAAD has done rises to the level of state coercion – there is no First Amendment issue here, no violence or threat of same in play.

But what GLAAD and its allies are trying to accomplish is not mere moral suasion either; they’re trying to make beliefs they disapprove of unspeakable in polite society by making the consequences of expressing them so unpleasant that people will self-censor. In Steyn’s well-chosen phrase, they’re trying to de-normalize dissent.

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Dec 20

Your new word of the week: explorify?

There are a lot of things people writing software do in the world of bits that don’t have easy analogs in the world of atoms. Sometimes it can be tremendously clarifying when one of those things gets a name, as for example when Martin Fowler invented the term “refactoring” to describe modifying a codebase with the intent to improve its structure or aesthetics without changing its behavior.

There’s a related thing we do a lot when trying to wrap our heads around large, complicated codebases. Often the most fruitful way to explore code to modify it. Because you don’t really know you have understood a piece of code until you can modify it successfully.

Sometimes – often – this can feel like launching an expedition into the untamed jungle of code, from some base camp on the periphery deeper and deeper into trackless wilderness. It is certainly possible to lose your bearings. And large, old codebases can be very jungly, overgrown and organic – full of half-planned and semi-random modifications, dotted with occasional clearings where the light gets in and things locally make sense.

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Dec 11

How to demolish your software project with style

I did something unusual today. I pulled the plug on one of my own projects.

In Solving the CVS-lifting problem and Announcing cvs-fast-export I described how I accidentally ended up maintaining two different CVS-to-something-else exporters.

I finally got enough round tuits to put together two-thirds of the head-to-head comparison I’ve been meaning to do – that is, compare the import-stream output of cvs-fast-export to that of cvsps to see how they rate against each other. I wrote both git-stream output stages, so this was really a comparison of the analysis engines.

I wasn’t surprised which program did a better job; I’ve read and modified both pieces of code, after all. Keith Packard’s analysis engine, in cvs-fast-export, is noticeably more elegant and craftsmanlike than the equivalent in cvsps. (Well, duh. Yeah, that Keith Packard, the co-architect of X.)

What did surprise me was the magnitude of the quality difference once I could actually compare them head-to-head. Bletch. Turns out it’s not a case of a good job versus mildly flaky, but of good job versus suckage.

The comparison, and what I discovered when I tried to patch cvsps to behave less badly, was so damning that I did something I don’t remember ever having felt the need to do before. I shot one of my own projects through the head.

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Dec 05

Heads up: the reposturgeon is mutating!

A few days ago I released reposurgeon 2.43. Since then I’ve been finishing up yet another conversion of an ancient repository – groff, this time, from CVS to git at the maintainer’s request. In the process, some ugly features and irregularities in the reposurgeon command language annoyed me enough that I began fixing them.

This, then, is a reposurgeon 3.0 release warning. If you’ve been using 2.43 or earlier versions, be aware that there are already significant non-backwards-compatible changes to the language in the repository head version and may be more before I ship. Explanation follows, embedded in more general thoughts about the art of language design.

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Dec 02

shipper is about to go 1.0 – reviewers requested

If you’re a regular at A&D or on my G+ feed, and even possibly if you aren’t, you’ll have noticed that I ship an awful lot of code. I do get questions about this; between GPSD, reposurgeon, giflib, doclifter, and bimpty-bump other projects it is reasonable that other hackers sometimes wonder how I do it.

Here’s part of my answer: be fanatical about automating away every part of your workflow that you can. Every second you don’t spend on mechanical routines is a second you get to use as creative time.

Soon, after an 11-year alpha period, I’m going to ship version 1.0 of one of my main automation tools. This thing would be my secret weapon if I had secrets. The story of how it came to be, and why it took 11 years to mature, should be interesting to other hackers on several different levels.

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Nov 05

Finally, one-line endianness detection in the C preprocessor

In 30 years of C programming, I thought I’d seen everything. Well, every bizarre trick you could pull with the C preprocessor, anyway. I was wrong. Contemplate this:

#include <stdint .h>

#define IS_BIG_ENDIAN (*(uint16_t *)"\0\xff" < 0x100)

That is magnificently awful. Or awfully magnificent, I'm not sure which. And it pulls off a combination of qualities I've never seen before:

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Oct 30

Dell UltraSharp 2713 monitor – bait and switch warning

I bought a Dell-branded product this afternoon. That was a mistake I will not repeat.

Summary: the 2713UM only reaches its rated 2560×1440 resolution when connected via DVI-D. On HDMI it is limited to 1920×1080; on VGA to 2048×1152. This $700 and supposedly professional-grade monitor is thus functionally inferior to the $300 Auria I still have connected to the other head of the same video card, which does 2560×1440 over any of these cables.

Two things make this extra infuriating:

I spent more than four hours on the phone with three different Dell technical-support people to find out that not only don’t they know how to fix this, nobody can give any reason for it. It’s a completely arbitrary, senseless limit. The monitor’s EDID hardware apparently tells lies to the host system that low-ball its capabilities. This couldn’t happen by accident; somebody designed in this nonsense.

And then neglected to tell potential customers about it. Nothing anywhere in the promotional material for this monitor even hints at these limits, and Dell’s own technical support people haven’t been clued in either. Bait and switch taken to a whole new level.

(Why did I buy a Dell product? Because it was the only thing I could get my hands on same-day that matched the specs of my other Auria, which went flickery-crazy early this afternoon.)

When I unloaded about this on Tech Support Guy #3, he passed me to a marketing representative. I explained, relatively politely under the circumstances, that I has over 15K social-media followers and was planning to give Dell a public black eye over their repeated bungling unless somebody gave me a really good reason not to.

She declined to send me $400 so I wouldn’t have been taken worse than by buying another Auria, then passed me to somebody she described as a manager. But I could tell by the accent he was just another drone in a call center in East Fuckistan who had neither the ability nor the intention to improve my day. After two more iterations of this I had had enough and hung up.

Dell. You pay more, but you’ll get less. Pass it on.

(Yes, I typoed the model number originally.)

Oct 29

Your money or your spec

reposurgeon has been stable for several months now, since the Subversion dump analyzer got to the point where people stopped appearing in my mailbox with the Pathological Subversion Repository Fuckup Of The Week.

Still, every once in a longer while somebody will materialize telling me they have some situation in a repo conversion that they want me to help them fix. The general form of these requests is like this. “I have {detailed description of a branch/merge topology nightmare that makes Eric’s brain hurt to contemplate}. What do I do to fix it?”

I am now going to announce a policy about this. There are exactly two ways ways you can get me to solve your repository problem.

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