Out of the Quickmuck

It’s been a slog, but finally, 400pp in, Stephenson’s Quicksilver is starting to come to life. It’s about time, considering that the second book is out already, and I hate getting lapped by the paperback of a novel.

I still need to finish Jasper Fforde’s first book (The Eyre Affair) and his second, since my wife did. And for some unfathomable reason I restarted Gravity’s Rainbow — no, I know, I wanted to compare Stephenson and Pynchon, got a few pages in and was hooked again (damn, Pynchon makes the Blitz and early post-war Germany so poetic…).

John Burdett’s Bankok 8 is captivating (but half read, and I need to get on with it). Nearly done with Alan Glynn’s The Dark Fields (a rather horrifying tale of a pill that makes you lots smarter). Toss in a few old Computing Surveys (mostly oldish articles on database implementation, a hobby I guess) and the first couple of chapters of a book on DirectX-9 shaders, and you have my past couple weeks’ reading, modulo some noodling with paperbacks (Walter Jon Williams Angel Station, whizzed through Rocket Ship Galileo because it was there and it had been 15 or 20 years, maybe a couple that I forget). Where does the time go?

Didn’t go to the book signing on Friday after all. “I’m not a fan, I just read the stuff.” That my copy of The Confusion is signed is mere coincidence, trust me.

I watched the last 45 minutes of the Skiffy Channel’s attempt at Riverworld, and it sucked so badly that I was entranced. The Riverworld is supposed to be metal poor, so the poor blighters don’t build airplanes or rockets or anything else plot-breaking, yet in the made-4-teevee version the characters are duking it out with metal swords. Lots of wooden acting, bad fighting choreography, bodies falling into the river. At one point a boat has to make a high tide (the. riverworld. doesn’t. have. tides). This has gobbler written all over it.

Also queued up, SciFi’s Children of Dune miniseries. Two hours in, it’s pretty good. Actually, after watching the first two hours I think I finally know what was going on in the rather miserable Dune Messiah. I’ll have to dig out the CoD paperback and re-read it; it was decent, as I recall. (God Emperor of Dune wasn’t quite as good, and everything from there on was pretty bad).

The David Bowie concert in Seattle on the 14th was pretty good. The opening act, The Polyphonic Spree, was pretty bad (imagine peppy, pop-ish and very repetitive choir music that simply refuses to end).

Everything I hold is a hammer

People use subclassing too much.

The is-a relationship is a powerful one. All too often I see subclassing being used to save typing, rather than to express that an object really is a refinement of another.

If you have a Vehicle class that has a VIN attribute, a ToyCar probably does not belong as a subclass of Vehicle. Sure, you could return null or throw an exception or something. But are you really going to ride in a toy car, or report its sale to the DMV? You can rationalize, but the fact remains that the VIN attribute either belongs somewhere else, or ToyCar needs to go elsewhere.

Rule of thumb: If you’re designing classes to saving keystrokes, you’re probably in trouble.

Spam report

Just a quick report: I’m getting about 500 pieces of spam a day now. This is a huge improvement over the 300 or so that I was getting before the Can Spam act was passed.

I’m also grateful for the increased chocolate and coffee rations.

Legislation never fixes anything. Even the best law is ultimately an employment vehicle for lawyers, judges, police and prison guards.

This is depressing. Then again, I haven’t had coffee yet this morning.

Joe Job

Some asshole has done a “Joe Job” on fyyff.com, using random return addresses pointing to my domain.

Death and destruction. Partial defenestration, slow torture, a public hanging, and the mailing of body parts to the other spammers. More later. God, what a bunch of pathetic scumbags.

Taggin’

About 200 brits were mistakenly tagged as crooks due to a “clerical error.” If anything, this is what the database-driven police state is going to look like. It will collect information from inaccurate credit reports, public records scanned-in by bored public servants, out of date police files, and typos everywhere. Then it will be mangled by the cousins of the junk-mailers who dream up those wonderful alternate spellings of your name, merged with a decades-old IRS database still running on EBCDIC, run through a set of flaky perl scripts written by beltway bandit contractors who make more money on support than they do on original projects, then distributed haphazardly to dozens or hundreds of agencies and treated as utter gospel.

I think I forgot to mention the outsourcing.

“When there is more than one copy of the truth, there is no truth.” When lies and mistakes are replicated into private databases, they can be impossible to eradicate; delete all but one, and the bad information can still be replicated, just like any pathogen. It can take months to correct one simple piece of information in your credit report [I had to update a phone number last year, and made dozens of phone calls, many to companies who just act as further gathering agents and “caches” of info], and you can’t talk to a human being without buying a copy of your report.

I would expect it to be much more difficult to edit a “security-related” database that is guarded by bored paranoids who fundamentally don’t care that you can’t function in society, or that you got arrested by mistake, or can no longer fly, just because someone accidentally clicked the wrong checkbox. Or maybe you got an Ellis Island style name change, and it’s spread. “Sorry, Mr. Smit4, you’ll just have to live with it until the judge can effect the name change.” [Which will be approximately never, because he can’t find your bloody records].

A good answer to the question “Why are you worried if you have nothing to hide?” is along the lines of “How do I know, and from whom?” It doesn’t matter if your driver’s license photo and thumbprint and collection of RFID tags [1] match you; if the database backing them up can’t be trusted then you’re still not “safe” and the politicians and law enforcement types have sold you a bill of goods. Naturally.

I believe in a Gibsonite world of flaky, hackable databases and connivable networks much more than I believe that the Vinge Singularity is likely; as things get more complex, they get more flaky. Even if we jump-start AIs that are smarter than us (in certain areas, anyway), isn’t it a natural tendency for intelligent beings to invent stuff that is just beyond their control?


[1] “I’ve got all my city and state government tags on this arm, then the federal stuff goes on the other. Let’s see, Safeway and QFC have to be on opposite sides of the body, or they fight. Car and phones and power tools in my palms — man, I wish Sears could standardize on just two or three of these things. Banking, here and here. Credit cards right over my chest, and I shield those in public so I know I’m not spending any money. Matching tags for my kids, over my heart, of course. There are a bunch more, I’m basically running out of places to put these, and I hear that the DMV wants to move to the Mark-IV DynaSTix system next year, so there’s another, the third time they’ve tried to get their act together.

“No, I never was into punk rock. But it sure looks like it, dunnit?”

Tag, You’re It

When you tell a lie, be sure to tell it big and deny, deny, deny. Of course the only reason we want to put RFID tags in every car is that it’s for your safety.

Range, up to a mile. That smacking sound you hear is the FBI and its kin licking its lips. Just love those Total Survellience Agency snackies. Can’t believe that they think we’re this stupid, but if you just keep lying until it happens, at some point it’s fait accompli.

“Madam, for reasons of National Security, I must now ask you to remove all–“

Titles

Vernor Vinge is a computer science professor and science fiction writer whose work I admire (actually, he’s recently retired from CS to write full time). I like his writing because he brings a computer-centric view of technology to the genre, and he does it in a believable way. This, versus the Hollywood vision of computers exploding, or yanking people into virtual realities, or plotting thermonuclear war. Vinge is a practical visionary. I think that he thinks Perl will be around a thousand years from now, regardless of what its name will be. Vinge supplies a geeks-eye-view of the world, where the geeks triumph and everything makes sense. Well, like I said, it’s fiction.

Anyway, Vinge has invented a number of job titles for his stories, such Programmer-at-Arms (someone who runs a fire control system) and Software Archeologist (don’t we all do a little of this?). I’ve invented a few more.

If we can have software engineers and architects, surely we can also have folks at the other end of the life cycle. The Digital Demolitions and Disposal experts are crackerjack at surgical removal of entrenched systems; they can remove badly written, corroded apps from critical running systems without bringing down the databases immediately next door. As for the toxic waste, some systems are best shredded, melted down with thermite and entombed under a desert mountain before being bombed from orbit. Anything related to OS/2 or written in FORTH probably falls into this category. These guys will make sure that the old code never sees light of day again, lest the disease spread any further.

If you can’t figure out what a Systems Theologist would be good for, ask yourself the next time you’re doing a hot fix for a really pissed-off customer, and the patch has to work…

To a great extent we are already suffering the Deconstructionistas. These whitebearded academics issue missives from their ivory towers that no one understands, much less cares about. Titles like “Log-N Sorting Utilizing Voronoi Trees in Minority Computing” and “A Comparative Study of Brace and Indentation Style in Textile Firmware” could indicate that the grant and fellowship policies of many universities need some debugging.

Systems Humorist. “My mom thinks I work in High Tech.” After weeks of beating compilers into submission, shoehorning command lines into 2,000 characters or less, dealing with undocumented registry settings that seem to come back out of nowhere, reinstalling your system from scratch for the 30th time because the bean-counters won’t shell out for a new hard drive . . . it’s a wonder anything works at all. On days like this you want to call in the clowns. The Systems Humorist is the person responsible for bringing comic relief into the System That Grew Too Large And Important. For instance, as you reach the end of your rope, thirty hours into unspringing a race condition buried somewhere in fifty thousand lines of code that only happens every two weeks, you run across the funny comment that cracks your face with a smile.

Senior Scapegoat. Every project needs someone to blame. Why go to the trouble of finding a different person every time something goes wrong? Instead, make it an official role; that person will take the blame for the catastrophes and bad decisions, and the project can move on without the delay of a witch hunt. (Oh, you want something done about what went wrong? That usually doesn’t happen anyway, so why bother?) I’ve had cow-orkers volunteer themselves for this position, but management never really understood the benefit.

The Old Man in the Back Room. This is the fossil who is kept in an office that is usually located in the basement or next to the old lab in back. He’s ancient, crusty and crude, and he smokes, and he’s often not around, and he never attends meetings, but he knows the core of every product the company has shipped, and will answer any question that you’re brave enough to ask. Someone has hacked the HR database to keep him in a stipend sufficient to keep him alive and in cigarettes, but that’s really all he wants. That, and the opportunity to save the company’s butt every year or two (“They’re using Valgol again? Tried that in the 70s, didn’t work. [spits] Here’s a web page with all the answers.”)

I haven’t talked about the Chief Bozo and Bottle Washer, the Hallway Idiot, the Cross-Dressing Psychotic, and a host of characters truly Dilbertsian and terrifying. I’ve run out of time and need to go to work. Add your own 🙂

Dirty Birds as Harbingers of Doom

According to The Register, Sun is killing off its UltraSparc V project, code-named Eagle. I guess this is a shame (maybe they have something better in the pipeline?). I’ve never been a fan of Sparc (basically, register windows suck), and the various product names have always reminded me of Ian Banks’ ship name Ultimate Ship The Second — I guess the first iteration wasn’t ultra or ultimate enough.

[We need an official ordering of Ultra, Mega, Super, and so forth. It’s too easy to get confused. “Is this GigantoSparc-8000 faster than the Whopper-432?” It’s like trying to buy detergent in the 1950s, where the Giant size of something could weigh half that of Regular.]

There are two rules of thumb that you can use to sell a tech company’s stock short. The first rule is: Any time a company starts building a campus, the stock is going to tank, and it might not come back up. (Evidence: Atari, Apple, 3Com, Sun, AMD, and a whole raft of others that I’ve forgotten). I don’t know why; maybe by the time that a company starts having problems that management thinks a campus can solve, it’s too late (and maybe a campus wouldn’t help fix those problems anyway). Or perhaps it’s a hubris thing, God’s response to companies that promote truly bad architecture (“You wanna build something that looks like a cruise ship ramming a high school? Okay, but it’ll cost ya.”)

The second rule of thumb is, any time a company starts a save-the-company project code-named “Falcon,” start diversifying. Falcon was the name of a save-the-company phone thingy at Atari (it is truly too incredibly lame to credibly describe; my friend Jack told me they were into double-letter PC board revisions before the lights went out). HP has had at least one project named Falcon. There have been a few others over the years. While the correlation between a Falcon and a company disaster is more tenuous than the campus connection, due to secrecy we might not know about all the Falcon projects that have been started. Keep your ear to the ground for the F-word.

Sun has courted failure — I’d even say tickled it — by naming a major project after a bird closely related to the falcon. The next few months will tell us whether the rule is falcon-specific, or general to birds of prey.