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Journal: Soylent News 4

Journal by TheRaven64

I've not been posting on Slashdot much this week, because I've been trying out Soylent News, which is using (and old version of) Slashcode (with some improvements) and lacks corporate overlords. It seems to have captured most of what I like about discussions in Slashdot, although is suffering slightly from not having nearly as many active users (50 or so comments is still the norm and it probably needs 100+ to be sustainable).
If you've not visited yet, I'd recommend giving it a go.

I'm TheRaven over there.

Businesses

Journal: Rhode Island's "Kingdoms of Amular" 5

Journal by eldavojohn
There's some ugly drama surrounding the collapse of 38 Studios. That has caused baseball's Curt Schilling to walk away from video games and publicly state that it will end up costing him his fortune. Everyone is in a very bad position right now. 38 Studio's top creditor is the state of Rhode Island. Aside from some stranger assets, there is a partially finished MMO called Project Copernicus as well as the source code and artwork for Kingdoms of Amular. So why doesn't Rhode Island seize this source code and artwork? They could auction it or, better yet, give it to the people who paid for it.

Now we all know this isn't going to happen. The source code will be shelved and it is unlikely it ever contribute to society ever again. The people who coded it have been fired and have moved on to the next thing in their lives while the bankruptcy proceedings play out in the news. But if I fail to repay a loan on a car, repossession services come to take the car. If a studio gets $75 million from a state to make a video game, where are the state's repo men to reclaim the video game?

The current situation is unavoidably bad for everyone involved. Schilling is blaming the governor, developers are moving for the second time in two years, gamers are missing out on the sequel to Amular and money is missing everywhere. But most notably each resident of Rhode Island has paid $75 to the video game industry and will likely never see it returned to their pockets. A coworker who thoroughly enjoys the game said that it's RI's fault for investing in such a fickle and risky industry. Maybe he's right? But the game is reasonably entertaining.

So what could a state do with source code and artwork? The obvious thought would be to auction it off and recoup losses. But what company wants to buy up those assets for more than a pittance compared to the loan? The game didn't sell as well as they thought it would, your developers would have to learn thousands of lines of new code, the artists that could expand the art in the same style are thrown to the wind and there's already a polished title out there. To me, the obvious solution would be to instead package Amular and Copernicus (at least the PC versions) as learning software for high schools and universities in RI. Art students could work on reskinning it, developers could work on just getting it built and Rhode Island would at least be able to show its residents something for which they had paid.

Furthermore if RI really wanted to recoup its losses, they could likely make several million back with a Kickstarter project to open source everything from 38 Studios. The only people who might not like this idea are those in the games industry who claim the MMO and RPG markets are already thoroughly saturated. Perhaps the current publisher and those with distribution contracts of Amular would object. But those executives have already taken the citizens of RI and Curt Schilling for a ride so why should RI care? The only downside would be a massive influx of Amular clones on the PSN, XBLA and PC fronts. But this is an opportunity for gamers, Rhode Islanders and open source in general to expand and set precedence that when a company folds all that hard work and late nights with Mountain Dew and pizza should not be wasted and shelved.

You can tell me that this will never happen -- not with Amular, Copernicus or any of the thousands of titles from failed development studios -- because you're right. It hasn't ever happened and it most likely will not. But Rhode Islanders paid for these titles and the repo men should arrive and bring that back for Rhode Island to decide what to do with it. At least those that have paid for it should be able to decide if what their hard earned money paid for should sit collecting dust or live in immortality.
User Journal

Journal: Getting a Job 4

Journal by TheRaven64

Someone on Slashdot recently claimed I hadn't read Keep the Aspidistra Flying because I thought the ending was depressing. After I finished my PhD in 2007, I've managed to avoid the same fate and have successfully avoided having a real job for almost five years. I've done freelance programming and written four books, and had a lot of time to post on Slashdot (as you can tell from the fact that, so far, I've posted more than anyone else this quarter) and do open source stuff (Ohloh ranks me in the top 2,000 geeks with no life^W^W^W^Wopen source developers).

That's about to change though. I had two interesting job offers recently (I seem to get job offers from banks very often, but I have a very low tolerance for tedium, so I'd probably have been fired around day 3 if I'd taken any of them). One was from Google in Paris (yay!) but working on boring things (boo!). The other was from Cambridge University, which is about as well paid as you expect in academia (aww!) but basically involves working on the same stuff I do for fun (yay!) with some very intelligent people (yay!). Oh, and it's in a city where a quick search found four tango classes (yay!) and property prices not much lower than London (oops!) and which is both small and flat enough that I can cycle everywhere (yay!) and so does everyone else (look out!).

So, in a few weeks I'm moving to Cambridge. I'll miss looking out at the sea, but being able to dance tango more than once a week should be some compensation. There also seems to be a lively salsa scene, although having to learn yet another set of names for the same Rueda steps is going to be a little tiresome...

When I visited, I went for drinks with some of the makerspace guys the night before my interview (I have no idea how much I drank, but it didn't seem to affect my interview performance too badly...) and met someone who worked on the C++11 atomics spec (which I was in the middle of implementing at the time) and someone who had ported 2BSD to a 32-bit PIC with 128KB of RAM, so it definitely seems like a city with no shortage of geeks...

User Journal

Journal: Wow, I Need to Get a Life 5

Journal by TheRaven64

This weekend (I think, maybe earlier), Slashdot published some statistics about the most active people. Apparently I am in the top four most active commenters for the past month and the past quarter. This is quite depressing.

In happier, and unrelated news, my FreeBSD commit bit was approved this weekend, so I can now cause untold destruction on the Internet at large...

User Journal

Journal: What Phone? 6

Journal by TheRaven64

My current phone is a Nokia N80. I've had it a few years and I'm reasonably happy with it, but it has a fault with the charging circuit and it's pretty bulky, so I'm thinking about replacing it. Unfortunately, there seem to be about 3,000 different options with no competent way of way of working out which one is sensible.

I mainly use my phone as... a phone. So, the most important feature for me is the ability to make and receive calls. Because I am a cheapskate, this includes SIP (and WiFi), since my SIP provider charges a lot less than my mobile provider when calling landlines. I really like WebOS in terms of UI, but that seems to rule the Pre out because the only WebOS SIP client is alpha quality and doesn't integrate with the address book. This is something that Nokia does really well - the SIP client is fully integrated, so I can just select someone from my address book and select Internet Call to make the call. No extra skill required.

Beyond that, the only thing I really need is to be able to sync contacts via bluetooth and to use it as a modem via bluetooth - both pretty standard features, I'd assume, since my last three phones have had them.

In terms of smartphone features, I'm not that bothered. A programming environment that supports native code so that I can port my ObjC runtime would be nice - I have no interest in VM-based crap - but aside from that I don't have any strong requirements.

I would, however, like decent battery life and a small size, and ideally a nice camera. The bulk and poor battery life of my N80 means that I quite often leave it at home.

So, any suggestions?

User Journal

Journal: Thinking about college...

Journal by PFI_Optix

The comments in A recent article on Slashdot got me thinking about the perceived necessity of a college degree in America today. I was tempted to post, but didn't want to get on my soapbox and wander off-topic for however long it took me to get my rant on. This morning a comment I heard on NPR--something to the effect of "a college degree is necessary to succeed in today's economy"--brought me back to the same train of thought.

I'm a college opt-out. After a year of school and one changed major, I decided that college wasn't my thing and went into the workforce, finding IT work right away. I took two more shots at college after that, and both times decided it was a bad idea and quit before I wasted any more of my money. I'm probably technically a sophomore, having acquired credits from three different schools and across five different majors.

I have 15 years in IT and make significantly more money halfway through my career than the median family income for my state. I phrase it that way because my current level of income may not seem like much for east- and west-coast readers, but in rural Texas it is considerable. I'm roughly five years from having no debt, including owning my house outright. I am financially stable working a low-stress (for me) job I enjoy that doesn't take me away from my family for more than 40 hours a week. If that's not success, then I don't care to be successful.

I sometimes resent the notion that a person needs a degree to get by in today's world. 55% of this year's high school graduates in the U.S. will never go to college, and many of them will lead very successful lives. Some of them will be skilled blue collar workers whose hard work and talent puts them in demand. Some of them will be natural entrepreneurs, finding opportunities missed by those indoctrinated with collegiate groupthink. Some of them, like me, will be self-educated and competitive with college graduates in every way, lacking only that silly little piece of paper that says they endured a few years of telling professors what they wanted to hear.

Don't misunderstand me. I firmly believe that college is necessary for some people to realize their potential. Many students don't have the discipline or imagination to learn on their own, and need the structure of university. And some professions can't be learned without expert instruction, and that is best delivered at least partly in a classroom. I want my doctor to have a degree. I could care less if my network administrator has one.

United Kingdom

Journal: Sale of Goods Act beats AppleCare 2

Journal by TheRaven64

A little while ago, someone on Slashdot pointed me at the Sale of Goods Act in relation to purchased electronics. The act, for those unfamiliar with it, requires that goods be 'suitable for the purpose for which sold.' This is a fairly broad term, but it basically means that they must be able to do anything that the seller claims that they can do. Under this law, you have 6 years from the date of purchase to file a lawsuit if the item does not match the claims.

This was relevant to me because my MacBook Pro is now out of warranty and the battery is dying. Looking in the System Profiler, its full charge capacity was showing up as 1476mAh after 56 charges. When new, it was 5500mAh. These numbers don't mean anything by themselves, but Apple claims that their batteries retain 80% of their full charge capacity after 300 charge cycles. Claiming this means that a battery that does not retain 4400mAh after 300 charge cycles is not suitable for the purpose for which sold, and they are legally required to refund or replace it (irrespective of the time that has elapsed, although I can only sue them if they don't within 6 years of the time of sale).

I called their support line and was put through to an Indian woman, who explained that the warranty had expired. I quoted the relevant parts of law to her, and (after being kept on hold for a bit), was transferred to someone senior. He very quickly agreed to send out a replacement battery.

Interestingly, he did not ask that the original battery be sent out, nor that I provide a credit card number where I would be billed if the battery turned out not to be defective. I've had two batteries replaced in warranty, and this was standard procedure then, so apparently I get better service out of warranty. I don't have a great deal of use for a battery that only lasts about 35 minutes on a full charge, but I'll probably keep it as a spare.

As always, it pays to know the law. It's a shame that Apple, which claims to be a customer-focussed company, doesn't educate its support team about this though. Possibly the Indian call centre deals with people from everywhere English speaking, while the Irish one only deals with people in the UK and Ireland, so the people there are more familiar with British law, but if I had not quoted the relevant act then I would have been charged £99 for a battery, on top of the £1.50 it cost to call their support line for half an hour.

Education

Journal: Phygg: Reader Voted Prepublication Academic Papers

Journal by eldavojohn

There's a new site called Phygg.com that is a cross between the arxiv physics feed and Digg.com in that you can read papers up for prepublication and then vote them up or down. I think this poses an interesting new step in peer review and academic journals in that it gives the public a chance to participate in reading and voting on papers. From there, the journals can separate the wheat from the chaff. While it's not exactly innovative (digg + arxiv = phygg), it'll be interesting to see if people take to it and how good the general public will be at reading lengthy physics papers. MIT's Tech Review has a short blog on the launching.

Bug

Journal: Slashdot link weirdness solved: rogue link tracker 5

Journal by nacturation

In the last week or two links to external sites on Slashdot generally don't seem to work unless I click several times. This only appears to happen on Firefox... Chrome is unaffected. I haven't tried IE, Safari, or any other browser. Finally fed up with it, I decided to look through the javascript to see if there was anything funky going on. Looks like there's a script being included from leads.demandbase.com that defines some kind of click tracker. Here's a snippet:

  • else if(a[i].className.match(/clicky_log_outbound/i)){clicky.add_event(a[i],"mousedown",clicky.outbound);}else{clicky.add_event(a[i],"mousedown",clicky.click);

So if you find you've oddly had to click a few times to RTFA, it's not your mouse button dying. Open up adblock and disable everything from leads.demandbase.com and it will be fixed. Links clicked once in Firefox will properly load as they used to. Thanks Slashdot for using an external company for tracking my click behavior. Though perhaps implementing this poorly is Taco's way of giving us a heads-up. Much like the "Idle" section, his overlords may have mandated the addition of this awesomeness to the site and by making it break it alerts us to what we need to block. In which case, a non-sarcastic thanks is due.

I also found this wonderful gem:

  • function pageload_done( $, console, maybe ){
            pageload.after_readycode = (new Date).getTime();
            pageload.content_ready_time = pageload.content_ready - pageload.before_content;
            pageload.script_ready_time = pageload.after_readycode - pageload.content_ready;
            pageload.ready_time = pageload.after_readycode - pageload.before_content; // Only report 1% of cases.
            maybe || (Math.random()>0.01) || $.ajax({ data: {
                    op: 'page_profile',
                    pagemark: pageload.pagemark,
                    dom: pageload.content_ready_time,
                    js: pageload.script_ready_time
            } });
    }

Unless my javascript is really rusty, won't this report 99% of cases?

Anyway, pass this information on so everyone can RTFA without the hassle.

User Journal

Journal: "I could care less"

Journal by nacturation

It's amazing how people try to rationalize away the phrase "I could care less", much in the same way that Star Wars apologists try to rationalize the use of parsecs when talking about the Kessel Run. Maybe there are black holes to navigate around, and minimizing the distance is the sign of a good pilot, or maybe this, or maybe that... or maybe George Lucas just made a mistake, you know?

So when it comes to people rationalizing away "I could care less" as being some nonchalant way of saying "yeah, I could but I'm not going to bother" I just don't buy it. It's a misquote of the perfectly unambiguous phrase "I couldn't care less". So when I stumbled across a rationalization of that, my mind wandered upon what I think is a pretty damned good analogy of why it doesn't make sense: I could eat more.

Media

Journal: Arcade Fire's HTML5 Experience

Journal by eldavojohn
There's a neat site for Google Chrome users that shows how artists will be able to liberate themselves from Flash and use HTML5 when the standard is finalized and browser independent (if ever that happens). If you're bored and have five minutes and have speakers/headphones, I hope your childhood address shows enough up on here to make it worth your while. My parent's farmhouse had nothing but my hometown had a couple images that brought me back.

Of course prior to this we would have to use flash to enjoy the Aracade Fire's sites.

Hope someone else enjoys this as much as I do.
Television

Journal: Futurama is Back!

Journal by eldavojohn
Tonight on Comedy Central, the first two episodes of the sixth season of Futurama were shown. It's been highly anticipated on Slashdot and as a fan I was satisfied with the return to television. I really liked the first episode and found the second episode mediocre.

*Spoiler Alert*

The first episode, Rebirth, had a lot of elements that Futurama episodes of yore contained that made me love it: social commentary, extrapolation of current technology into future technology, apparent deaths, sci-fi twists and a bit of character development. The trivial elements are certainly present like Fry's homeresque stupidity and cheap jokes but that's not something that distinguishes Futurama from other comedies. I think that the professor's quirky inventions and old age behavior remain strong in this series and for some reason never loses its humor with me. The professor can (and often does) invent anything that is necessary for the plot as well as sending the crew anywhere in the universe to deliver a package. Rebirth has a lot of those classic elements when the professor plays god with bringing the crew back to life as well as going to the cyclophage habitat planet to sacrifice Leela. If this sort of predictable formula annoys your or bores you, Futurama probably got old a while ago but for me the high quality of animation, music and voice acting really make willing to belly up for every contrived new world that is conjured. Rebirth also addresses Fry and Leela's loneliness and isolation but has a cheap cop out (the ones in love turn out to be robots) at the end to avoid any permanent character development at the end.

Episode Two, In-a-Gadda-Da-Leela, was less satisfactory for me because it dealt with an old card: Leela engaging in coitus with the Zapper (and his insecurities). While some parts made me smile, it just wasn't as funny or memorable as the older episodes. Some parts had their moments (Obi Wan Kenobi GPS with a different voice saying the wild cards was a favorite) but the overall story and plot didn't really pass muster for me. I enjoyed the cheesy black and white "The Transcredible Exploits of Zap Brannigan" (reminded me of many MST3K episodes) and of course you have to love Zap heavy episodes with his ill formed sentences and logic. But aside from that, we get a cookie cutter invention from the professor and nothing too impressive with the explanation and resolution of the V-Giny death sphere. I think a lot more could have been done with that.

All in all, not bad. I was hoping for more secondary characters that I've loved from the first four episodes like Roberto or Scruffy. These secondary recurring characters have always been a favorite of mine and a strength of the show. I guess I can't expect them to put one in every episode but I was disappointed there weren't a whole lot from the movies and none from these two episodes. Definitely worth my time to watch and for those of you outside the United States, you can find torrents out there online by searching for Futurama S06E01 and S06E02. I hope they make it all the way through this sixth season and I also hope Comedy Central ponies up for a lot more after that. If there's one show with usable potential, it's Futurama and its endless possibilities. I mean with the amount of money being dumped on other crappy shows, you'd think a fraction of that could be afforded for a show with a highly devoted following. Then again Firefly is long gone.
User Journal

Journal: So, Farewell, MacMiniColo 1

Journal by TheRaven64

Some time around 2005, Slashdot ran an article about a new hosting company, MacMiniColo that was taking advantage of the new machines that Apple had just released to offer cheap hosting. I got in contact with them, and a little while later, I had a Mac Mini, sitting in a rack somewhere, running OpenBSD and acting as my dedicated server. A 1.42GHz G4 CPU, 512MB of RAM, and an 80GB disk was (and still is) more than adequate for my needs. The biggest load on it is eJabberd, and even that only used under 1% of the CPU.

I had really great service from these people. The hard drive failed a little under a year after I bought the Mini, and Apple refused to honour the warranty because they couldn't find the records of the sale (then, a few weeks later, they could, but by then it was out of the warranty period). MacMiniColo replaced the disk for me at their own expense.

After five years with them, however, I had a little look around and noticed that VPS hosting has gone down in price a lot. I've written a book on Xen, so I thought I might try a Xen-based VPS now that FreeBSD has Xen support.

GigaTux only claims to offer Linux, but I dropped them an email and they were happy to install FreeBSD for me. I still haven't tried the Xen-enabled kernel yet; they installed the stock x86-64 kernel in an HVM domain for me and performance has been fantastic.

I'm sharing a server with 64 other guests and in spite of that performance tends to be better than my ageing Mac Mini. I was getting 1000IOPS while untaring the ports tree, which is far more than the Mini's old 2.5" laptop drive could handle, and is amazing considering that it's going via the slow, QEMU-derived, emulated device, rather than the fast PV driver. I've been installing software from ports, so everything is compiled on the machine, and even that has been fast.

And my Mini? They found someone else who wants it, and offered me about a third of what I paid for it originally - not bad depreciation after five years of constant use. Shipping it back to the UK would have cost almost as much as buying one on eBay, so I sold it on. Hopefully someone else will get some good use out of it.

As an aside, I've been really impressed by how well OpenBSD works on Mac/PowerPC hardware. If you've got an old Mac Mini lying around, chuck OpenBSD on it and you've got a reasonable low-volume server. The newer ones, of course, are x86 hardware, so will run just about anything.

GNU is Not Unix

Journal: Why I don't use GNU/Linux 6

Journal by TheRaven64

There are two reasons why I don't use GNU/Linux: One is GNU, the other is Linux. Of these, the larger reason is GNU, and specifically the glibc part. The most recent reinforcement of this is Ulrich Drepper's inability to read the C specification.

For those not familiar with the C specification, all identifiers that start with an underscore are reserved for the implementation (see section 17.4.3.1.2). You should never use them in your own code, because your compiler is completely free to do whatever it wants with them. By convention, single underscores are used for global non-standard libc extensions and double underscores are used for compiler builtins.

You can find a number of these in existing compiler. Microsoft exposes SEH with keywords like __try. GCC provides __asm for inline assembly, ICC uses __cpuid for accessing the CPUID instruction, and so on. Clang added __block as a type specifier for their variables that are copied to the heap for use by blocks (closures).

Unfortunately, it turns out that the glibc headers use __block as a parameter name. There are several things wrong with this. One is that they use double underscores at all. By convention, these are reserved for the compiler, while single underscores are reserved for the libc. The second is that they used underscores at all in a parameter. Parameter names are not in the global scope, so they can be anything to prevent name clashes.

The result of this is that, if you use glibc, you can't also use blocks. This is a shame, because we (Etoile) were shipping a working blocks implementation six months before Apple. Well, working on *BSD and Solaris (and probably Windows, QNX and Symbian with PIPS, but not tested there). This problem means that it doesn't work on GNU/Linux.

No problem for me. I only use platforms with libc implementations written by people who can read specs. It may be a problem for some of you, if you use a broken platform with a libc maintained by someone who'd rather salvage his ego than fix a problem, and if it is then I'm sorry for you. My suggestion is that you remember that there are other options.

"In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current." -- Thomas Jefferson

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