January 2007

Finished reading Capitalism 3.0, missed speakers, drank dark beer

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

I finished reading Capitalism 3.0 a couple of days ago, and it was quite good. I promised a review, so that will be coming shortly. I also noticed that Joseph Stiglitz (ex-Chief Economist for the World Bank) wrote a new book as a follow-up to Globalization and its Discontents which is titled, Making Globalization Work, probably a nice follow-up to Capitalism 3.0.

Today after work I headed to NYU to hear Jimmy Wales give a talk on Wikipedia, but was dismayed to discover that the auditorium was packed and I couldn’t get in.

Then, I noticed that Ralph Nader was at the IFC Theater on 6th Avenue presenting the new documentary made about him called “An Unreasonable Man,” and I was about to go to the 4:55pm showing of that, but tickets sold out for that! Man, what bad luck!

At the end of the day, I ended up meeting Max for drinks at McSorley’s, so that’s not so bad. We talked a bit about Richard Dawkin’s book “The God Delusion,” and whether it’s a good thing that there is a zealous atheist roaming the streets of intellectual-dom.

Common Criticisms of Linux, parsed and analyzed

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

The following post has been sitting in my “drafts” section of WordPress for a good while. I don’t know why I never posted it — it’s been there for more than a year. I think I just thought the article deserved such careful attention that I never sat down to really edit it and prepare it for publication.

The topic is on the common criticisms of Linux, and I think it’s time for me to finally post my thoughts, given the upcoming release of Windows Vista and related products.

Awhile back, /. posted an article entitled “Is It Wrong to Love Microsoft?” The article is horribly written, but does have one point to make: why is it that on /. and other technology news sites like OSNews and Kuro5hin, everyone loves Linux almost unconditionally, and hates Windows unequivocally? I personally am unfond of blind faith as much as I am offended by blind hatred. I’ve thought long and hard about the pros and cons of Linux and Windows, and think I can come up with a pretty balanced evaluation of the two.

Oftentimes the criticisms thrown at Linux are hard to parse, mainly because the authors of these criticisms don’t know much about system design themselves. Having studied it at University, and having been a 10-year user of Windows and Linux (and a 6-year user of Mac OS since version 9), I figured I should chime in.

First, as often happens when evaluating arguments of any kind, one needs to identify the different kinds of critique, and break them down into the smallest possible groups so that they can be evaluated fairly. Broad statements like “Linux is broken” or “Linux is impossible to use” do not identify specific problems, but merely express sentiments, probably acquired through firsthand experience with a particular set of conditions.

Futhermore, attacks mounted at Linux aren’t mounted at Linux “the kernel” but at the whole set of Free (and sometimes, commercial) Software that runs on Linux, which is quite broad and diverse (and not accountable to any one development team, not even distributors). As a result of this, the attacks often seem focused on the whole system, when in fact concern only a small part of the system, and quite often that small part is already in the process of being “fixed”. So, in order to evaluate these arguments, I will begin by pointing out the general complaint lunged at Linux, and then break it down into the proper categories and evaluate each of those in turn, placing whatever context I can to help understand the situation better.

Read the rest of this entry »

Solving “accidents” and “essences” of programming with better languages

Saturday, January 27th, 2007

The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures. Yet the program construct, unlike the poet’s words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separate from the construct itself. It prints results, draws pictures, produces sounds, moves arms. The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be. … The computer resembles the magic of legend in this respect, too. If one character, one pause, of the incantation is not strictly in proper form, the magic doesn’t work. Human beings are not accustomed to being perfect, an few areas of human activity demand it. Adjusting to the requirement for perfection is, I think, the most difficult part of learning to program.

Frederick Brooks, author of the The Mythical Man-Month, disinguished between two problems in software development: the accidental problems and the essential ones. (Read Brooks’ watershed article, “The Silver Bullet“.) The industry likes to argue that we have made huge leaps in terms of the accidental in recent years. Programmer productivity is better with the help of better software revision systems, but more importantly there are RAD tools like GUI designers, powerful IDEs like Eclipse/VS.NET. Do I think we’re headed in the right direction?

In a sense. I think those tools are useful, but only because I think all we can do is shrink the accidental problem as small as possible, and then do our best to tackle the essential. The major win in terms of the accidental and even the essential is high-level programming, and I mean really high level, like Python. Why is this important? Well, Brooks once talked about how PL/I was a great software engineering language because the statements written to the compiler are “pretty close” to the “thought stuff” the programmer is working with in his head. But PL/I is nowhere near there (neither is C++, or even Java or C#). However, Python heads in that direction.

In my head, unless I really am immersed in C code all the time, I don’t think of things like types, memory management, or, God, pointer arithmetic. When we solve problems, we solve it in something computer scientists have used for years: pseudocode. Pseudocode is nothing more than code that expresses an algorithm or approach without worrying about the gory details of the underlying hardware.

Python isn’t quite pseudocode, but it’s closer than anything else I’ve seen. And that’s a huge help to productivity not just from the point of view of the single developer, but, I’d argue, also from the point of view of a team of developers. Code readability is hugely important in team environments. C and Perl can be very unreadable, which makes them ill-suited to team development. Java and C++ are better, but even they suffer from some readability problems (where the actual solutions can be masked by “best practices” and strange ways of exploiting constructs of the language). Python can be hacked too, but it tends not to be, and it tends to have very high readability.

But what about the tools mentioned above (Eclipse/VS.NET)? I often wondered about all the *nix programmers (including many of my Computer Science professors) who still load up X11 and dump into vim or emacs for their programming needs. Wouldn’t they benefit from the latest and greatest in IntelliSense, Refactoring, CallTips, SaneOnlineDocumentation, and any other CamelCase ideas I can think of for a development environment? Most *nix users would say that stuff is unnecessary–and in many senses, they are right. The essential problem remains, no matter how fancy your IDE is.

A lot of *nix developers shrink their accidental problem on a “as-needed” basis, by coding plugins or complex configurations for their highly-extensible text editors. But nowadays, productivity is starting to be a concern even in the OSS world, where things have traditionally stuck with the old “mortar and pestle,” or, should I say, “gcc and gdb”. That’s why we see projects like Mono gaining a lot of popularity.

But Python offers a nice, alternative path, I think. The accidental problem is worth shrinking, and I think it can be done simply by one major refocus:

(1) make the language usable, not the tool. (IMO, already done with Python)

and

(2) create source code analyzing tools that integrate with development environments to make the language-bearer more productive.

You can see enormous success in (2) with the Eclipse IDE project. My main problem: Eclipse’s focus is on a language that isn’t very usable. Java is certainly better than C, but still, it has significant problems that stop it from connecting me (the programmer) with my problem-solving ideas (the thought-stuff of programming).

At my new job, I work with Java eight hours a day, but my code just doesn’t read and work like my Python code, which is much closer to the underlying algorithms and approaches. Java certainly pushed forward OO on the masses of computer programmers, but it did so without learning non-OO but very handy scripting language concepts, like having Lists and Hashes be built-in types, with tons of syntactic sugar, for crying out loud. Most problems break down to List and Hash problems, after all. What’s more, OO on its own isn’t a panacea: I’ve seen many convoluted OO designs that I wish were written procedurally, and which might have been more performant if they had been. The software engineering community thinks that there will be a silver bullet (OOP! AOP! XP! MDE!), but I think just getting programmers closer to the “thought-stuff” will be an effort with better rewards.

The Unkindest Cut

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

A relatively unsophisticated article on circumcision showed up on Salon a few days ago. It’s entitled “The Unkindest Cut” and is about the conflict of a Jewish father between his Jewish mother and his non-Jewish wife over the issue of whether to circumcise his newborn son. Although it mentions some of the history of circumcision in the United States, it doesn’t go into nearly enough depth about how strange and barbaric the practice is. A letter that came into Salon from a reader has some good points, however:

This is one of the hottest parenting issues (along with breastfeeding and sleeping). I am not surprised that Salon is already flooded with letters and the emotions are rising high on both sides. I am the mother of a 3-year-old boy. He is uncircumcised and the idea of having him circumcised never even crossed my mind. I am from Europe, therefore circumcision is not part of my culture. My husband is a Hindu from India, so it isn’t part of his culture either. There is more and more evidence that shows that circumcision is an unnecessary procedure. There are more and more organizations and individuals trying to educate the public about this. Two of my favorites are: www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org and www.nocirc.org.

There is lots of very useful information regarding this topic. There are a few points I’d like to make for the sake of argument against it. Some fathers say: I want my son to look like me. So if you had a finger, a hand, or an arm missing from birth or as a result of an accident would you want to chop off your child’s corresponding body part just to make him look like you? (Sorry this is not my own idea but I like it a lot). The other point is my original thought: we, as Western society are outraged by the practice of female circumcision (mostly practiced in Africa and some predominantly Muslim areas elsewhere). What is the difference? That female circumcision is not a tradition in our culture. So it’s O.K. to keep mutilating our boys as long as we leave our girls alone… How hypocritical! And on top of that both traditions originate on the same basis: to reduce sexual pleasure and the desire to masturbate and enjoy sex.

As per some first person accounts from men who grew into adulthood intact and then got circumcised, they tell exactly how much less pleasurable sex is afterwards… Do a search on your favorite search engine for more info on the topic.

So as a parent of a boy I will leave my son’ penis alone and will make sure that everybody else does until he is old enough to make a decision about having his own body part cut off (which I think would only occur if he ends up having problems with having foreskin and sex would be unpleasant or painful).

I am not condemning people who think differently. I simply feel sorry for their baby boys… I hope one day we’ll come to our senses about this painful and inhumane practice.

As for the author, I feel sorry for him too, that he had to go through this emotionally painful experience to come to understand that he made the wrong choice.

I have a lot more to say on this topic (in fact, in college I wrote long research papers on the topic, including some original research into grotesque Victorian age masturbation control techniques, which were the precursors to routine circumcision), but probably won’t get the time to write it up. If you’re wondering about it, drop me a line.

Currently Reading: Capitalism 3.0

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

A great book so far, and guess what? You can read it too, since it’s given away for free in a beautifully-produced PDF.

Check it out.

Comments to follow.

Conversation on Torture with Doomsy

Friday, January 5th, 2007

Been having a cross-blog discussion with Doomsy over at the Liberal Doomsayer about our recent crimes torturing detainees, as widely reported in NYTimes and on Alternet. A follow-up to this post from me that I figured I should post again here:

The thing is, I don’t think we ever can redeem ourselves. America hasn’t been a saint throughout its military and political history, but as many leftist columnists are now pointing out, we have dropped our bar so far below the one we set at Nuremberg that it’s hard to see how the world can forgive us, never mind we, the people, forgiving the US Government. Saddam, a dictator we helped create and helped carry out his war crimes, was executed in an instant, in the most inhumane way. A member of the military I recently interviewed told me [paraphrasing] that “every military officer knew full well that Saddam would be executed the second he was turned over to the ‘Iraqi Government’,” and those quotes are his, not mine. In his mind, and he has been in West Baghdad for the last year fighting on the front lines, the “Iraqi Government” is nothing more than a a few corrupt politicians and a few importantly-placed American agents. “We’ve turned over detainees who weren’t even proven guilty of their crimes in Iraq, and the ‘Iraqi Government’ murdered them with a shot in the head before we were even out the door. We’ve all come to understand that ‘handing someone over to the Iraqis’ is doublespeak for ‘send that person to die’. Who physically pulls the trigger is really an irrelevant detail.” So I don’t want US Government officials telling us this is “their [the Iraqi's] system, their method of justice.” It’s ours, the blood is all over our hands. The fact that we torture should come as no surprise. And the case of Donald Vance (note: an American contractor who blew the whistle on his employer in Baghdad and was held and tortured by our military) just shows that no one is safe, that we don’t reserve our techniques for those we consider “evil”, but that it has just become a routine process for our military operations.