Smartphones and servers

(GeekStuff)

2011-10-14 12:33
Comment [2]

Apple’s new “intelligent agent”, Siri, is taking a page from Wolfram Alpha and trying to answer questions in a funny manner — leading to an amusing blog entitled Shit That Siri Says.

Intelligent agents have been a dream for a long time. And by “dream” I mean “not reality”. Consider SatireWire’s classic Interview With The Search Engine.

Now, here’s a thing. Ask Jeeves launched in 1996 or so. That interview was probably closer to 2000. So… let’s just compare hardware for a moment, shall we?

In 2000, Intel’s processors were the Pentium III, Pentium III Xeon, and Celeron, roughly. The exact ranges varied. Realistically, you could probably have a 600MHz processor by then. Or a couple of them, in a very expensive server.

In 2011, the iPhone 4S, which is what Siri is really aimed at, is coming out. It’s got a dual-core “A5” processor running at, rumors tell me, around 800MHz.

Now, MHz aren’t really an apples-to-apples comparison, but in a lot of ways, the advantage is often with modern hardware, even when that’s specialized low-power hardware. It’s a tradeoff, but there’s certainly a reasonable comparsion to be had. Which is to say. That five ounce phone is, quite likely, faster than the servers with which Ask Jeeves was running even in 2000. In 1997, they’d probably have been running with a Pentium Pro or maybe a very early Pentium II, at maybe almost as much as 300MHz.

Just think about that for a bit. You know why phones and tablets are so good now? Because they are dramatically faster than the machines you got used to. And that’s why intelligent agents, like Siri and Alpha, are starting to be only sometimes funny, and are actually sometimes useful now — they have enough speed and power to do things like “keep a bit of context so their answers aren’t completely illucid”, and they’ve got a lot more information, and power to process it, than they used to.

I’m still not entirely equipped to handle how fast things are these days. We are living in the era of infinite computing power. Getting used to this, and its implications, takes a while.

Peter Seebach

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Thanks, dmr

(GeekStuff)

2011-10-13 11:13
Comment [2]

You’ll be missed.

Peter Seebach

Comment [2]

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Why Steve Jobs did more for free software than RMS did.

(GeekStuff)

2011-10-11 14:00
Comment

No one denies that Richard Stallman is a very smart guy. He’s also an asshole. Most recently, he’s been ranting about how glad he is that Steve Jobs is dead. In the past, he’s done classy stuff like tell people to stop wasting time on their kids and work on bug fixes for his software.

Now, here’s the thing. It’s easy to say that he’s probably sort of autistic, and this explains his lack of empathy. You betcha it does! Yes, yes indeed. That’s why he has no empathy.

But it’s not why he’s an asshole, and it’s not why his software tends to suck.

I don’t have any empathy to speak of either. I can laugh when people I love are in pain because something about the situation is funny. (Interestingly, this is actually a fairly useful trait, because I cheer people up.) But I think about other people, and this makes me… well, often less of an asshole, except when I’m doing it anyway.

Steve Jobs was a big promoter of what was unambiguously unfree software, and RMS has been a big promoter of free (“as in speech”) software. But I put it to you that Steve Jobs has done more to actually increase the amount, availability, and utility, of free software than RMS has.

This may surprise you, but give it some thought. RMS is far from the only person ever to give away code. He wasn’t the first. And the way in which he has gone about it, the GPL, has been a major barrier in many cases to other people adopting and using that code. Competing licenses, like the MIT or BSD licenses, offer people more actual freedom. RMS has, for the most part, been a source of drama and FUD. Someone at the FSF once informed me that if it was possible for someone to link my code into a GPLd program, that meant that I had to release my code under GPL also. Obviously, that is not how licensing works, but RMS has built a culture of promoting crazy talk like that.

Crazy talk like that scares people away from involvement.

The GNU project has a long history of gratuitously breaking compatability with the rest of the world. The most famous example is their “info” documentation, which frequently results in the standard-format documentation being unmaintained, incomplete, and useless. There’s others. But more importantly, the GNU project has a history of writing astonishingly bad interfaces. Their interfaces are insanely muddled, inconsistent, and frequently impose arbitrary or stupid limitations.

And that’s where we get to Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs understood that people don’t, for the most part, want the abstraction “computer”. They want to get things done. And Steve Jobs built an empire out of building software around human expectations, rather than trying to retrain people to match software. The net result is that…

Look, I’m not afraid of computers. I program compulsively. I enjoy messing around with the guts and internals. And I’m typing this on a Mac, because the Mac lets me just get stuff done without thinking about how, so I can save the thinking about how as an exercise for when I want to do it.

Now, you might quite reasonably argue that building good proprietary interfaces doesn’t sound like it helps free software, but… We learn from these interfaces. Ever notice that Android phones use a lot of the guesture stuff that Apple introduced on the iPhone? That’s because it’s easy to copy a good interface. (Though hard to copy it well; android’s UI is still crap compared to the iPhone, but it copied enough to be at least mostly usable.)

RMS’s contributions to the state of the free software world are ultimately entirely replaceable, and in many cases the benefits are arguably overshadowed by the many ways in which he’s crippled project development by being politically stupid and hostile. If RMS had not been there to do this, frankly, I don’t think we’d be worse off. We’d probably be better off without the politics and drama.

What Jobs gave us was, so far as I can tell, irreplaceable. He had vision, and moved us a lot closer to ubiquitous computing. And you know what? Even if we never get a single line of code directly from all those pretty things (this, of course, won’t happen — much of it has been made available as open source), the improvements in quality of life and efficiency for millions of open source programmers will still mean that more good free code gets written.

It’s sad, because it doesn’t have to be this way. RMS may have no empathy, but so what? I don’t have any empathy. And yet, I’m nice to people. Not because of empathy, but because I thought about what I want the world to be like, and I want the people in it to be happier. For all his flaws, Jobs ultimately wanted to make people happier too. RMS, so far as I can tell, has never given any thought to making people happier.

Peter Seebach

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This is what I consider fun

(GeekStuff)

2011-10-10 18:21
Comment [3]

Got a bug report. Studied the bug report. In it, apparently, a variable was ceasing to have its former value. Like, someone stored 3.0 in a variable, and a bit later, it was no longer equal to 3.0.

Mysterious? No. Not at all.

What’s mysterious is discovering that the variable is still equal to 3.0, but that the literal constant “3.0” in the source code isn’t anymore.

I now have a test program in which I can write printf("%f\n", 3.0); and get 0.000000.

That was a ton of fun, because it took me forever to figure out that I was looking at the wrong side of the problem.

Peter Seebach

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Charity marathons for people who do not actually run

(Personal, GeekStuff)

2011-10-10 14:18
Comment

So, I’ve signed up for one of those charity drive marathon things. The gimmick is, instead of running 26 miles, we’re playing video games for 24 hours.

Yeah, it’s silly. But it’s a fun kind of silly, and I am told that in general kids like it when they get medical care. … Well. More precisely, adults like it when they got medical care as kids. Kids do not always like it at the time.

Anyway, if you are sitting around thinking “gosh, I just wish I could find a charity to throw money at”, I sorta like this one, and it’s an excuse to play video games, which of course I desperately need. Without this kind of justification, it’s entirely possible that I’d barely play video games for 13-14 hours this Saturday.

Peter Seebach

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This is why people never ask me questions

(Personal)

2011-10-07 16:18
Comment

Discussing a bug report:

coworker: The weird part is that his instructions did not include (vital step).
seebs: Maybe they started with a project with that already done.
seebs: Or maybe they’re dadaists and this was a performance art piece.
seebs: About 30% of bug submissions make more sense once you allow for that
coworker: performance art with toolchains? Is that even ethical?
seebs: The ethics review committee was doing a sort of slow interpretive dance wearing suits made out of newspapers when we asked. We took that as a “yes”.

… The amazing thing is that, by and large, the stuff I’m responsible for is in very good shape. Probably because people mostly don’t take the risk of asking me open-ended questions.

Peter Seebach

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Gay rights activists win right to be shot at openly

(Personal, Politics)

2011-10-04 11:07
Comment [1]

I am not sure this was well considered. It is now in some cases legal to tell an openly gay guy to stand somewhere and be shot at, where previously you would have been required to send him somewhere that he wouldn’t be shot at.

Peter Seebach

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You don't look sick

(Personal, Autism)

2011-09-20 13:52
Comment [2]

So, my spouse got diagnosed with autism recently, which explains one of our recurring problems: I’m the only one who can usually handle talking to strangers on the phone.

This can be a problem when, say, dealing with a credit card company, who have imprinted like baby ducks on the notion that you have to speak over the phone to the primary cardholder, and no other form of communication can be an acceptable substitute. Note that this is probably one of the most insultingly weak security mechanisms I’ve ever seen; I can tell you where to find roughly three billion people who could convince a phone rep that their legal name was “Jessica”.

The problem is that there’s no obvious physical problem. It’s not like laryngitis. Can’t talk on the phone isn’t a physical problem; it’s not inability to hear, or inability to speak. It’s a purely cognitive thing where Something Goes Wrong when confronted with a phone. I don’t have it nearly as strongly, but I sort of get it, and I don’t think there’s words that explain it in English unless you already have it. In which case “can’t talk to strangers on the phone” is perfectly obvious; it’s that problem.

People who do this aren’t faking, they aren’t lazy, they’re just unable to do something for a reason which isn’t obvious.

It doesn’t help, at all, that phone reps are in general trained to respond to questions with outright lies about laws and policy, and there’s usually no reliable record of what they said. I wish that “this call may be monitored” were an ironclad guarantee that there IS a recording which is available to the caller as well and that promises made by phone reps were treated as contractually binding. I think customer support would improve a lot if reps weren’t encouraged to lie about what they can do.

Peter Seebach

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Great innovations in cat activity: Being chased by the tail

(Personal)

2011-09-07 09:33
Comment

One of the cats we take care of has a problem. There is something that goes wrong with his butt occasionally which requires (trivial) medical intervention. Nothing serious, fairly common in cats, etcetera.

Thing is. When it happens, the lack of integration in the cat becomes a problem. He’s never quite figured out why there are large cat feet near him, and sometimes he washes them and sometimes they kick him in the face. And sometimes there is suddenly a cat butt behind him and he has no idea why.

So when he develops discomfort in his rear end… he becomes terrified. THERE IS A BUTT. BEHIND HIM. He runs himself absolutely ragged trying to get away from this cat butt. He cowers in corners. He runs suddenly from one place to another. I have never before heard a cat who wasn’t within a day or two of dying breathe like that before. He collapses in total exhaustion, eventually, until he recovers enough to… do it all again.

So far, this has always manifested at times when it involves the after-hours surcharge at the local vet, and having to call someone in the late evening to come look at a cat’s butt. I am sure that it’s the glory of the job that attracts vets.

Still, for all that the poor cat is probably the dumbest cat I’ve ever known, he is a great creative thinker. Lots of cats chase their tails; this is the first one I’ve seen reverse the process.

Peter Seebach

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Always, always, always.

(Personal)

2011-09-06 17:40
Comment

A person I know recently sent an email to me, on another topic. One sentence really stuck out to me:

Men always, always, always refuse to take “no” at face value.

Wow. The reason, I think, that this stuck out so much was the obvious pointlessness of reading any further. This… This is some fucked up shit. This is not a sane thing. This is not a thing that is compatible with living in a world containing both men and women. This is a pean to sexism that makes Schopenhauer’s On Women seem like a radical call to equality between the sexes.

No, I did not misread this. No, I am not reading too much into it. If someone says “X are always Y”, it is quite reasonable to say “this is mere hyperbole, not a true absolute”. At “always, always”, you are still within the realm of things you could handwave as some kind of figure of speech. But at three “always,” you have entered the realm of absolute statements.

There are not many absolute statements you can make about “men” or “women”. I think I could be persuaded that “Men are always, always, always male humans” would be a defensible position. I wouldn’t grant anything about X or Y chromosomes, or self-identification, because I’ve met the exceptions, and they’re pretty cool people.

Once you get to the point where you can’t be happy unless you categorically deny the humanity and individuality of half of your species, you’re fucked up. We can’t help you from there, least of all those of us you consider “men”. You are out there in your own private hell, and the worst of it is of your own making. Nothing anyone ever did to you was as destructive as the years you have spent or will spend fearing and hating half of humanity. You’re an adult, you have free will, you have the ability to think. You could accept that humans are full of variety, and treat them as individuals. You choose not to.

It’s always weird realizing that someone’s not-sane. Not the kind of weird craziness I’m used to in my friends, but the kind of denial of reality that lets people form thoughts like “all those people over there are worthless”. And once you can claim that men, or women, or whites, or blacks, or autistics, or neurotypicals, or gays, or straights, or Christians, or Muslims, always do some thing… You have declared them to be, at the very least, less-real than yourself. That is not sane, and it is a kind of insanity that is dangerous not just to you, but to other people.

Scary stuff.

Peter Seebach

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