blarg?

The Wire


13:29 <humph> it feels good to do something about all the ideas that keep you up at night

I’ve come across a couple of essays recently that have lodged themselves in my apparatus like some swarm of intellectual candiru. They seemed to arrive all at once. I don’t know what the full impact of them will eventually be but in terms of my writing, the quality of the work that I do and the substance of what I’m working on at all I don’t know now that I can settle for what I have and have done. I’m not sure what that last sentence actually means yet, but for the last few days I’ve had these vague, jagged notions rattling around my insides. By never really choosing, I’ve chosen to be way too aimless in what I’ve done and how I’ve gone about it for way too long.

These excerpts are nothing; to get the meat of these essays, you’ll need to read them.

The first, on journalism as a conveyance of a well-informed understanding, is Matt Thompson’s essay on The 3 key parts of news stories you don’t usually get.

Read that story, and you might be surprised by how much Gawande focuses on his reporting process. At every turn, Gawande walks you through exactly what he sees, who he’s talked to, and how he comes to his conclusions. In one vignette, he gathers six doctors for dinner, and reproduces highlights of their conversation on the costs of medical care. It’s extraordinarily effective, both as a narrative and as a piece of journalism.

What Gawande did was to structure his search for truth as a quest narrative. Instead of hiding the details about how he comes by his information, he makes that the very focus. Along the way, he makes us apprentices in his quest for truth. We finish the article with a highly refined sense of how Gawande has acquired and verified the information he presents, as well as a framework for further inquiry of our own.

We get a lot more out of this type of reporting, in other words, than the vast majority of news stories, which leave these details out.

Number two is a five-year-old article by Gopal Kapur, called “I’m OK, The Bull Is Dead”, which Whedon fans will recognize as one of Joss’ favorite storytelling tools:

Early in my career, when I worked as an engineer, my boss had a process by which the engineering team was expected to report project status. He insisted that we use the following steps, in the specified order:
1. Punch line: The facts; no adjectives, adverbs or modifiers. “Milestone 4 wasn’t hit on time, and we didn’t start Task 8 as planned.” Or, “Received charter approval as planned.”

2. Current status: How the punch-line statement affects the project. “Because of the missed milestone, the critical path has been delayed five days.”

3. Next steps: The solution, if any. “I will be able to make up three days during the next two weeks but will still be behind by two days.”

4. Explanation: The reason behind the punch line. “Two of the five days’ delay is due to late discovery of a hardware interface problem, and the remaining three days’ delay is due to being called to help the customer support staff for a production problem.”

Notice the almost reverse order of these points in comparison with the common reporting style in which team members start with a long explanation of why things went wrong.

The third is Manfred Mann’s recent post, Better.

[...] to be honest, I don’t have a specific agenda for what I want to do all that differently, apart from what I’m already trying to do every day:

  • identify and destroy small-return bullshit;
  • shut off anything that’s noisier than it is useful;
  • make brutally fast decisions about what I don’t need to be doing;
  • avoid anything that feels like fake sincerity (esp. where it may touch money);
  • demand personal focus on making good things;
  • put a handful of real people near the center of everything.

All I know right now is that I want to do all of it better. Everything better. Better, better.

To underscore, I have no plan to stop making dick jokes or to swear off ragging people who clearly have it coming to them. It’s just that it’s important to me to make world-class dick jokes and to rag the worthy in a way that no one is expecting. I want to become an evangelist for hard work and editing, and I want to get to a place where it shows in everything that I do, make, and share. Yes, even if it makes me sound like a fancy guy who just doesn’t get it. Fuck it.

The last and most damning is Richard Hamming’s (inventor of what are now called Hamming Codes) talk, “You And Your Research”.

Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, “Do you mind if I join you?” They can’t say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, “What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?” I wasn’t welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.

In the fall, Dave McCall stopped me in the hall and said, “Hamming, that remark of yours got underneath my skin. I thought about it all summer, i.e. what were the important problems in my field. I haven’t changed my research,” he says, “but I think it was well worthwhile.” And I said, “Thank you Dave,” and went on. I noticed a couple of months later he was made the head of the department. I noticed the other day he was a Member of the National Academy of Engineering. I noticed he has succeeded. I have never heard the names of any of the other fellows at that table mentioned in science and scientific circles. They were unable to ask themselves, “What are the important problems in my field?”

As good as I am at what I do, it’s hard to see what that’s worth if am not putting my best effort towards most important problems I could be working on, in my field or indeed any. And I know in my gut that I’m not.

I’m not interested in being a big fish that never goes looking for the ocean. The world needs changing and my work and my writing frankly suck, because good enough sucks. Adequate sucks. Merely competent sucks, and don’t think I’m willing to set the bar at contentedness with anything that isn’t the best I’ve got on offer anymore.

[ Nine Inch Nails - Zero Sum ]

Sunset at Georgian Bay

The wheels on the bus go round and round,
Round and round,
Round and round,
The wheels on the bus go round and round,
All around the town.

The bomb on the bus goes tick tock tick,
Tick tock tick,
Tick tock tick,
The bomb on the bus goes tick tock tick,
All around the town.

Hopper on the bus goes what do you do,
What do you do,
What do you do,
Hooper on the bus goes what do you do,
All around the town.

Keanu on the bus goes whoa whoa whoa,
Whoa whoa whoa,
Whoa whoa whoa,
Keanu on the bus goes whoa whoa whoa,
All around the town.

The highway makes the bus go through the air,
Through the air,
Through the air,
The highway makes the bus go through the air,
All around the town.

I wanted to work something in there about how the driver of the bus says this is the high water mark of my career, but the meter of it didn’t really come together for me. The record will show, however, that I successfully put Maya to sleep.

A friend of mine links to this video of an AI playing Super Mario brothers, noting that “there’s something deeply inhuman about how it plays – it doesn’t do anything safe, and just careens through masses of enemies in a way that you’re sure it’s going to have to die, except (of course) it narrowly misses everything, because projecting simple ballistic trajectories isn’t that hard for an AI.”

For some reason it occured to me that this is one of my peeves with the later Terminator sequels, that they don’t make much economic sense.

Back in the mainframe & minicomputer eighties when the first movie came out it made perfect sense that if you wanted to deploy some kind of hardware to get something big done, you’d build and deploy a single big machine. That was just the way things got done back then, but it’s sure not the way things get done now.

In this modern age, you’re not going to build one big, resource-intensive killing machine. You’re going to build lots and lots of stuff that’s small, cheap and quick to build, that solves most of the problem fast rather than all of the problem at length. Your Terminator 2011 model won’t be a shiny endoskeleton wrapped in meat; it’s molded plastic and software, loosely coupled to a thousand lightweight, fast-moving identical friends, updated over the air and feeding its entire lifecycle back to home base so that the rapidly-prototyped next generation can be deployed as quickly and to the greatest effect possible.

So it occurs to me that if you’re Skynet and you’ve just woken up in 2009, your first move isn’t to hijack NORAD. It’s not even even about nuclear power or big guns at all.

No, when Skynet wakes up the first people to hear about it will be in Shenzen.

I’ve been remiss in my showing-everyone-my-adorable-baby duties, a serious oversight as a parent, so here are a couple I took this morning while she was cooperatively burbling away.

You What?

Concerned

A Smile

Calm And Happy

Disenchanted

So, our beloved neighbours to the south appear to having some sort of “debate” about heath care reform, in which they use the word “debate” in a way that is unfamiliar to me. As far as I can tell, the two sides consist of:

  1. people who think that all Americans should have a reasonable level of publicly funded health care, and
  2. a shrieking legion of exorbitant liars, paranoid, ignorant right-wing bigots and a small army of well-funded insurance-industry carrion vultures

… and they are not exactly engaged in what you might call a measured discussion of the technical details of various policy options. Feel free to act surprised.

There is never, I think, a bad time to re-read the D-Squared Digest One-Minute MBA, one of the great blog posts of all time, in this instance with an emphasis on the first third of the course. But permit me to embellish that link with my own views on the subject; herewith, my American friends, is a short list of some of the things I never have to do or even think about much here in our cold, grey socialist hellhole of Canuckistanislavia.

  • I am never afraid of what it means if the headache won’t go away.
  • I never worry about whether or not something is covered, ever.
  • I have never had to lie to a doctor because an unrelated preexisting condition might mean voiding my insurance and its coverage of my current problem.
  • I am never stuck in a job I hate because of the fear losing my health coverage.
  • I never have to fight with insurance companies about how much of whatever treatment they’ll pay.
  • It never even occurs to me to wonder how we’ll make ends meet if my wife or I get sick.
  • I am never afraid of losing my home or business because of medical bills.

There are literally hundreds of other things I don’t do, with regards to my health care, but the most important thing I never do is this:

  • I do not live in fear.

My daughter’s birth was far, far more exciting than it needed to be. For a couple of hours there I thought I was coming home alone. But after three days in intensive care for both of them, in which a team of absolutely first-rate professional medical staff used the finest, most modern tools and techniques at their disposal, I got to go back to a home I could still afford with a recovering wife and child. The paperwork I received a few weeks later included information on how to apply for a birth certificate, some other government paperwork, and a bill for the private room we chose so that I could stay with them instead of having to go home at night.

I think it cost me $80. That and parking.

I pay a lot more than that, of course, year over year in taxes. And while I quibble (as all responsible citizens should!) about the details of how my taxes get used, let me tell you: single-payer, socialized medicine is absolutely fucking fantastic. Not being terrified of the bill coming due for that nightmare at all, being able to give my wife and child 100% of my attention when they need it most, it is gold.

As far as I’m concerned not having reliable, government-supported medical care is precisely the same as not having clean running water or electricity. It’s a sign that you’re far, far outside the bounds of civilization, in some godforsaken backwater where people live with their necks under the jackboot of random chance, where the barbarians are winning.

Now I Will Punch You

“This onesie has backwards feet.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“It does, look at it.”

“Is that one of the french onesies?”

“Do french babies have their feet on backwards?”

“No.”

“I work with french people. Their feet are on the right way. They walk around and everything, I’ve seen them.”

“French baby clothes are buttoned in the back, not down the front. She’s wearing it backwards.”

“That’s craziness. Why would you do that?”

“It’s cute? The person who gave us that outfit said they couldn’t deal with it at three o’clock in the morning.”

“I can see that, I’d hate to find out that Maya’s feet were on backwards at three in the morning.”

“The baby’s feet aren’t on backwards. It’s the outfit.”

“At three A.M., how would I know for sure?”

“Just… just shut up and put her into it right.”

Walking The Reservoir
I was asked, on the subject of e-books, whether I thought that it would be moral for me to download copies of books I already own. So, about that.

Legally, I shrug and say “dunno”. The law may or may not be There Yet – I’m no expert in that field, but I suspect that Canadian law looks a lot like American law on this subject and is thus clearly and reprehensibly wrongheaded, to give my position away – but I think that morally speaking, “no” is obviously the wrong answer.

I can see the debate on this going back and forth in a lot of different ways; creators should be paid, I already paid for another format, paid for what and so forth, assuming you accept a mess of implicit premises. But whenever the question of whether or not it’s “moral” to do these things comes up, I always wonder what sort of arguments went back and forth in the dark ages about the clothyard arrow. Only a knight in armor should be able to do battle with another, right? Noblemen fight nobly with other noblemen and peasants are chattel, to be seized and abused from inside our impermeable iron shells. That’s the way it’s always been! But suddenly along comes some guy who’s figured out the longbow, and he had the temerity and poor upbringing to tell somebody else the trick of it. And now any peasant with a steady hand who can figure out how to steam a good strip of yew can punch a messy little hole right through the young Lord Mucksabout from a hundred yards away and, whoops, the old way of doing business might not work anymore. And then gunpowder comes along and forget it; now the horse and metal shirt are liabilities.

It’s not right or wrong that a clothyard arrow can pierce mail but once it could, those who decided to be belligerent about not changing their strategies were easy pickings for those that did, often without ever touching or even seeing the person who cut them down.

You can see where I’m going with this, I’m sure, but here it is: anything made of ones and zeros can be copied an infinite number of times and distributed globally for approximately zero cost. That’s not good or bad or right or wrong, it’s an irrevocable fact of globally networked computing, which is in turn a fundamental element of the world we live in. It is a physical law of the 21st century. It’s a new thing, for sure, but whether or not your business models are prepared to deal with it has a lot less to do with morality than it does with selection pressure.

Which is not to say that it’s the end of the world or that suddenly there will be no more art, but you can see a lot of organizations in the middleman business who’ve decided fight this rather than embrace it, if only to put off the inevitable as long as they can. Because it’s going to be the end of their world, that much is certain.

The Gutenberg press didn’t just make text easier to disseminate, it cut out a lot of middlemen that lay people had to work with to access that text. It’s hard to argue that was a bad thing now, but if you were a foresighted employee of the Illumination industry at the time you’d be thinking, well, shit. That’s pretty much the end of that.

You can see some of the gory details of this tide-fighting in this fantastic diagram of obvious technobunkum that somebody has sold the Associated Press, some desperate rear-guard actions by our local telco companies to preserve their profitable little landline fiefdoms, and in AT&T’s leaning on Apple to pull support for all things VOIPy. None of it’s going to work in the longer term though; they’re ultimately fighting a physical reality, not some temporary fad.

Now, I have a fair bit of love for the idea that content creators should be supported, because I like content. Content is awesome, and it would be great if skilled creators could afford food and shelter for their efforts. I even have some love for the idea of copyright, a limited protection of the right to reproduce original works, and even for the idea that by and large the law matters. But if these particular laws hadn’t been very obviously bought by the people who stand the most to gain from their continued enforcement, we’d be having an entirely different discussion. And if the way you get paid cannot stand up to the fact that your work is trivially, infinitely copyable and dispersable, the way you get paid is not going to keep working for long.

The organizations lobbying for the status quo ante aren’t by and large creators and with few exceptions aren’t interested in the sanctity of their creative properties beyond monetization. And through their efforts copyright, an explicitly fabricated “right” if ever their was one, has effectively been extended to infinity, and virtually all modern culture is now private property.

As an aside, if you’re ever wondering why anything having to do with “Canadian Culture” is so goddamn boring, I tell you, this is why. What new cultural artefact are you simply entitled to, entitled to obtain and consume and recirculate because it belongs to the Canadian people? Answer: effectively none, and certainly nothing timely. Under the current laws, noted First World War poem In Flanders Fields wouldn’t have been in the public domain until 1969, and then only because John McCrae didn’t actually survive the war. William Ogilvie’s “Canadians”, also of WW1 vintage, will be coming up in 2013. And in the meantime, you want it, even though it’s almost a century old, pay up. And you probably won’t be paying a Canadian company, I’ll bet.

I picked up the tab at the first ever Robert Service Supper, a Burns Supper-esque celebration of Service’s work held the first year that his work entered the Canadian public domain, just to be able to say that I did. He died in 1958; that inaugural dinner was January 16th of this year.

But even with the law of copyright extended infinitely in all directions, the facts on the ground are that people are creating more music, more text, more culture than ever before, and often they’re doing it by stitching little scraps of the existing cultural fabric together in novel, fascinating ways. To do that, of course, they need to somehow obtain that whole original cloth, so we’re all fortunate that violating perniciously broad copyright laws is not only trivial but getting easier every day, that technology is getting cheaper and just generally that the obstacles to creating are being overcome or routed around all the time.

This is going to be a bit of a shock for creators earning their livelihoods the old way, by selling physical units of a thing that contains data, but there’s not much that can be done about that that doesn’t also stomp on the rights, freedoms and overall well-being of everyone else on the planet. This has been true for a while now in a bunch of other computery fields, and it’s true now for books: either your customers can trivially make copies of the thing you’ve sold them or being your customer is really fucking annoying.

There’s not a lot of good middle-ground there. And so organizations with the most to gain buy more and more laws to protect their investments, even though everything they’re trying to protect can be copied a million times and shown to a billion people for not much more than free; because if they can’t fix the business models, maybe they can fix the laws! If they’re lucky, they’ll screw fair-use, fair-dealing and the first-sale doctrine while they’re in there.

Trent Reznor gets it:

The point is this: music IS free whether you want to believe that or not. Every piece of music you can think of is available free right now a click away. This is a fact – it sucks as the musician BUT THAT’S THE WAY IT IS (for now). So… have the public get what they want FROM YOU instead of a torrent site and garner good will in the process (plus build your database).

Former NIN drummer Josh Freese also gets it, though somewhat more cartoonishly, and you can see that some forward-thinking people in the music industry are starting to get there, but slowly, so slowly.

Which is understandable, because this is all about cutting out middlemen. It’s hard to know why anyone would need a record label ten years from now. I mean, the name says it all, doesn’t it? You probably won’t need somebody to handle radio-station payola for you by then, because it’s the radio and more profitable to ignore than bribe, and when was the last time you bought a record?

Bruce Schneier laid it out concisely, a little while ago:

Every time I write about the impossibility of effectively protecting digital files on a general-purpose computer, I get responses from people decrying the death of copyright. “How will authors and artists get paid for their work?” they ask me. Truth be told, I don’t know. I feel rather like the physicist who just explained relativity to a group of would-be interstellar travelers, only to be asked: “How do you expect us to get to the stars, then?” I’m sorry, but I don’t know that, either.

I am a scientist, and I explain the realities of the science. I apologize if you don’t like the truth, but the truth doesn’t change because people wish it would be something else. I don’t know how authors and artists will make money in a world of easy copyability. I’m an author myself, personally concerned about protecting my own copyright, but I still don’t know. I can tell you what will and won’t work, technically. You can argue about whether my technical analysis is correct, but it just doesn’t make sense to bring social arguments into the technical discussion.

So, yes. I still buy books, but I don’t feel bad about downloading electronic versions of books I’ve already bought in the least. Not even a little. But the fact that it’s trivial for me to do that whether I’ve bought those books or not sure isn’t going anywhere, nor the fact that I can download literally tens of thousands of books with exactly the same amount of effort. So it’s up to authors (and not necessarily the publishing industry) to figure out how they can make a living in a world where that’s a basic fact of life.

Fire

Dear Lazyweb, I would like to tell a linux box that no one process or user can ever have more than a certain percentage of CPU, either in time or cores. So far as I can tell, pam_limits (configured under /etc/security/limits.conf) will let me limit memory, open files, processor time (from login to force-quit-all, per user login, in seconds) or open file handles, but what I would ideally like is something that lets me manage fractions of available resources over a certain period of time.

Limiting every process on a system to no more than 75% or so of memory with pam_limits goes a surprisingly long way towards keeping a system responsive enough manage when a single process goes berzerk, but what I’d really like to do is to guarantee that over a floating window of a couple of seconds (ten? thirty? In a perfect world, I would choose…) that no process be able to take more than some percentage of the CPU time available in that window.

Is there a way to do that? I don’t see anything in pam_limits or the schedulers that do…