Monday, August 29

More Good from Tim Bray: Ken Arnold on coding style

In an October 2004 article called Style is Substance, Ken Arnold (a former Sun illuminatus with some seriously impressive credentials) details his somewhat heretical stance on coding style: it should be baked into the grammar of the language. And I agree.

Some background for the non-coding readers out there: the programs that turn the gibberish people like me actually type into files that computers can execute are called compilers. Compilers are incredibly picky about most aspects of the syntax they understand; you must match every '{' with a '}', you must end lines with a ';', you must name the file according to this scheme, et cetera et cetera. The variations they do allow are collectively referred to as "style", and us programmers tend to spend a relatively large amount of time arguing about it.

The fact that we do spend so much time arguing about it is indicative that it's at least important enough to argue over, even if it's totally unimportant to the compilers. Inconsistent style is a major, major, problem for code readability (by humans), and it tends to hide logical errors (the kind where what you told the computer to do is a valid thing from its perspective, it's just not what you want). By baking a 'style' specification into the language, not only do you end the argument once and for all but you force people who had inconsistent style to standardize. There's a big code-quality win right there.

Of course, you could argue that this is a solved problem, and that most modern IDEs already provide on-the-fly style adjustment so that it doesn't really matter what gets put into the text file because your editor can display it according to your particular preferences. In fact, I suppose I just did. But hey, at least he got me thinking about it.

Tuesday, August 23

Damion Schubert on game ratings

Note: This blog article is adapted from a comment on the linked article. I was proud enough of the comment that I thought it deserved a post here.

Damion Schubert, one of the A-list MMO-design bloggers, follows up on an ongoing discussion of the current system of rating video games, paraphrasing a BBC article as follows:
Long story short: if parents are aware of the rating system and what ‘M’ means but still buys the game, at what point can all of the blame cease to be placed at the industry’s footsteps.
One of the commenters on Damion's piece, who identifies themselves as "Q", makes the argument that games are often marketed at a wider audience than their rating allows.

Q’s comment reminds me of tobacco advertising, but there are some key differences — like the fact that cigarettes are cigarettes no matter who makes them. Games are much more varied. I really think the more appropriate precedent here is the movie industry. But even that one is a bit weird, because games are so much more removed from their predecessors (tabletop games and physical sports) than movies were from theirs (vaudeville). Vaudeville already had a concept of ‘adult’ content — the burlesque — and motion pictures acquired that trend and marketed themselves to the entire population, with action and adventure and drama and kid’s shows too.

Nintendo did the world a huge disservice saturation-bombing children in the 80s. (I say that as a child of the 80s myself.) If they’d positioned the Famicom as a family entertainment device, for Mom and Dad as well as for The Kids, then I think this fight we’re having right now wouldn’t be happening the same way because the medium wouldn’t be perceived as “for kids”. So in a strange sort of way, there are analogies to the world of comics, too. And hey, look! Comics are under the same kinds of attacks for their adult content!

The Economist’s leader on the issue (may be a pay link; contact me outside the blog if you want the text of the article) was also particularly interesting to me; it pointed out that the condemnation of video games as immoral and corrupting has huge parallels to the similar condemnation of rock&roll in the 50s, which only really died out when its vanguard started to die off. I know that my kids are going to have access to age-appropriate games and comics, the same way as they have access to age-appropriate books and movies and music.

And frankly, I don’t care if my grandparents disapprove.

Monday, August 22

RSS versus Atom, VHS versus Betamax, Ethernet versus Token ring

There's a whole bunch of noise on the metablogs (that is, the blogs that are about blogging! rawr!) about Atom versus RSS, and which technology will be The Winner in the Standards War, and surprisingly enough almost everything I have to say on the topic has already been said in the Slashdot comment thread. I know, strange isn't it, a /. thread that it's full of idiots.

The one thing I think the Atom guys did wrong was not trying to call their format RSS as well. Really, guys -- RSS has the mindshare (such as it is); there was no need to invent an entirely new name for what's actually the same thing. I read an interview with the creator of Ethernet about a year ago, and he said something really telling -- I'm paraphrasing here, but essentially it was that Ethernet was popular enough that whatever replaces it is probably also going to be called Ethernet. It's all about the ergonomics, people! fewer new things to learn is better.

Friday, August 19

Wormsign: Terrorism and Piracy

First, an aside -- I'm not talking about the unauthorized duplication of copyrighted materials. I'm talking about extranational, rogue groups that steal things at sea and in the air. Though it's an interesting bit of propaganda that the content cartels have successfully expanded the definition of "piracy" to include the former, introducing a spurious comparison to the truly awful original meaning of the word.

Legal Affairs' July/August 2005 article entitled The Dread Pirate Bin Laden. Apparently, "international law currently lacks a definition of terrorism as a crime" [from the linked article]. And when you really think about it, it's really hard to come up with one; it's almost as if the actions and methods of terrorism are designed to hamper its definition and categorization by the groups (nation-states) that have the matériel to fight them. A response, you might say, to the evolutionary pressure of an internationally accepted legal framework. That social-Darwinist take on the issue points to an interesting question, then -- if the methods of terrorism arose in response to the formalization of inter-state relations, why didn't it arise at the same time that formalization happened (the late 17th century)? Why did it take three hundred years?

What if it didn't?

I'm sure you see where I'm going here. As the linked article states, in rather impressive (to a layman, at least) detail, there are real and valuable and effective parallels to be drawn between terrorism and piracy. Their crimes share methods, aims, and locuses; even their rhetoric can be compared -- as can the rhetoric of nation-states that are/were affected by them. Perpetrators and victims. I wouldn't be surprised if the laws governing terrorism, when they arise, look very similar to the ones governing piracy. Of course, there are some differences between terrorism-by-piracy and terrorism-by-suicide-attack that are worth mentioning. The latter are harder to spot and probably more ideologically driven than their economically-driven forebears. But ultimately, they're close enough for at least some of the precedent to apply.

Thursday, August 18


Checkerboard Nightmare for Wedneday, Aug 17.

Checkerboard Nightmare's whole gimmick -- one that's sustained the M-W-F strip through four and a half years -- is that its eponymous main character tries all sorts of get-rich-quick gimmicky ways to become a popular webcomic. That'd be funny enough it the comic itself was niche and was read by a couple hundred people and published biweekly, but it's hilarious because it worked. CN is, in the ever-so-unimportant dominance hierarchy of 'western' webcomics, a B-lister, with enough readership that the comic is its creator's day job. And today's comic is the perfect example of what CN's all about -- a witty premise wrapped in self-reference wrapped in an egoism so pure it's actually endearing. A prime example of a metacomic.

I'm sure Pharaoh could chime in here with some juicy postmodern literary criticism here on the topic of the discernability of the true meanings of texts that are their own topics, but I'll leave that in his capable hands. I just think meta- is an intrinsically interesting -- and frequently amusing -- prefix.

Monday, August 15

Raymond Chen has strong code fu.

In a recent blog entry, Raymond (who works for Microsoft in the kernel compatibility team, making sure that new Windows releases don't break old, misbehaving programs) hands us one of the tools in his massive toolbox of arcane problem solving. It's one of those things that is best described as code fu -- it's a perfectly obvious solution to a terrible arcane problem that you never would have thought of. This is a guy who, when he's working, is Really Thinking. And who has an incredibly deep knowledge pool in which to dip the cup of problem-solving, or something.

Pretty rad, I say. Neat tool.

Thursday, August 11

I started what I could not finish.

Dave has the winning blow, and my acknowledgement of defeat, on his blog.

Let this blogpost remain as a testament to those who have fallen, those who were innocent casualties, those whose animatory skill was not up to the creation of the necessary equine appendages.

We mourn their defeat.

This one's mostly for you, Oz.

What's the deal with this Butterflies and Wheels site you reference every once in a while? It reminds me a lot of Operation Clambake, the anti-Church Of Scientology site. A fundamentally sound idea, marred by the fact that reactionaries can't help but sound shrill even when they're on the side of light (so to speak).

yea or nay? NEIGH.

The picture is awesome, yes.

but this one is more so.

...because frankly, the only thing better than a rearing horse is a flying devil unicorn, revelling in the destruction of its enemies.

Wednesday, August 10

Spellcheckers won't always work

This is directly quoted from the abstract to talk number 5929-12 from the SPIE Optics and Photonics Conference, San Diego 2005.
The United States Department of Energy has concluded that hydrogen storage is a cornerstone technology for implementing a hydrogen energy economy. However, significant scientific advancement is still required if a viable on-board storage technology is to be developed. For example, an adsorption process for on-board vehicular storage will require a hydrogen binding energy between ~20-60 kJ/mol to allow for near-room temperature operation at reasonable pressures. Typically, non-dissociative physisorption due purely to van der Waals forces involves a binding energy of only ~ 4 kJ/mol, whereas a chemical bond is ~ 400 kJ/mol. The desired binding energy range for vehicular hydrogen storage therefore dictates that molecular H2 be stabilized in an unusual manor.

Tuesday, August 9

Doggerel in Dactylic Quadrameter

When Pharaohmagnetic was in his second-last year of high school, he and I whiled away many an hour perfecting the trivial; we played roleplaying games, we honed Magic: The Gathering decks, and I critiqued his (knowingly) terrible poetry. Recently, I read a thread on Jeph's boards about goth poetry, all of which apparently ends with the line "I want to die". After IMing him a couple of those off the top of my head, he replied with 6 stanzas he wrote Back In The Day, and I was forced by my irrepressible tendency toward oneupmanship to improve upon them.

Three days later, the poem now has 12 stanzas, and is separated into three quartets. I present, for your amusement and (hopefully) constructive critique, the following:

a light air on the future

Dire straitjackets burning in piles;
Skeleton corpses that stretch on for miles;
Predators painting on palpable smiles,
Where nothing but fangs can be found.

Chewing on carcasses pulsing with blood;
Stepping on maggots that squirm in the mud;
Severing heads that fall off with a thud—
A sickening, resonant sound.

Buzzing and hovering legions of bees
Spreading their filth and horrendous disease;
Swarming on bodies that rot in the breeze-
Spoil and Decay all around.

Evil and malice and hopeless despair
float sickly on poison that hangs in the air;
Creeping to caverns of agony where
The Devourer of Worlds will be crowned.

Rot, in the swamps choked with foetor profane
Wafts from the hoofprints he leaves on the plain;
Even the Heavenly Host goes insane;
His murderous rage is unbound.

Imps of depravity, heralds of doom,
gleefully gibber and sift through the gloom;
The beacons they light throw off pestilent fumes
and waken the carrion hounds.

In grottoes of misery, minions await
with tributes of hellishness, horror, and hate;
The crown in their talons, a king they'll create
With lust for destruction profound.

Tremble before the Destroyer Reborn!
The fatuous Fates flee a future foresworn;
All happiness rent, all pleasure now torn
as the drums of insanity pound.

The blaze of his villainy rages and races;
Burns his work blackly on all the world's places;
Gouges out eyeballs from innocent faces;
Cadavers contort on the mound.

Anguish and torture are speaking in terms
Of violent fever and virulent germs,
Festering flesh that is crawling with worms
Digesting the dead and the drowned.

Rivers of fire that flow to the sea
Carve out new chasms that always will be
Steaming with ashes that never agree
To rest in the air or the ground.

Surveying the desolate world he controls,
Raping a maelstrom of suffering souls,
Evil fulfils its nefarious goals;
Eternal afflictions abound.

Word of Warcraft

Pharaoh linked me today's Lore Brand Comic, which I find hilarious.

Reminds me of the sysadmin tooltoy based on Doom that had you running around with the shotgun on a level with a bunch of those zombie guys with process numbers over their heads -- when they died, that process got kill-9ed.

unprecedented levels of productivity indeed!

Why I hate "Why I hate 'Why I hate x' articles" articles.

Short answer: recursive metacommentary is only funny if you're a tremendous language nerd (computer language or natural language, take your pick).

I was originally going to write a post here about the 500-comment slashdot discussion on the apache-only news article Why I Hate the Apache Web Server, but then I realized that it'd be funnier to start off with another level of recursion.


So the actual rant here today is on the topic of that article! yay! The entire first page of the discussion thread for newspost, which is essentially just a link to a 19-slide PDFized presentation, is various sysadminnish Linux zealots complaining about the file being in PDF. There was no commentary at all that I could see on the content of the article itself (which, frankly, should have been 'why I hate Apache's configuration system', since that's all it talked about). Just a howling, degenerate mess of "re:re:re:re:re:re: I hate PDFS (lol)", describing the various 6-user, 3-years-abandoned, incredibly clunky, PDF viewers that My Favourite Distro ships with. Or worse, their configuration systems. The Signal-to-Noise ratio in that discussion is within epsilon of zero.

Monday, August 8

Rands on Portals

Rands rants on portals. And he's right. I couldn't identify what it was about OMG PORTALS that rang false to me, but now I know -- they're boring, designwise.

And they make ME do the work of figuring out what content should go on them, rather than having some expert I trust do it. It's the wrong interaction paradigm, I think.

Wednesday, August 3

Wacky Signs I've Seen in San Diego

I wish I brought my digital camera. I guess you'll have to take my word for these:

  • Above a baby-changing table in the convention centre restroom: "For future conventioneers"
  • On an official-looking sandwich-board in the middle of the street: "Welcome to San Diego - the city too messed up to fix potholes"
  • Various locations: No Guns Allowed