At the spin doctor’s

“Here is the bill. You are not going to like it.”

“Jesus! What’s this? Three hundred for –”

“That is three hundred million for advertising reinforcement, to shore up failing rhetoric.”

“Couldn’t it have gone another couple weeks? I mean, the rhetoric was still almost working. Kind of.”

“When you brought your campaign in for service, you said ‘Whatever it takes’, yes?”

“Um, yup.”

“Well, that is what was required. Please keep reading.”

“Fake polls to shore up incumbents, okay. Transportation to and from stumping sites at taxpayer expense, check. Secret jails for enemies of the people and anyone who can spot electronic vote tampering, check. Hey, what’s this one, for just a dollar?”

That was so full of holes we couldn’t do anything except remove it entirely, but you will not miss it.”

“Right, it’s not like we were using it anyway. Visa?”

“You know we deal in cash only.”

“Oh, right. Laetro, pay the man.”

“Thank you. Did you say you wanted the parts?”

“Nah. What good’s a ripped-up piece of paper?”

quant. suff.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
     – Arthur C. Clarke

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is insufficiently documented.”
     – me

“What I said.”
     – Arthur C. Clarke [… well, not really]

“Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.”
     – mgv on Slashdot

therefore . . .

“Any sufficiently incompetent documentation is indistinguishable from malicious technology.”

or, “Why I don’t have a degree in philosophy.”

l337 5p3a4

I swear to God, I’m going to backhand and then throttle the next Linux geek I hear say, “Well, <whatever> is easy if you actually know how to read a manual, recompile the kernel, configure X, set up your ip forwarding and filters, make sure that the …”

Curmudgeon Alert

It’s funny how things I once thought were cool are now things I now hold as abominations from the slimiest pits of hell.

Take makefiles. I once wrote a freeware version of make because I needed one that worked on both VAX/VMS and MSDOS. That version of make persisted around the microcomputer software development world for years (you can still find it). For a while I was proud of it. It’s probably my first published tool (yeah, it shows). I got a lot of work done with it, but I’ve moved on.

Fast forward twenty years, and many of the projects I work with have makefiles whose sizes are in the multi-megabyte range. The word “suck” beggars the problem, these monsters are one or two dimensions removed from mere suckage. They are undebuggable, write-once, “just print out what’s going on and see if that last tweak worked” affairs. Is the build going to work? The suspense builds, hour by hour… nope, you don’t get to go home. Thanks, make!

Make is a good idea taken to extremes, and as near as I can tell its replacements only muck with syntax and plaster over warts. In the physical world, if make was a beam made of steel it would have shrieked in agony and snapped into whinging bits of shrapnel years ago. But in the realm of software there are few physical limits besides our patience and our sanity, and we are free to torture our tools to our limits. The fundamental problems of dealing with complex builds remain unaddressed. There’s still no debugger, there’s still no way to simulate (much less visualize) what is going on, and builds still take hours out of my life and they still break.

We haven’t moved on past make, and we desperately need to.

Registries. Have you seen “Dirty Jobs”?

I used to think that registries were a cool idea. Well, maybe they are; certainly getting rid of three dozen files in “/etc”, each with its own cute little different language (here ‘#’ is a comment, over here you say ‘/’, while saying ‘!’ in this file does the trick . . . and that’s only for comments). But you only have to look at the abuses of the registry made by COM and so forth (Mac folks only have to look as far as the Resource Manager, by the way) to make you a believer in retroactive paycuts for certain classes of (um) designers.

I swear to God that I’m back to INI files. Simple, understandable, and every bloke who knows about File/Save in TextEdit knows they can muck with a configuration file and have a hope of recovering an application’s sanity if they screw up. Tried to back up a registry recently?

These days I’m going for simple and I’m going for robust, because if I have to type in one more miserably designed XML tree where the developer decided it was necessary to qualify the God damned printer by Planet, SolarSystem and Galaxy sub-nodes I’ll probably rip the batteries out of my laptop and hurl them flaming into the XML section of Borders and Noble. (Hint: Why did things go wrong in this universe? Why does it take sixteen linear feet of bookshelf space on XML to satisfy market demand, when you can only find one dusty copy of SICP on the shelf? Yeah, yup, bingo).

Yet more books

Jon Courtney Grimwood’s Stamping Butterflies doesn’t make any sense until the last chapter. Throughout the book, the real plot revolves around the question of how three essentially unrelated stories (one set in the 70s, one in present day, and one on a Dyson sphere, years and years from now) are really hooked together. The connection is pretty obvious, when it comes down to it, but the execution is done well. I think the book needed stronger editing, but on the whole it was worthwhile.

Non-fiction fluff: David Bodanis was a favorite author of mine in the 80s, and his The Secret House — an examination of everyday life from a microscopic viewpoint — is still worth reading (the bugs and chemicals he talks about haven’t gone anywhere in a decade or two, really). Bodanis lays an egg with E=MC^2, as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t break any interesting ground; most of the interesting factoids have been stuck in the back quarter of the book as footnotes, instead of being woven in to the text in a creative manner. You won’t learn much from this, but I guess it makes good bathroom reading.

I’m trying once again to read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun, starting with Nightside the Long Sun. Unfortunately, like the title of the book, little of the prose makes sense. The characters’ behaviors are random and incomprehensible, their conversation makes little sense, the society depicted seems ill. Maybe this is the point, but I’m unable to get past the fifty or sixty page mark, the point I reached when it was first published.

Finally, Variable Star.

I won’t bore you with the whole story about how the book came to be. Suffice to say that Spider Robinson wrote Variable Star from an outline made by Robert Heinlein in 1955. It’s pretty good, but I’ll go further and risk lynching by die-hard Heinlein fans: It’s better than anything that Heinlein himself wrote after Friday (or possibly Job).

With all of that said, it’s still a book by Spider Robinson, and I found parts of it jarring, thinking that “Heinlein wouldn’t have mentioned X, or used this word, and certainly would never have written about that.” But in the end I think it’s okay. There appears to be room for a sequel. That would probably not be okay. It might not be as bad as the treatment of George Herbert’s Dune universe (link), but I can see it happening in the hands of a weaker author and publisher.


Not sure if I mentioned John McPhee’s latest, Uncommon Carriers. Just get the bloody thing; he’s still one of the best essayists breathing.

What I’d Like to Hear

“if you listen closely…”

“If you listen closely to some of the leaders of the Democratic Party, it sounds like –”

“they think the best way to protect…”

“– it sounds like — ”

“…the American people…”

“they think the best way to protect the American people is –”

“wait until we’re attacked”

“wait until we’re attacked again.”

“Wave, take three questions.”

“Wave –”