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Journal Journal: Things that need names 1

Today, the thing that needs a name is what happens when two women (or men that think like women, let's get the PC crap over with immediately) get together to exchange data.

A naive observer might imagine that women simply like talking. This is confusing the means with the goals.

When two women talk, they don't just discuss random subjects. They exchange information, in a structured and organized fashion. The exchange is highly personalised, and follows rules of economics: information has value and is exchanged on that basis. I'll tell you about such-and-such if you tell me about so-and-so.

I've remarked that there are many women who form long-lasting networks with other women, almost always based on who knows what, about whom. (Men, in contrast, form networks based on who can do what, for whom). There are many women who never do this, they tend to prefer the company of men and feel isolated in the company of other women. Similarly there are men who hate team sports and discussion of car engines. It takes all kinds.

Back to the two women talking. After observing this in many cases, and over years, I've come to the conclusion that the closest parallel is the synchronization of two devices, say my Palm with my Nokia. It's a peer-to-peer process - never three or more. It starts with protocol negotiation. Then the data transmissions start, and can last for hours, even days. Finally there is confirmation and error checking, followed by a signing-off and plan for future updates.

So, the term I coin is: "bluetoothing".

Observe your female relations and colleagues, and you will see that they inevitably pair off in spare moments of the day to bluetooth.

Note finally that the presence of a male disrupts two bluetoothing females. It's fun - try it sometime.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Bizarre thought for the day 1

Consider this: antibiotics reduce your resistance to alcohol.

Somewhere in your gut there are bacteria that help you digest booze. These bacteria are probably part of your genetic heritage, passed from mother to child like most of our symbiotic bugs, over... thousands of generations. These bugs aren't just having a great time by drinking your booze. They are actively protecting you by digesting the alcohol before it can damage your body too much.

WTF? This is bizarre.

Well, maybe not so bizarre. I figure that a good 80% of adult humans regularly consume alcohol. Maybe more. And often in large quantities. Have these bugs evolved in the last 50 years, since industrialisation made drink cheap enough to be a staple? Nah. These bugs are old.

So, here's my guess. Humans have been boozing themselves sane for millions of years. Our culture is juicily dependent on alcohol, and it's driven some of our greatest inventions, much like porn drives technology. The first grains... for brewing stronger beers. Fire: for distillation. The wheel: to carry barrels of neolithic booze up the hill. Music: to create atmosphere. Money: to sell beer for. Sex: what booze makes easier. Our species has operated in a semi-sober/semi-drunken state since we climbed down from the trees, and possibly even before (ripe fruit can be rich in ethanol). This would explain much of history, including WW1, The Hindenburgh, and West Virginia.

It all makes so much sense that I have to have another drink.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Instant review of Xandros/2.0 1

Or, what they got right.

I'll make it brief - it's 6.45 here in Brussels and I really want to go into town to get an Orval at the Metekko.

First, Xandros installs sweetly. Rapid, efficient, etc. When I first tried Lindows I was impressed that it could format and install the hard disk in under 7 minutes. Xandros does this trick too.

Caveat: there are some boxes that Xandros does not work on. You might want to try Knoppix on your box first (not quite the same hardware detection layer, but close).

Second, the Xandros user interface is perfect. I mean this literally: there is not one thing I could do to improve it. It's KDE with a clean set of applications, well organized, with no junk and no flashing lights.

Third, the Xandros File Manager is by itself worth the $40. It automatically mounts every partition and device in sight. It handles USB sticks, CDs, network drives, everything. It includes CD burning that my mother could use. This is proprietary software, written from scratch by Xandros, and it is 100% quality. This is the biggest visible difference between Xandros and other Linux distros: on a fresh Xandros install you can click on almost every interesting file, and something useful happens. packages install, zip files open, documents launch, images view, etc. It Just Works.

Fourth, Xandros is Debian. apt-get works. You can install the many Debian packages, or build from source (which is safest if it's not a Xandros-prepared package), and I've customized my system nicely.

Fiftly, Xandros (the Delux edition) has Windows support that actually works well. Crossover Office is built in, so clicking a Windows executable runs it (if Crossover/Wine supports it) transparently. I use this to run MSIE.

Overall I'd say that Xandros is somewhat conservative but impeccably finished. It is the BMW of Linux distributions: you can take this anywhere and give it to anyone, and they will never wonder 'what the heck?' In my company I've pushed a number of people to use Xandros in place of Windows, and it's always been a smooth ride.

There are some things missing. A built-in firewall would be useful. More applications. Gnome as an alternative to KDE. But this is a product with a good future: already the differences between Xandros/1.0 and 2.0 show a determined and focussed attitude to delivering the goods.

I give it 9/10 (the missing point is for the missing applications I had to get myself from the Net: k3b, kate, etc.), and I expect Xandros/3.0 to be 10/10.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Plague, prophet, patches, and publicity 1

Last year I predicted that the End was Nigh for the naive Internet based on trust and hope. The weak spot is the Windows DNA, the monoculture that exposes the majority of Internet users to a seething mass of hostile parasitic software programs.

This was my original analysis.

Now, MyDoom seems to be doing what I predicted. OK, chance are that this attack will fail. A bunch of new tools will be developed to root out and kills the worms that sneak in while the virus has opened the doors. A section of the Internet will be marked "infected" and eventually cordoned off.

It's a sign of our total lack of an answer that we blame the users.

"Don't open attachments!" sounds great advice. But it's like "Don't click the wrong button!" What attachments? What the fuck is an attachment? Everything is windows, popups, how can we tell what's hostile, what's normal, what's friendly, what's deadly?

I'm getting emails now with attachments sent as zip files. Inside the zip file is a binary disguised as an html file, a large number of spaces hiding the '.exe' extension. A WinZip exploit...

There is no end to this, no way to educate users to "work correctly". Blaming the user is a standard technique for misdirecting blame, but it's no help in this case.

In my company the difference between the remaining few Windows PCs and the Xandros workstations is striking. On the one hand we have systems infested with spyware, trojans, worms, and occasional viruses. Regular Windows patches, virus scans, elimination of 'easy' email tools like Outlook, spyware cleaners,... all necessary to keep the machines working. On the other hand we have perfectly functional Linux boxes that do what we need and have no issues. None. Zero.

One of my team, using a Windows PC at home, has lost her collection of photos and music at least twice now. Each time she takes her PC back to the shop, where they reinstall XP. (I do not do tech support for Windows boxes. Nope.) This time I will install her Xandros.

I'm impressed how hard-core Windows users can maintain the illusion of survivability, and I'm curious to see how long this lasts for.

Such illusions have a nasty tendency to collapse all at once. It takes only one prominent person, institution, or company to declare that it is replacing all its Windows workstations with Linux. Not because of cost or performance, but because of security. Security. That one word spoken often enough will send millions of people scrabbling for something, anything, to save them from the hell that the Internet has become for them.

I believe that this - more than any banal comparison of price and features, more than any marketing or advocacy, more than any critical mass or industry support - will be the reason that Windows gets wiped off the desktop ("flushed", I call it). I also believe that we are not far from this time. This year, or early next year. Two more serious attacks like MyDoom and the bubble will burst.

Of all the Linux distros I've tried, Xandros is by far and away the best. Definitely a worthy contender for "desktop Linux for 2005". But I suspect that RedHat and SuSE will be more successful, simply because they have been around longer.

Microsoft must be aware of this issue and apart from patches and publicity, they are surely working to find a longer-term solution. But to be honest, I can't think of one that would work except to deprecate the Windows DNA and port their applications and platforms to Linux or *BSD. For their sake and the sake of their clients, I hope this project is well-advanced. The alternative is going to be ghastly.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Mummy I'm Not Bored Anymore, Vol 1.

Around the age of five, I asked my mum: "Mummy, I'm bored, what can I do...?" She gave me a cardboard box, glue, pair of scissors, and I became a cardboard box nerd.

I think that was the last time I was bored, except for a brief 8-year spell at school that my brain has consigned to the "incompatible disk partition, any attempt to fseek may cause physical harm" section of life.

The problem - familiar to many - is the total lack of time to do even a few of the zillions of interesting things I'd like to try.

So, this section of my journal will describe things that I'd like to make or do, but don't have time. It's a bit like MDPA except that I won't restrict myself to brilliant inventions.

What I want to make today (but I can't find the glue) is a new kind of multimedia. The physical format is a DVD, capable of storing 4.something GB of high-quality compressed music, say 70 hours' worth. Poor people can use the CDR format, with 12 hours of music. The magic comes, as usual, from the software, which is probably a media player plugin. What it does is to play selections, in sequence or randomly, and pull up web pages that describe the music being played.

I'm proud of my CD collection, mainly because it's filled with artists I never heard of, music that comes from random corners of human culture I never visited before and never could visit except through the magic of voice and instrument. Like right now I'm playing "DFA - The Dreamtime Remixes", a bizarre electronic album of half-trance/dance, half-stoned, completely eclectic stuff.

Music makes much more sense when you can pull up a web page that discusses the album, where people explain which tracks they like, and why.

So, my little XMMS plugin (which I repeat, exists only in the space between my ears) pulls up various web pages discussing and reviewing the music being played, overlaying the screen with the current artist and title being played.

I don't want to get this functionality from a commercial vendor because I don't want to see marketing material and ads.

For use at home, I guess, where it will put a definite end to the "what the HECK is that music?" questions, or for wifi-enabled plasti-flat-screened MP3 players of the future.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Fun and Games with Zealots 3

I have this sneaking suspicion that Slashdot is inhabited by a small army of zealots who, lurking for years and now armed with moderator points, proceed to diminish comments that they don't like.

It's easy to spot these guys, they are the ones moderating down my insightful posts and calling me a zealot. The insult!

I also suspect that certain well-funded interest groups have tried to thus infiltrate Slashdot so that they can manipulate 'geek opinion' in their favour. The simpler explanation perhaps is just that some people truly believe what they say.

The particular discussion I enjoyed was about Linux vs. Windows. This always brings the worms out of the woodwork.

In the last 20 years, I've worked on a bunch of operating systems. TOPS-10, Unix, TSO, VM/CMS, Wang/VS, VMS, MS-DOS, a zillion Unix variants, OS/400, Windows, DOS-VSE, BS2000, etc. etc. ad nauseam. A long career writing tools for development teams has exposed me to more innards of operating systems, compilers, database systems, transaction processors, terminal front-ends, batch processing systems, etc. than I actually wanted to see when I started this game.

As I told my friend Fabio, I have opinions and I have theories. They often conflict, but my theories are inevitably more accurate than my opinions.

I have this theory about software costs, which I call "Heironymous' Law". Actually it's a general theory about technology which states that as technology becomes part of the status quo, its cost invariably tends to zero.

The Windows vs. Linux battle is not really a battle at all, it's more of a dance in which the players' roles are well-defined, and the outcome is already known. Still, the music plays and we get pleasure from watching the dance.

Much of the struggle with operating systems of the past has been with details that today seem banal. Compilers that don't work or are not standard. Systems that try to cram a hundred, five hundred realtime users into 32Mb of RAM. Terminals that are limited to 24 lines of 80 characters. Keyboard with no function keys.

Much of the work I did as a technical programmer was building layers to get around these problems. Portability libraries to eliminate compiler differences. Transaction managers to save memory. Virtual keyboard handlers to simulate full keyboards. I once wrote a full transaction processing platform for OpenVMS/ACMS that was the basis for a tour operating system still used today. Chained multithreading on a Digital? It hurts like having your nipples stapled to the desk.

In 1998 my company developed a large web order processing system, and per the client's requirement, we made it on Windows. Sigh. This was the most painful project of my career. No tricky technical challenges, just the grunt and grind of managing a platform that was fundamentally unsound for serious work. Running your IIS for more than two days? It'd crash. Running SQLServer for more than a week? It'd crash. Register your COM+ components outside MTS on a dual-processor system? It'd crash. Register your COM+ components inside MTS on a single-processor system? It'd crash.

And so on. The story of application development on Windows is the story of working around one OS limitation after another, each one a special case that no-one else on the planet has ever come across, each solution a compromise that further weakened the whole. Reboot every night. Install components manually, depending on the system. Bleh.

Flash back to 1996. To demonstrate what I believed would be a coming trend - web applications - I built a web transaction manager and some tools that let us construct web forms and applications. Nice and simple. We sold one or two licenses, but in 1996 people were not hot on the concept. And by 1998, it was "Microsoft or nothing".

Flash forwards to 2003. We're building a new web platform. It has to be fast and stable. Well, everything that we'd expect from a professional application. Pull out tools from 1996, make a couple of demos. Hey, it works!

Now, what does an application like this need from its operating platform? Not much. A dependable operating system that is secure and stable. A C compiler, a database manager, and that's it. We have our own web server (also built in 1996-98) that handles the front-end.

OK, now I have to get this running on a production server. A nice beast, big and fast.

Here is the thing. Can anyone imagine that I'd now go out and buy a Windows Server license, install this on my server, and then load up my (fully portable) application? .... WTF?

Take away the gloss, and look at the naked operating systems. Drop the ".NET Server" junk (just as happily as dropping the "J2EE" crap) and look at the underlying truth.

If you remove all the unstable layers off Windows you come down to a workable, though insecure, operating system. Honestly, I've seen worse. But if you compare the basic Win32 platform with the basic Linux platform, who in their right mind would choose the former?

Microsoft are totally stuck. Their added value comes from layers like SQLServer and .NET which capture users. But this is also their biggest problem, because these layers are so complex and opaque that they eventually drive users away.

It's not hard to program to the "metal", so to speak. It took me perhaps 3 months to build a full application platform that is admittedly based on lots of experience with mainframe transaction processing systems, but I'm not a genius.

I am entirely convinced that Linux has solved the OS problem and that the OS as a product has moved along the curve to the point where it is effectively free. Microsoft can add layers to their platform to try to escape this fact, but unless they add layers that enough people want, and can't get elsewhere, it is a doomed cause.

Despite the huge profits that Microsoft makes, it seems clear that we are watching the dance of death, in which the Windows whale moves in ever-diminishing circles until it releases its last gasp. Microsoft's only way out is to move their applications wholesale to Linux, and I guess they will start doing this publicly within 1-2 years.

OK, zealots, come and get me. I'm all yours.

User Journal

Journal Journal: On the track of unknown animals

As I work through my CDs, I'm finding one or two that aren't registered in FreeDB. They're all pretty good, but I suspect you won't find them on Kazaa. Here is the list:

  - The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy - Illuminate (1995)
  - Throneberry - Trot Out The Encores (1996)
  - The Miracle Mile - Bicycle Thieves (1995?)
  - Detty Kurnia - Dari Sunda (Indonesia, 1995)
  - Sali Sadibe - Wassoulou Foli (Mali, 1995)
  - The Painted Word - Universal (1995?)
  - Kanda Bongo Man - The Best Of (Congo, 1999)

User Journal

Journal Journal: 99.7% and counting 3

I went and did it. Joined the only club that would have me, despite Groucho's warnings. To be honest, sitting in that dim room, surrounded by malformed faces, unkempt and badly dressed, I felt truly at home. Yes, despite many attempts to be on the side of testosterone and rubgy, I came out of the closet and joined my local Mensa group. The psychologists doing the tests said I was smarter than 99.7% of my fellow humans. I apologised and told him I'd had a bad day, which was true. Little baby crying all night does not make for the sharpest of wit.

So, now I'm wondering what I'm going to do with that Mensa card. First, it's always useful when someone calls me stupid (this happens surprisingly often, just like my Slashdot comments get marked -1 Troll more than I'd like). I can pull out my piece of paper and say "unless you are one of those three per thousand, technically you are the stupid one".

It was that kind of answer that made me popular at boarding school. Only after some years did I discover that "popular" meant one was allowed to have a girlfriend and generally enjoy life, rather than being playfully beaten up all the time. I was seriously shocked and disillusioned when I found that spitting is not a sign of affection.

The funniest part of the Mensa package was a survey asking about whether my high intelligence had caused problems when I was younger, and still did. "Did you find other people were slow and stupid?" Well, duh!! Education is good, but it tends to force a single speed on the whole group. My brain shut down for the most part, so much that I almost dropped out of university. In one famous CompSci course (database design, I guess) I got 7 out of 100. In numerical analysis, a fantastic 30%. I was saved by the arrival of the microcomputer, which gave me an open canvas on which to learn how to think again. After a year of doing nothing else than writing 6502 assembler and teaching myself to sell games on cassette, I went back to CompSci and finished my degree, getting near-perfect results in every subject without even trying. My tutor was, how can I put it, somewhat stunned.

I measured my IQ when I was about 20, getting 125. This is good, but not extraordinary. I guess it's about average for students in a good university. Mensa scored me at 140, which is still less than Descartes, but OK for a middle-aged man with a headful of worries.

For me this is pretty good evidence that the education systems we have constructed are seriously flawed, and not just for us "clever" people. I've been lucky to find ways to define my life so that I can live and work in fifth gear... this means running my own business, doing the things I want to, living where I like, and so on. It would be surprising if such a regime was not good for one's IQ.

But what about the millions of people who suffered through regulated traumas at school, who found themselves in cubicles and boxes at work, and who may well be running in third gear for most of their lives?

Even a small difference in mental health - and this is what I'm talking about - must have very serious consequences over time.

I'd like to get more case studies on this subject, so if you have a minute to tell your experiences, that'd be great. And perhaps an entry in your journal so that others can come here and add their thoughts too.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Playlist of the month

I've decided to rescan my entire CD collection. This is a monstrous task: I spent much of 1996-9 ruthlessly spending the excessive amounts I earnt as an IT consultant on quality CDs, using the simple approach of reading the wonderfully sharp reviews of Q magazine and buying every CD that got 4 or 5 stars. There were a few duds - even Q magazine has its parochial tastes - but an incredible number of bullseye hits as well. Each month I listed about 15-20 CDs that I wanted to buy. It was hard at first, the local Belgian record shops did a good job but I was not satisfied with an 70% score. The Web was just starting and I ordered CDs from cdnow.com using (incredibly) their telnet ordering interface. The Belgian customs men, bless their black hearts, decided that those little packs of 4-5 CDs were subject to import duties, which doubled their price. Thus ended my first period as a sponsor of Internet commerce. Finally, I found, in the back pages of Q, a small record shop in Birmingham that was happy to scour the catalogues for the bizarre and eclectic CDs I was ordering. Q magazine reviewed everything that was released on the UK market except classical music. And so I have ended up with a large and varied collection that covers everything from Indonesian bop-rock to country-western to heavy metal. There are some truly curious things released on CD. And some of them are truly fantastic. And if they were released between 1996-1999, chances are I have them.

In 1999 I was saved from eventual bankruptcy by the Y2K and Internet booms which pushed me to start my business and invest in people rather than music (big, big mistake :-) !). My supplier decided he could not compete with the new online vendors and folded. And I was left with something like 2.500 individually excellent CDs and the feeling of hard disk inadequacy.

I always knew exactly how much hard disk space I needed: 120 Gb. This in the days when 1 Gb cost $1000 (and I still have a couple of those SCSI disks, and they still work).

My new Xandros/2.0 box has two of those 120Gb disks, and I've been tweaking things so that now when I insert an audio CD, Linux starts a perl script that rips the data, gets track information from freedb.org, compresses the audio data to mp3 with something called variable bit rate. Watching Linux do something "intelligent" with my audio CDs, where "intelligent" meant more than just opening the CD player... that was when I knew that I never, ever, ever wanted to go back to Windows.

So, I'm at about CD number 400 and counting.

In the meantime... I've discovered di.fm. It's better than streaming porn: this is something you can play while the colleagues are in the office. Highly recommended.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Playlist of the Month (dupe) 3

In the great /. tradition here is a dupe, only with different content. Different day, different selection of random classic music.
  • Paul Oakenfold Essential Mix from Sydney
  • DAD - Helpyourselfish
  • Detty Kurnia - Dari Sunda
  • Elliot Goldenthal - Alien 3, soundtrack
  • John Trudell - Johnny Damas and Me
  • Leftism - Leftism
  • Marillion - Afraid Of Sunlight
  • Marta Sebestyen - Kismet
  • Plastikman - Musik
  • Scott Walker - Tilt
  • Traffic - Far From Home
  • William Orbit - Strange Cargo Hinterland

Good music, like good wine, is best bought in volume when one is rich, and consumed in moderation, when one is poor again.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Quote/Unquote 1

We used to burn people at the stake for saying this kind of thing:

"We exist purely as vehicles for our genes; our consciousness, our imaginations, our creations: all these are simply manifestations of our genetically-implanted instincts for survival. We believe we exist because it makes us better replicators. There is no other reason for existence, no god, no destiny, no karma. Our lives are neither random nor controlled: choice is an illusion, but so is fate. We simply operate, like the very intelligent automatons we are. Our minds are exquisitely adapted to solving large and complex problems, the bulk of which come from our intraspecies competition with each other. Our societies are hives, built through the collaboration of thousands and millions of minds. As a species we are genetically so similar, due to near-extinction around 50,000 years ago, that we are practically clones. All our notions of "ethnicity" and "color" are as meaningful as separating people by hair patterns or toe size. Our species is incredibly successful mainly because we have managed to turn our technological prowess onto ourselves, creating a feedback loop that has not stopped since we invented fire and freed our jaws to shrink and make space for a larger brain. Finally, although we all feel unique, we are in fact designed as team players, male and female, young and old adopting clear and comfortable roles that are so inate they are universal in all human cultures. Men solve technical problems, women organize social networks. Young men learn and work, young women dance and like to look pretty. Old women gossip and old men accumulate power."

-- Pieter Hintjens, 1 January 2004

User Journal

Journal Journal: Playlist of the Month 1

Classic cuts from Heironymous' collection, on the virtual turntable today:
  • Björk - Post
  • L7 - Hungry for Stink
  • A-HA - Memorial Beach
  • Waltons - Cock's Crow
  • The Walkabouts - Setting The Woods On Fire
  • Ugly Kid Joe - Menace To Sobriety
  • Toumani Diabate - Djelika
  • Sue Foley - Big City Blues
  • Somo Somo - Hello Hello
  • Killing Joke - Pandemonium
  • Ali Farka Toure with Ry Cooder - Talking Timbuktu
  • Fluke - Oto

All excellent. Oh man, listening to "The Bomb" from L7, speakers turned all the way up... segued into "Question my Sanity"... I'm having an righteous eargasm...!!

User Journal

Journal Journal: Building an email meta-negotiation protocol 3

I have an idea for a secure email system. It is this. Every email sent to me will come on a new, unique, one-time email address. My email server will recognize the address, and the sender, and on that basis accept the email or reject it. The meta-negotiation process allows people to get an email address on which to contact me. In the simplest fashion, they simply copy the address from my website, where a form asks them to first enter their email address, then provides them with an email address they can use. In a more sophisticated set-up, this hand-shaking can be established between an email client and my email server prior to sending an email.

Depending on the manner in which the email address was obtained, incoming emails can be certified as more or less trusted. Thus emails from business aquaintances, whose public keys are encoded in my email server, are highly trusted. Emails from unknown persons checking my website are less trusted.

The beauty of this implementation is that it does not need any changes to the existing email protocols. It does require some work on the email server side, and it does rather mess with the notion of "email address" as something constant. Small prices to pay for getting a clean inbox.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Jargon File - "To Flush"

Today's Jargon Entry (actually this is This Year's Jargon Entry unless sweet inspiration strikes me again soon)...

To Flush (v): to raze a system (spec. MS Windows) and reinstall a Joe Random Linux. Professional flushers can turn the virus-ridden carcinogenic carcass of a consumer Windows PC into a new, lean and mean Linux workstation in under 180 seconds.

Flushing is a harsh remedy that is unforunately all too popular in the days of the Plague.

Flushing can be traumatic for those who realize - afterwards - that their data files were not archived, and even if they were, none of their previous suite of software could run under the new and healthy regimen.

Certain users, forewarned and forearmed, would have already begun to switch to pre-flushed tools such as OOorg.

There has started a cult, the Flushers, who take joy in flushing their own computers. The extremist Fanatical Flushers for Freedom start each morning with a pure flush, a complete and utter wipeout of anything and everything that might be stored in their computer's memory or hard disk. They worship the god Knoppix and his sidekick, USB memory drive.

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