Holy Crap, I’m Behind

Got super busy with revenue-producing activities, so you’ll have to do with a snarky bullet-point post. Strap in; here we go:

RMS: Still a Dick

The free-software, open-source world is full of characters, many of whom are known by their initials. Probably the most infamous of these is the president of the Free Software Foundation, Richard M. Stallman, or rms. RMS is notorious for his inability to interact with other humans in anything resembling a “human” way, and for his (some would say) infantile insistance on correcting and challenging other people’s choices about technology and software. Stallman believes all software should be open source, and that there is no moral place in society for closed-source software, or proprietary hardware, or anything of the sort. It’s an extreme position really only viable for someone who doesn’t have to interact with the business world more or less at all, but whatever.

Anyway, it should come as no surprise that rms had something to say about the passing of Steve Jobs. He was of course gracious and respectful while also acknowledging their ideological differences, and making the case for his own position.

No, I’m kidding. He said he was glad Jobs was gone, hoped his influence would end, and called all Apple users fools:

Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.

As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, ‘I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone.’ Nobody deserves to have to die — not Jobs, not Mr. Bill, not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs. But we all deserve the end of Jobs’ malign influence on people’s computing.

Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective.

My first reaction is basically “Jesus, what a dick.” That’s not news; Stallman is infamous for inappropriate behavior, and more than a few folks have suggested his cause — the free distribution of software unencumbered by what he considers “onerous” intellectual property rights — would be better served by someone that didn’t seem so content to piss everybody off.

Fortunately, someone over at ReadWriteWeb had the time for an actual takedown:

It’s no secret that RMS and Steve Jobs held firmly opposed views when it comes to software freedom. I didn’t expect Stallman to hold a vigil at an Apple store for Jobs, or even to say much of anything at all. But his ill-considered response does nothing for the cause of free software, and actually does a lot of damage.

[...]

This is, unfortunately, typical of Stallman – and exactly why the self-appointed leader of the free software movement is the last person who should be spokesperson for anything. He manages to offend common decency by celebrating the absence of a man who contributed enormously to the world of computing, and insult millions of Apple users simultaneously. But I see no argument whatsoever here to persuade Jobs’ fans that they should be considering free software. Just a petty expression of relief that a rival is no longer available to compete with Stallman’s cause.

If Stallman had to make a statement emphasizing his dislike of Jobs’ influence, he could still have done so respectfully. Consider this; “I didn’t share Steve Jobs’ vision of computing, and I wish he’d chosen to embrace free software. I’m very sorry that he’s gone and we’ve lost the opportunity to have that conversation. My sympathies are with his family at this time.” There’s no need to pretend that Stallman liked Jobs, but his post is contemptible.

Even if you accept Stallman’s world-views on free software and ethics about software licensing, we shouldn’t be “glad he’s gone.” Jobs’s work has inspired a lot of free software developers over the years, and he and his teams at Apple set a bar for excellence that more developers should aspire to.

It’s unseemly to wish away those we do not agree with. What Stallman is saying, in essence, is that his ideals of free software can only compete with what users want from computing products when they’re less attractive. To me, that says Stallman would be happy to force his ideals on users rather than persuading them that free software actually matters. Or, at least, that he lacks confidence that it’s possible.

There’s more, if you’re geeky enough to care.

Because AT&T Hates You, That’s Why

At Heathen HQ, we pay nearly $30 a month, and have for years, to maintain a plain-old-telephone-service (“POTS”) line just for the alarm system. We use Vonage for our actual telephone, which is infinitely preferable to AT&T’s products.

I finally got fed up with this, and called ADT to see if there was some way to interface the alarm with Vonage. No, they say. No one seems to know why (I can fax with Vonage; seems like the alarm signal would work, but whatever).

What ADT does offer, though, is a quasi-cellular wireless hookup. The device itself is $99. There is no installation fee. It raises my ADT monitoring cost by $15 a month. It’s a no-brainer; they’re coming to install it this afternoon.

Think about this: Cellular alarm monitoring is more cost-effective than land-land. Why? Because AT&T wants to live in your pocket, that’s why. Treat them accordingly.

DEATH TO BENNIGAN’S

No, really. Apparently they — along with many other crappy chains — are in serious dire straits. The linked article notes that the ersatz Irish pub grub chain’s sales are down 88% since 2001. Ouch.

Why? First, people eat out less in a recession. Second, easier access to information about better local options via sites like Yelp made those who DID dine out more likely to choose independent restaurants over corporate crap.

I am completely astonished and pleased by this.

The Bible Tells Me So

We’d all be a lot better off if more the so called “Christians” in public life spent any time reading the Bible. Fred Clark reminded me of this passage I’ll quote completely here; it’s from a part of the Old Testament not all that far from the verses the antigay bozos are fond of quoting — but, then again, those books include all sorts of rules those right-wingers manage to forget, so it’s no surprise they’ve ignored Deuteronomy 24:17-21:

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

Imagine for a minute what it might mean if the idea of “politically active Christian” conjured not images of Pat Robertson and know-nothing right-wingers like Perry and Bachman and Santorum, but of men and women who remember verses like these, or the Sermon on the Mount, or — and this is a real stretch — what the Bible says Jesus actually did and said, and with whom he kept company, instead of cherrypicking Old Testament proscriptions designed to incite hatred and xenophobia in their base.

Yeah. Never happen. But it’s nice to think about.

Today in short book reviews: REAMDE

Stephenson’s latest is best skipped, frankly. It’s a turgid mismash of unearned and unplausible coincidences stapled together with NS’ trademark deep-dive research. Unlike his prior works, which typically used a fine story (“ripping good yarns,” even) to explore some other topic (nanotech, cyberspace, monetary development, etc.), this time it’s a scattershot explosion of whatever stuck on the wall — MMORPG gaming, money laundering, international terrorism, great circle air traffic planning, immigration, firearms, drug smuggling, northwestern geography, and Eritrean adoptees.

No, really. It’s kind of a mess, and feels lacking in the craft I found in even the more self-indulgent portions of the Baroque cycle, or Anathem.

PICTURES! We got PICTURES!

Dating back to last spring, actually. Moral: Is more fun to take than to edit and process.

Posted in Pix

The Geek You Didn’t Know

God knows we here at Heathen are Apple fans, though sort of accidentally — we lack the zeal of of the true believers, but by and by we seem to have accumulated one of about everything Apple makes. We’re sad about Steve, obviously. 56 is entirely too young (Christ, I can SEE that from here), and the guy was still churning out hits. It is not exaggeration to say that, without him, the personal computing landscape would be very, very different — and most likely much less interesting, and much less usable by the broad population. He didn’t invent the personal computer, but he did a huge chunk of the work required to get it to a place where my 76-year-old stepfather can use it without calling me.

But this post isn’t about Steve. This post is about Dennis. You Heathen are a geeky bunch, but even so most of you have know idea who Dennis Ritchie was, or even that he died Saturday at the age of 70, but the odds are overwhelming that, in reading these words, you’re enjoying his work.

Dennis Ritchie wrote C. The partially-geeky among you will recognize this as a programming language, but it may have never occurred to you that languages, too, must have authors. C is now ubiquitous. It is no exaggeration to say that C and its derivatives (most famously C++, but also Microsoft’s C# and the Objective C that Apple favors, among others) run the world. The definitive book on the language has a real title, but it is known to coders the world over as “The K & R book.” The “R” is, of course, Ritchie.

But that’s not all. C is intimately tied to the Unix operating system, which is also Ritchie’s work, along with his colleagues Brian Kernighan (the “K” mentioned above) and Ken Thompson. You may have heard of Unix, but you (again, the noncoding Heathen) have no idea of the scale of its reach in your life. Unix runs everywhere, in some flavor or another. That commercial flavors have fallen from favor in recent years is of no consequence, because their de facto successor is Linux, which began life as a noncommercial, open, and free implementation of the same ideas. Without Unix there is no Linux. More than that, though, the world wide web as you know is based on Unix ideas and tools and protocols. Without Unix, the Internet itself would not be the same.

Today, variants of Unix run on countless devices — every Apple device running OSX or iOS is running a variant of something called FreeBSD, which is itself a variant of Unix. Android runs on Linux. The New York Stock Exchange? Linux. Your Tivo runs Linux. This site, and countless others (including Google, Amazon, and Facebook), is hosted on Linux. The firewall at your office probably has a Linux kernel. VMWare, the dominant virtualization platform in the world, is based on Linux.

Much was made last week of how many folks learned of Jobs’ passing on an Apple device. I’m sure the figure, if it could actually be measured, was a very high percentage. If we ask an equivalent question about Ritchie, though, the answer is easy: All. There is no communications channel in modern use that does not, somewhere, rely on his work or its descendants.

Humble pioneers are known for admitting that, in the words of Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Apple’s modern success and resurrection are based on a solid software platform, the sine qua non of any technological endeavor. Steve clearly saw further than his contemporaries, but Dennis Ritchie was one of the giants who gave him a leg-up.

Godspeed, Dennis.

Update: This tribute post is worth reading, too. I didn’t cover it here, but it’s not just the C was influential and remains essential; it was also hugely groundbreaking in terms of portability. What Ritchie and his colleagues did with C — i.e., creating a portable computer language not beholden to idiosyncrasies of the various computing hardware platforms — was widely considered impossible at the time. Or, as the linked writer put it:

C is a poster child for why it’s essential to keep those people who know a thing can’t be done from bothering the people who are doing it.

Dept. of Documentaries We Want To See

It has come to our attention that there is a new documentary about Big Star.

Sadly, the web site seems to be completely devoid of information regarding screenings, or streaming opportunities, or even a mailing list. Awesome.

(For the uninitiated, the wikipedia entries on the band and its most famous member are useful; you almost certainly know at least one of their songs already, as a truncated version of “In the Street” was used as the theme song for “That ’70s Show.”)

Dept. of SERIOUS Overreach

Balko: “The House Judiciary Committee passed a bill on Friday that would make it a federal crime for U.S. residents to discuss or plan activities on foreign soil that, if carried out in the U.S., would violate the Controlled Substances Act.”

In other words, they want U.S. law to govern you no matter where you are. So: Planning to buy some special brownies in Amsterdam? That would be illegal under this law.

Cephalopods are better at hiding than you are

It’s another BB hit, but it includes a bit of data I didn’t have: Octopi are very, very good at matching color, and they do it by sight, but they are color blind.

Go watch the video.

The other thing is this: Octopus camouflage isn’t about looking like the background. It’s about hiding itself from observers, and those can be two very different things.

The Only Heathen Post on Amanda Knox

I don’t really have an official position on whether or not Knox killed whomever it is she supposedly killed in some ill-defined drug-fueled sexcapade, but I have inadvertently become aware that Nancy Grace considers her release a miscarriage of justice, which — based upon only the most cursory review of other coverage — seems to be something of a contrarian position.

This makes me more or less certain that cutting Knox loose was precisely the right thing to do, regardless of whether or not she killed anybody, based on my theory that anything that makes this bleating harpy unhappy is, by and large, good for humanity.

It’s the little things

You’ve by now probably all seen Apple’s home page which, in a week they’re launching a new iPhone revision, is nevertheless dominated by their memorial to their founder and leader. That’s classy.

What you may not have noticed unless you’re really nerdy is that the photo of Steve has the name “t_hero.png”.

Computing pioneers, like rock stars, are all mostly postwar baby boomers. Actually, the rock stars — the first ones, like the Beatles Jobs idolized — are a bit older, which is hilarious. In either case, though, we’re on the narrow leading edge of a demographic inevitability. The next 20 to 30 years will be costly in terms of musical and technological giants, but I’m a bit at a loss to figure any whose loss we’ll all feel as acutely as this one.

Say what you will about the remaining Beatles or the Stones, but their best work is undeniably years behind them — Jobs was still churning out vastly influential hits.

He was able to do this because, as he was fond of quoting, he liked Apple to “skate to where the puck will be.” He started doing this very early. From a 1985 interview he gave with Playboy — when he was all of 31 — we find an early example. Younger Heathen (are there any?) may find it hard to believe, but back then the broad reaction to computers was “well, they’re cool, I guess, but what can you do with them that’s useful?”

Playboy: Those are arguments for computers in business and in schools, but what about the home?

Jobs: So far, that’s more of a conceptual market than a real market. The primary reasons to buy a computer for your home now are that you want to do some business work at home or you want to run educational software for yourself or your children. If you can’t justify buying a computer for one of those two reasons, the only other possible reason is that you just want to be computer literate. You know there’s something going on, you don’t exactly know what it is, so you want to learn. This will change: Computers will be essential in most homes.

Playboy: What will change?

Jobs: The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it into a nationwide communications network. We’re just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people‐‑as remarkable as the telephone.

Playboy: Specifically, what kind of breakthrough are you talking about?

Jobs: I can only begin to speculate. We see that a lot in our industry: You don’t know exactly what’s going to result, but you know it’s something very big and very good.

Now, the Internet existed in 1985 — I got my first email address only two years later — but it was nerdland, and very few were thinking even a little bit that grandmothers might use it to look at pictures of their grandkids someday. Apparently, Jobs was in that crowd, which is how we find ourselves with devices today that delight instead of confound, and how, odds are, you learned about his passing on a device he made. Lots of you will read this post on one, too.

Godspeed, Steve. We’ll miss you.

(It’s proper to note that, given the twin legacies he’ll leave, Bill Gates may well be the runner up here. His contribution to computing hasn’t been as dramatically evolutionary or as prolonged as Jobs’, but his business savvy and technical acumen did much to make business computing a foregone conclusion. His real legacy, though, may turn out to be the fact that after having founded Microsoft and become the richest man in the world — a title theretofore usually held by inheritors of wealth, not self-made men — he decided to take on a new, ambitious humanitarian mission instead of settling into a very expensive and luxurious retirement.

But nobody ever stood in line for a new copy of Windows.)