blarg?

fail

Cuban Shoreline

I tried to explain to my daughter why I’d had a strange day.

“Why was it strange?”

“Well… There’s a thing called a cryptocurrency. ‘Currency’ is another word for money; a cryptocurrency is a special kind of money that’s made out of math instead of paper or metal.”

That got me a look. Money that’s made out of made out of math, right.

“… and one of the things we found today was somebody trying to make a new cryptocurrency. Now, do you know why money is worth anything? It’s a coin or a paper with some ink on it – what makes it ‘money’?”

“… I don’t know.”

“The only answer we have is that it’s money if enough people think it is. If enough people think it’s real, it becomes real. But making people believe in a new kind of money isn’t easy, so what this guy did was kind of clever. He decided to give people little pieces of his cryptocurrency for making contributions to different software projects. So if you added a patch to one of the projects he follows, he’d give you a few of these math coins he’d made up.”

“Um.”

“Right. Kind of weird. And then whoever he is, he wrote a program to do that automatically. It’s like a little robot – every time you change one of these programs, you get a couple of math coins. But the problem is that we update a lot of those programs with our robots, too. Our scripts run, our robots, and then his robots try to give our robots some of his pretend money.”

“…”

“So that’s why my day was weird. Because we found somebody else’s programs trying to give our programs made-up money, in the hope that this made-up money would someday become real.”

“Oh.”

“What did you to today?”

“I painted different animals and gave them names.”

“What kind of names?”

“French names like zaval.”

“Cheval. Was it a good day?”

“Yeah, I like painting.”

“Good, good.”

(Charlie Stross warned us about this. It’s William Gibson’s future, but we still need to clean up after it.)

Well, we have to get back to making jokes at some point. I bought some glasses from the internet.

I bought new glasses from the internet.

It didn’t go exactly as I’d hoped.

horse-castle

A friend of mine has called me a glass-half-broken kind of guy.

My increasingly venerable Nokia N9 has been getting squirrelly for a few months, and since it finally decided its battery was getting on in years it was time for a new phone.

I’m going to miss it a lot. The hardware was just a hair too slow, the browser was just a hair too old and even though email was crisp and as well done as I’ve ever seen it on a small screen, Twitter – despite being the one piece of software that periodically got updates, strangely – was always off in the weeds. Despite all that, despite the storied history of managerial incompetence and market failure in that software stack, they got so many things right. A beautiful, solid UI, an elegant gesture system that you could work reliably one-handed and a device whose curved shape informed your interaction with the software in a meaningful way. Like WebOS before it, it had a consistent and elegantly-executed interaction model full of beautiful ideas and surprisingly human touches that have pretty much all died on the vine.

Some friends have been proposing a hedge-fund model where they follow my twitter feed, scrape it for any piece of technology I express interest in and then short that company’s stock immediately and mercilessly. The reasoning being, of course, that I tend to back underdogs and generally underdogs are called that because of their unfortunate tendency to not win.

So now I own a Nexus 5; do with that information what you will. The experience has not been uniformly positive.

Android, the joke goes, is technical debt that’s figured out how to call 911, and with KitKat it seems like somebody has finally sent help. For a while now Android has been struggling to overcome its early… well, “design process” seems like too strong a term, but some sort of UI-buglist spin-the-bottle thing that seemed to amount to “how can I ignore anyone with any sort of design expertise, aesthetic sensibility or even just matching socks and get this bug off my desk.” KitKat is clearly the point we all saw coming, where Android has pivoted away from being a half-assed OS to start being a whole-assed Google-services portal, and it really shows.

Look: I know I’m a jagged, rusty edge case. I know. But this is what happened next.

As you open the box, you find a protective plastic sheet over the device that says “NEXUS 5″ in a faint grey on black. If you don’t peel it off before pushing the power button, the Google logo appears, slightly offset and obscured behind it. It’s not a big thing; it’s trivial but ugly. If either word had been a few millimetres higher or lower it would have been a nice touch. As shipped it’s an empty-net miss, a small but ominous hint that maybe nobody was really in charge of the details.

I signed in with my Google Apps account and the phone started restoring my old apps from other Android installs. This is one of the things Google has done right for a long time; once you see it you immediately think it should have worked that way everywhere the whole time. But I didn’t realize that it restored the earlier version of the software you had on file, not the current one; most of my restored pre-KitKat apps crashed on startup, and it took me a while to understand why.

Once I’d figured that out and refreshed a few of them manually, set up my work email and decided to see if Google Goggles was neat as it was last time I looked. Goggles immediately crashed the camera service, and I couldn’t figure out how make the camera work again in any app without power-cycling the phone.

So I restart the phone, poked around at Hangouts a bit; seems nice enough and works mostly OK, could use some judicious copy-editing in the setup phase to sound a little less panopticon-stalkerish. (But we’re all affluent white men here it’s no big deal, right? Who doesn’t mind being super-easy to find all the time?)

I went to make dinner then, and presumably that’s when the phone started heating up.

Eventually I noticed that I’d lost about a quarter of my battery life over the course of an almost-idle hour, with the battery monitor showing that the mail I’d received exactly none of was the culprit. From what I can tell the Exchange-connection service is just completely, aggressively broken; it looks like if you set up the stock mail client for Exchange and pick “push” it immediately goes insane, checking for mail hundreds of times per second and trying to melt itself, and that’s exciting. But even if you dial it back to only check manually, after a while it just… stops working. A reboot doesn’t fix it, I’ve had to delete and recreate the account to make it work again. Even figuring out how to do that isn’t as easy as it should be; I’ve done it twice so far, one day in. So I guess it’s IMAP and I’ll figure calendars out some other way. We use Zimbra at the office, not Exchange proper, and their doc on connecting to Android hasn’t been updated in two years so that’s a thing. I’m totally fine in this corner, really. Cozy. I can warm my hands on my new phone.

I’ve been using my Bespoke I/O Google Apps accounts before Google doubled down on this grasping, awful “G+ Or GTFO” policy, and disabling G+ in Apps years ago has turned my first-touch experience with this phone into a weird technical tug-of-war-in-a-minefield exercise. On the one hand, it’s consistently protected me from Google’s ongoing “by glancing at this checkbox in passing you’re totally saying you want a Google+ account” mendacity, but it also means that lots of things on the phone fail in strange and wonderful ways. The different reactions of the various Play $X apps is remarkable. “Play Games” tells me I need to sign up for a G+ account and won’t let me proceed without one, Play Movies and Music seem to work for on-device content, and Play Magazines just loses its mind and starts into a decent imitation of a strobe light.

I went looking for alternative software, but The Play Store reminds me a lot more of Nokia’s Ovi Store than the App Store juggernaut in a lot of unfortunate ways. There are a handful of high-profile apps there work fast and well if you can find them. I miss Tweetbot and a handful of other iOS apps a lot, and keep going back to my iPod Touch for it. In what I’m sure is a common sentiment Tweetbot for Android is looking pretty unlikely at this point, probably because – like the Ovi Store – there’s a hundred low-rent knockoffs of the iOS app you actually want availabl, but developing for Android is a nightmare on stilts and you make no money so anything worth buying isn’t for sale there.

It’s really a very nice piece of hardware. Fast, crisp, big beautiful screen. Firefox with Adblock Plus is way, way better than anything else in that space – go team – and for that on its own I could have overlooked a lot. But this is how my first day with this phone went, and a glass that’s half-broken isn’t one I’m super happy I decided to keep drinking from.

I may revisit this later. Consider this a late draft. I’m calling this done.

“Should array indices start at 0 or 1? My compromise of 0.5 was rejected without, I thought, proper consideration.” — Stan Kelly-Bootle

Sometimes somebody says something to me, like a whisper of a hint of an echo of something half-forgotten, and it lands on me like an invocation. The mania sets in, and it isn’t enough to believe; I have to know.

I’ve spent far more effort than is sensible this month crawling down a rabbit hole disguised, as they often are, as a straightforward question: why do programmers start counting at zero?

Now: stop right there. By now your peripheral vision should have convinced you that this is a long article, and I’m not here to waste your time. But if you’re gearing up to tell me about efficient pointer arithmetic or binary addition or something, you’re wrong. You don’t think you’re wrong and that’s part of a much larger problem, but you’re still wrong.

For some backstory, on the off chance anyone still reading by this paragraph isn’t an IT professional of some stripe: most computer languages including C/C++, Perl, Python, some (but not all!) versions of Lisp, many others – are “zero-origin” or “zero-indexed”. That is to say, in an array A with 8 elements in it, the first element is A[0], and the last is A[7]. This isn’t universally true, though, and other languages from the same (and earlier!) eras are sometimes one-indexed, going from A[1] to A[8].

While it’s a relatively rare practice in modern languages, one-origin arrays certainly aren’t dead; there’s a lot of blood pumping through Lua these days, not to mention MATLAB, Mathematica and a handful of others. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous Haskell apparently lets you pick your poison at startup, and in what has to be the most lunatic thing I’ve seen on a piece of silicon since I found out the MIPS architecture had runtime-mutable endianness, Visual Basic (up to v6.0) featured the OPTION BASE flag, letting you flip that coin on a per-module basis. Zero- and one-origin arrays in different corners of the same program! It’s just software, why not?

All that is to say that starting at 1 is not an unreasonable position at all; to a typical human thinking about the zeroth element of an array doesn’t make any more sense than trying to catch the zeroth bus that comes by, but we’ve clearly ended up here somehow. So what’s the story there?

The usual arguments involving pointer arithmetic and incrementing by sizeof(struct) and so forth describe features that are nice enough once you’ve got the hang of them, but they’re also post-facto justifications. This is obvious if you take the most cursory look at the history of programming languages; C inherited its array semantics from B, which inherited them in turn from BCPL, and though BCPL arrays are zero-origin, the language doesn’t support pointer arithmetic, much less data structures. On top of that other languages that antedate BCPL and C aren’t zero-indexed. Algol 60 uses one-indexed arrays, and arrays in Fortran are arbitrarily indexed – they’re just a range from X to Y, and X and Y don’t even need to be positive integers.

So by the early 1960’s, there are three different approaches to the data structure we now call an array.

  • Zero-indexed, in which the array index carries no particular semantics beyond its implementation in machine code.
  • One-indexed, identical to the matrix notation people have been using for quite some time. It comes at the cost of a CPU instruction to manage the offset; usability isn’t free.
  • Arbitrary indices, in which the range is significant with regards to the problem you’re up against.

So if your answer started with “because in C…”, you’ve been repeating a good story you heard one time, without ever asking yourself if it’s true. It’s not about *i = a + n*sizeof(x) because pointers and structs didn’t exist. And that’s the most coherent argument I can find; there are dozens of other arguments for zero-indexing involving “natural numbers” or “elegance” or some other unresearched hippie voodoo nonsense that are either wrong or too dumb to rise to the level of wrong.

The fact of it is this: before pointers, structs, C and Unix existed, at a time when other languages with a lot of resources and (by the standard of the day) user populations behind them were one- or arbitrarily-indexed, somebody decided that the right thing was for arrays to start at zero.

So I found that person and asked him.

His name is Dr. Martin Richards; he’s the creator of BCPL, now almost 7 years into retirement; you’ve probably heard of one of his doctoral students Eben Upton, creator of the Raspberry Pi. I emailed him to ask why he decided to start counting arrays from zero, way back then. He replied that…

As for BCPL and C subscripts starting at zero. BCPL was essentially designed as typeless language close to machine code. Just as in machine code registers are typically all the same size and contain values that represent almost anything, such as integers, machine addresses, truth values, characters, etc. BCPL has typeless variables just like machine registers capable of representing anything. If a BCPL variable represents a pointer, it points to one or more consecutive words of memory. These words are the same size as BCPL variables. Just as machine code allows address arithmetic so does BCPL, so if p is a pointer p+1 is a pointer to the next word after the one p points to. Naturally p+0 has the same value as p. The monodic indirection operator ! takes a pointer as it’s argument and returns the contents of the word pointed to. If v is a pointer !(v+I) will access the word pointed to by v+I. As I varies from zero upwards we access consecutive locations starting at the one pointed to by v when I is zero. The dyadic version of ! is defined so that v!i = !(v+I). v!i behaves like a subscripted expression with v being a one dimensional array and I being an integer subscript. It is entirely natural for the first element of the array to have subscript zero. C copied BCPL’s approach using * for monodic ! and [ ] for array subscription. Note that, in BCPL v!5 = !(v+5) = !(5+v) = 5!v. The same happens in C, v[5] = 5[v]. I can see no sensible reason why the first element of a BCPL array should have subscript one. Note that 5!v is rather like a field selector accessing a field in a structure pointed to by v.

This is interesting for a number of reasons, though I’ll leave their enumeration to your discretion. The one that I find most striking, though, is that this is the earliest example I can find of the understanding that a programming language is a user interface, and that there are difficult, subtle tradeoffs to make between resources and usability. Remember, all this was at a time when everything about the future of human-computer interaction was up in the air, from the shape of the keyboard and the glyphs on the switches and keycaps right down to how the ones and zeros were manifested in paper ribbon and bare metal; this note by the late Dennis Ritchie might give you a taste of the situation, where he mentions that five years later one of the primary reasons they went with C’s square-bracket array notation was that it was getting steadily easier to reliably find square brackets on the world’s keyboards.

“Now just a second, Hoye”, I can hear you muttering. “I’ve looked at the BCPL manual and read Dr. Richards’ explanation and you’re not fooling anyone. That looks a lot like the efficient-pointer-arithmetic argument you were frothing about, except with exclamation points.” And you’d be very close to right. That’s exactly what it is – the distinction is where those efficiencies take place, and why.

BCPL was first compiled on an IBM 7094here’s a picture of the console, though the entire computer took up a large room – running CTSS – the Compatible Time Sharing System – that antedates Unix much as BCPL antedates C. There’s no malloc() in that context, because there’s nobody to share the memory core with. You get the entire machine and the clock starts ticking, and when your wall-clock time block runs out that’s it. But here’s the thing: in that context none of the offset-calculations we’re supposedly economizing are calculated at execution time. All that work is done ahead of time by the compiler.

You read that right. That sheet-metal, “wibble-wibble-wibble” noise your brain is making is exactly the right reaction.

Whatever justifications or advantages came along later – and it’s true, you do save a few processor cycles here and there and that’s nice – the reason we started using zero-indexed arrays was because it shaved a couple of processor cycles off of a program’s compilation time. Not execution time; compile time.

Does it get better? Oh, it gets better:

IBM had been very generous to MIT in the fifties and sixties, donating or discounting its biggest scientific computers. When a new top of the line 36-bit scientific machine came out, MIT expected to get one. In the early sixties, the deal was that MIT got one 8-hour shift, all the other New England colleges and universities got a shift, and the third shift was available to IBM for its own use. One use IBM made of its share was yacht handicapping: the President of IBM raced big yachts on Long Island Sound, and these boats were assigned handicap points by a complicated formula. There was a special job deck kept at the MIT Computation Center, and if a request came in to run it, operators were to stop whatever was running on the machine and do the yacht handicapping job immediately.

Jobs on the IBM 7090, one generation behind the 7094, were batch-processed, not timeshared; you queued up your job along with a wall-clock estimate of how long it would take, and if it didn’t finish it was pulled off the machine, the next job in the queue went in and you got to try again whenever your next block of allocated time happened to be. As in any economy, there is a social context as well as a technical context, and it isn’t just about managing cost, it’s also about managing risk. A programmer isn’t just racing the clock, they’re also racing the possibility that somebody will come along and bump their job and everyone else’s out of the queue.

I asked Tom Van Vleck, author of the above paragraph and also now retired, how that worked. He replied in part that on the 7090…

“User jobs were submitted on cards to the system operator, stacked up in a big tray, and a rudimentary system read, loaded, and ran jobs in sequence. Typical batch systems had accounting systems that read an ID card at the beginning of a user deck and punched a usage card at end of job. User jobs usually specified a time estimate on the ID card, and would be terminated if they ran over. Users who ran too many jobs or too long would use up their allocated time. A user could arrange for a long computation to checkpoint its state and storage to tape, and to subsequently restore the checkpoint and start up again.

The yacht handicapping job pertained to batch processing on the MIT 7090 at MIT. It was rare — a few times a year.”

So: the technical reason we started counting arrays at zero is that in the mid-1960’s, you could shave a few cycles off of a program’s compilation time on an IBM 7094. The social reason is that we had to save every cycle we could, because if the job didn’t finish fast it might not finish at all and you never know when you’re getting bumped off the hardware because the President of IBM just called and fuck your thesis, it’s yacht-racing time.

There are a few points I want to make here.

The first thing is that as far as I can tell nobody has ever actually looked this up.

Whatever programmers think about themselves and these towering logic-engines we’ve erected, we’re a lot more superstitious than we realize. We tell and retell this collection of unsourced, inaccurate stories about the nature of the world without ever doing the research ourselves, and there’s no other word for that but “mythology”. Worse, by obscuring the technical and social conditions that led humans to make these technical and social decisions, by talking about the nature of computing as we find it today as though it’s an inevitable consequence of an immutable set of physical laws, we’re effectively denying any responsibility for how we got here. And worse than that, by refusing to dig into our history and understand the social and technical motivations for those choices, by steadfastly refusing to investigate the difference between a motive and a justification, we’re disavowing any agency we might have over the shape of the future. We just keep mouthing platitudes and pretending the way things are is nobody’s fault, and the more history you learn and the more you look at the sad state of modern computing the the more pathetic and irresponsible that sounds.

Part of the problem is access to the historical record, of course. I was in favor of Open Access publication before, but writing this up has cemented it: if you’re on the outside edge of academia, $20/paper for any research that doesn’t have a business case and a deep-pocketed backer is completely untenable, and speculative or historic research that might require reading dozens of papers to shed some light on longstanding questions is basically impossible. There might have been a time when this was OK and everyone who had access to or cared about computers was already an IEEE/ACM member, but right now the IEEE – both as a knowledge repository and a social network – is a single point of a lot of silent failure. “$20 for a forty-year-old research paper” is functionally indistinguishable from “gone”, and I’m reduced to emailing retirees to ask them what they remember from a lifetime ago because I can’t afford to read the source material.

The second thing is how profoundly resistant to change or growth this field is, and apparently has always been. If you haven’t seen Bret Victor’s talk about The Future Of Programming as seen from 1975 you should, because it’s exactly on point. Over and over again as I’ve dredged through this stuff, I kept finding programming constructs, ideas and approaches we call part of “modern” programming if we attempt them at all, sitting abandoned in 45-year-old demo code for dead languages. And to be clear: that was always a choice. Over and over again tools meant to make it easier for humans to approach big problems are discarded in favor of tools that are easier to teach to computers, and that decision is described as an inevitability.

This isn’t just Worse Is Better, this is “Worse Is All You Get Forever”. How many off-by-one disasters could we have avoided if the “foreach” construct that existed in BCPL had made it into C? How much more insight would all of us have into our code if we’d put the time into making Michael Chastain’s nearly-omniscient debugging framework – PTRACE_SINGLESTEP_BACKWARDS! – work in 1995? When I found this article by John Backus wondering if we can get away from Von Neumann architecture completely, I wonder where that ambition to rethink our underpinnings went. But the fact of it is that it didn’t go anywhere. Changing how you think is hard and the payoff is uncertain, so by and large we decided not to. Nobody wanted to learn how to play, much less build, Engelbart’s Violin, and instead everyone gets a box of broken kazoos.

In truth maybe somebody tried – maybe even succeeded! – but it would cost me hundreds of dollars to even start looking for an informed guess, so that’s the end of that.

It’s hard for me to believe that the IEEE’s membership isn’t going off a demographic cliff these days as their membership ages, and it must be awful knowing they’ve got decades of delicious, piping-hot research cooked up that nobody is ordering while the world’s coders are lining up to slurp watery gruel out of a Stack-Overflow-shaped trough and pretend they’re well-fed. You might not be surprised to hear that I’ve got a proposal to address both those problems; I’ll let you work out what it might be.

I wouldn’t have thought that mathematics or signal processing would have a cultural bent, but I just sat through a conference call where everyone was reasonably clear except for one guy, with a pronounced central-African accent, whose voice was getting audibly butchered by the noise cancellation algorithm on the line. The beginning of every sentence, and every pause, was punctuated by a sort of wierd, static-and-squarewave tug-of-war with the background noise.

I think it’s some combination of his accent and cadence of his speech, and it was really weird to notice the trend. On reflection, it makes perfect sense – algorithms optimized for the majority, as defined by the people who wrote them, would of course have a cultural impact on people at the margins – it just hadn’t occurred to me how that would work until just now.

Guys guys great news: it turns out that panicky superstitious people who deliberately misinterpret their shallow understanding of an incredibly narrow slice of a foreign culture they’re otherwise completely disinterested in aren’t reliable predictors of anything at all ever.

Who saw that coming, right?

I like to imagine that for months now somewhere in the Yucatan peninsula people have been saying “Oh shit, man! The white people’s calendar ends on December 31st!!” and then howling with laughter, because somehow it’s hilarious every time.

Just to set the mood, here’s a bit Matt Taibbi wrote about the ability of the American left get themselves organized, specifically with respect to the anti-war protests in 2007:

“The post-sixties dogma that everyone’s viewpoint is legitimate, everyone‘s choice about anything (lifestyle, gender, ethnicity, even class) is valid, that’s now so totally ingrained that at every single meeting, every time some yutz gets up and starts rambling about anything, no matter how ridiculous, no one ever tells him to shut the fuck up. Next thing you know, you’ve got guys on stilts wearing mime makeup and Cat-in-the-Hat striped top-hats leading a half-million people at an anti-war rally. Why is that guy there? Because no one told him that war is a matter of life and death and that he should leave his fucking stilts at home.”

A week ago, in response to the short-lived and possibly illegal Respect Democracy get-Rob-Ford-reelected site, I put up RespectTheLaw.ca. I publicized it with two tweets, it got a few thousand views and sort of made the rounds, at least as far as the small pond of Toronto-politics-on-Twitter is concerned.

The “Respect Democracy” site was completely obscured – it was difficult, intentionally, to figure out who is behind it or what the information is being collected for. I built Respect The Law with just one breadcrumb in it, one more than none, deliberately put my email address at the top of the source. Links to source material but no other pages, affiliations or policy statements, again deliberately.

It didn’t take long for people, via Twitter and email, to ask me to confirm it was me, which I did. But then a surprising thing happened – I got a lot, indeed quite a lot, of pushback from people asking me what my usage and data retention policies are, and accusing me in pretty stark language of being an enemy of democracy. “You either believe in accountability and transparency, or you don’t” said one poorly-nuanced commenter, they were not alone.

The most interesting thing about this is that all, not some or most but 100%, of the criticism I’ve received for the effort has come from self-described “leftists”. And these weren’t polite requests for information or gentle suggestions, my goodness no: these were repeated assertions that I wasn’t taking data integrity, transparency and accountability seriously, and was consequently a bad person.

Well then.

On the one hand, that is absolutely a legitimate concern. I did not tell anyone who I am, how I intended to use that data, or how it was stored. That’s absolutely true.

On the other hand: honestly, put a fucking sock in it.

I’m a straight-up socialist. Not a liberal or left-leaning, but an actual socialist. We live in one of the richest societies in the world; our schools and libraries should be palaces. Our hospitals should be the envy of the entire planet. Our boulevards and public buildings should be towering edifices of stone and steel that we’ll be proud to pass down to our great-grandchildren along with clean air and clean water, freely and equally accessible to all of us. And I’m increasingly convinced that the reason so many people call themselves “centrists” now is that calling yourself a “leftist” is a license for every unshaven pinhead with a Che shirt you cross paths with to explain to you, in granular, inclusive detail, how you’re doing it wrong.

I suspect I’m going to go back to that myself, if only to save myself the hours in the day. You know what’s way, way more important to me than the “progressive” label? Making some fucking progress. So next time you see somebody trying to move the world a little closer to the way you both think it should be, but you disagree with their approach? Put a lid on it and let them work. The political right by and large gets this, and consequently they can get a lot accomplished. The left, us, well. Not so much.

I’ve added a usage policy page to the site, clearly visible before user data goes in.

Thanks for your feedback.

I was idly looking over the shooting script for Men In Black the other day. Different from the movie, in a lot of little ways that add up; as filmed it came out a fun, largely harmless sci-fi movie of no particular note but the original script was quietly darker and more introspective than you’d expect. As an example, the scene where Edwards (Will Smith) has been given until sun-up to decide if he’s in; he asks Jay (Tommy-Lee Jones) “Is it worth it?”

On screen, Jay replies “It is. If you’re strong enough” as he walks away. But on the page Jay’s explanation of the cost of signing up is a lot more personal.

EDWARDS – So what’s the catch?

KAY – What you’ll gain in perspective, you’ll lose in ways you’re too young to comprehend. You give up everything. Sever every human contact. No one will know you exist. Ever.

EDWARDS – Nobody?

KAY – You’re not even allowed a favorite shirt. There. That’s the speech I never heard. That’s the choice I never got.

EDWARDS – Hold up. You track me down, put me through those stupid-ass tests, now you’re trying to talk me out of it. I don’t get it.

KAY – You got ’til sun-up.

EDWARDS – Is it worth it?

KAY – You find out, you let me know.

Kev called me out yesterday, and he was not wrong.

Haters Gonna Tweet

I’m back to carrying around a Linux laptop these days, and all those old mixed feelings are still there. Power management is still really dodgy, the UI is a mess, lots of stuff that should Just Work by now either just doesn’t, or somehow stopped working for a while after a good run. Plug the wrong USB dingus into it, and if you close the lid it will try to cook itself; using it for day to day stuff isn’t wildly better than I remember it being a few years ago; I’m back to using it for reasons that I refer to as “principles”, stuff about information freedom and freedom-to vs. freedom-from, developing on the platform you’re deploying to, that sort of thing. They’re arguments that I can make pretty convincingly, even to myself sometimes, but there are days (like this one) that all that rhetoric seems like a thin veneer over some self-imposed variety of Stockholm Syndrome.

I have a paragraph here about how “It is better, the saying goes, to light a single candle than to curse the darkness”, and then goes on to something about being honest about your motivations, and maybe you’re lighting the candle to cover up the smell, not push back the dark. It’s not really coming together for me, but that’s the broad strokes of it.

You get the idea.

But here’s a thing: my brother sent me a PDF he needed to quote some passages from, the usual horrible “PDF-full-of-scanned-JPEGs” garbage you find everywhere. He was losing patience with it, and all the OCR software he could find was either insanely expensive or useless junk or both.

But I know that pdf2html will give me a numbered list of all those images, and after a few seconds of research with apt-cache, I found Tesseract-OCR, installed it and tested it against a small sample of pages to see if the output looked sane. It did; it doesn’t to output to anything but a file, but that’s fine. So a quick for i in `seq` do later, my laptop is quietly grinding out a text file a human can copy and paste from.

The good parts of life with Linux are like that. Rich scripting languages, an incredibly broad, deep and on-demand tools that have been hammered into shape for years or decades, job control that lets you just put it in the background (or on a server somewhere else) and let it run. Being able to chain tools together so that when you need something novel done you can just get it done, and not spend hours scavenging around the ‘net for that one piece of random crapware that does 70% of the job, it’s so great.

Linux on a laptop has a set of problems that have existed for years; I know I’m bringing a lot of this on myself. If I was using a desktop, a lot of these hardware hangups might just disappear, just by virtue of the fact that you never unplug a desktop, or put it to sleep. And I know what way the trends are going, here, too – the Free Software tools people care about seem to be finding their way over to OSX, with varying degrees of speed and elegance, but the rare design sensibilities that find their way back, seemingly via a cargo cult’s long march, don’t seem to be helping much. Bold efforts (like Gnome Shell) that sail less than perfectly polished run rapidly aground on the shoals of the Linux community’s profound fear of change. And as for hardware, well. Um.

But: Apt-get. Shell scripting. Pipe, job control. All the old, unglorious tools, so many of them rock solid and reliable; they are incredibly great. Being able to just have the tools you need, to test and experiment and process and have the computer doing stuff for you instead of having to muck around manually basically all the time, it is so good. Being able to see the right-out-there experimental stuff, like software radio, gestating; amazing. Macports and (God help you) Homebrew are a thin gruel in comparison, and Windows has nothing to compare it to.

I feel like I’m typing with mittens on when they’re not around, like I’ve looked into my toolbox and found one oversize novelty Tonka screwdriver and wrench made of Nerf. These are just the basic fundamental particles of getting anything done! How do people live without this stuff?

These days my everyday computing carry is ideologically polarized. My Macbook is mostly a desktop I can move to the couch, and I roll with a Thinkpad and an iPad. The small number of things I need to Just Work just work, and there’s room to (and yes, frequently, need to) tinker with the rest. I’m actually thinking about my next laptop being a linux on a non-Macbook, as crazy as that sounds. And if you’ve ever tried figuring out if a laptop runs linux correctly, well. You’ve read The Killing Joke, right?

So I don’t even know what direction that pendulum is swinging, now. I guess we’ll see again in a few years. I don’t know if it’s worth it; if I figure it out, I’ll let you know.