Search Results: "Decklin Foster"

10 January 2010

Decklin Foster: man ascii

I find myself opening a shell and typing "man ascii" more than I would like. More recently, I've found myself looking (with no success) for a equivalent web page that isn't ugly -- sometimes a browser tab is just more convenient. Yesterday, I decided to stop searching and just write one myself: man ascii. (I was a bit surprised that this domain, and all the variants of it Joker came up with, were available!) I think it gives me everything I got out of ascii(7), but I would love any bug reports.

23 October 2009

Decklin Foster: Score: 5, Privileged

(No apologies to the original.) I get the impression that the Windows 7 launch is a lot like seeing an old boyfriend suddenly show up on your doorstep wanting to get back together. He's had some work done, apparently: stomach stapling to take off some of the weight, teeth whitening, and a radical nosejob to make him look as much like your current boyfriend as medical science will allow. He's handsome, of course, almost too handsome. He still uses far too much product in his hair and carries that desperate look in his eyes. The fragrant haze around him is the cologne he overuses to mask the scent of failure. But standing there in that form-fitting t-shirt, you'd almost forget for a moment what a psycho he was- how he used to shut down in the middle of a date and forget everything you were talking about and how he was only happy when you were paying attention to him. You'd almost forget about carrying around his legacy baggage or those nights when, for seemingly no reason at all, he would simply stop speaking to you and when you asked what was wrong he'd just spit a string of hex code at you and expect you to figure it out. You complained about him for years before finally deciding to get rid of him, and here he is again. Though, somehow, he seems like a completely different person now. "I'm up here," he says when he catches you staring at his package. Tempted though you may be, you know that over time he'll get bored and slow down on you just like he always does. And then you'll be right back where you started: trapped. He keeps you by convincing you that you don't have a choice. You're just not smart enough for one option or rich enough to afford the other. "But I'm different now," he says, batting his eyes innocently. "I've changed." Indeed he has. Apparently, he's really into Kabbalah now or something like that. It's helped him discover loads of untapped potential in himself. But it also means that you'll have to buy all new furniture to fit with his understanding of feng shui. That's not the only change he has in store for you. The minute you let him move in, he'll have a new alarm system put in that succeeds only in preventing your friends from coming over on poker night. He doesn't love you, but he doesn't hate you, either. The truth is that he couldn't care less one way or the other. He's here because he doesn't want to be alone. Like all human beings, especially those well past their prime, he wants to feel wanted and, after a string of lost jobs and bad investments, he needs a place to stay. But all in all, he's OK. He's a seven. He'll do, I guess. UPDATE: There was a Hacker News thread about the Slashdot link that got killed before I could reply to someone who left a negative comment. I'll reproduce it here for the sake of anyone still scratching their head.
Thank you for replying instead of simply downvoting. There are assumptions in the structure of the original text that I don't think most of the people discussing it (here, or over there) appreciate. To wit: the narrative of technology belongs to men. Women are objects. The dumbest, easiest way to make that stick out (I did it over breakfast, ffs) is to swap the genders. It sounds "wrong". The emotional-abuse stuff is more creepy. The physical descriptions are more awkward because men aren't leered at in the same way. It's not about evening things out, it's about subverting what the text doesn't say outright by making it obvious. I am, I'm sure, as aware as you that "deconstruction" is not (anymore) a word you say to sound smart, rather a word you avoid saying to avoid sounding like you're trying to be pseudo-smart, but sometimes you just gotta call a spade a spade. You're free to disagree with that (I assume you still will), but I think "not even wrong" is a little over the top.

23 March 2009

Decklin Foster: Artificial Intelligence

After a recent apt-get:
Fetched 1B in 0s (42B/s)
Well. That settles that question! :-)

12 March 2009

Decklin Foster: Inside Out

I've been on Twitter for over a year and a half now. If I had to explain why I like it, and why it's so popular now, I would use an analogy:
Twitter : IRC :: Blogs : Usenet
(This applies equally to other "micro-blogging" services, but I am about to explain why I believe that's not the right metaphor. You may also substitute mailing lists for Usenet.) With the older media, you have a place -- a newsgroup, or a channel, that people went to, with a distinct culture, and that (mostly) weren't "owned" by anyone, but rather by the community. With the new ones, we are all sole proprietors of our own streams, and we "tune in" to the subset of people we find interesting, rather than topics we invest in. So, instead of bumping into the same person in a couple different groups, or never reading their words at all, you might find that your feeds overlap a bit more than they do with most people. This is how I find people to "follow" and blogs to read, in fact -- as my network expands, more people become loosely joined to it, and as I notice ones worth reading I add them. Is one model better than the other? Probably not. I could make an analogy to music. In theory, I'd rather read what my favorite critics have to say about a wide variety of new releases -- some of which I'd never know about otherwise -- than keep up with the discussion of bands and genres I really like, even if most people writing about them are terrible (remember, 90% of everything is crap). But I also lose that sense of community of being a "fan" of something; I no longer have a deep connection to what's going on in the fandom or the scene, which I also would never know about otherwise (some of it is just too obscure for my favorite writers to cover). In practice, it seems the new approach has been more popular, but maybe that's because more people are on the net now, and both kinds of communication are/were shaped by the technology available at the time (destinations make much more sense with limited/centralized computing resources, and aggregation makes much more sense with powerful clients and a wider, less specialized user base). Anyway. This post is not actually about social media theory or whatever you want to call it; it's about some software I have packaged. Because of all the above, I have always wished that I could use Twitter from something more like my IRC client. Like, say, my IRC client. One could abuse the concepts of IRC to make an "on the fly" channel of whoever happens to be in my feed. (I once read a blog comment somewhere complaining that Twitter could easily be implemented on any existing IRC server using one +m channel for everyone and some client-side direction of messages from all such channels to a single window. +1 for cleverness, but they did sort of miss the point of why normal people sign up for web sites rather than installing and configuring clients for obscure chat protocols.) So, I had grand plans to write a Twitter client which was an IRC server, with some clever mapping of IRC concepts and commands to their equivalents over there. I never got around to it, as I barely have enough time for anything I do now. But last month I noticed that someone else had implemented such a thing: tircd. I had seen Twitter/IRC services before, but like the official Twiter XMPP service, they were all implemented as bots, which I detest for this sort of application. Bitlbee, for example, translates various IM protocols to IRC, but only halfway -- for anything else you have to use a bot as a sort of poor man's command line. If I want a command line for Twitter, I already have several; IRC can do better. And tircd really does! It's great. You're not required to edit the config file, and there's no extra layer on top of IRC for things like logging in or adding people. I've finally packaged the latest release, which is waiting in NEW currently. I got a request for sneak preview packages, so if you want to install some unapproved .debs check this repository. I may still pick my own project back up, as Twitter itself, being a centralized service, feels like a stopgap solution on the way to to a more generalized 140-character equivalent of the, er, blogosphere as envisioned by open-source projects like In the future, perhaps, when we use a certain micro-blogging "service" we might be randomly connected to one of any number of servers run by different individuals but all mirroring messages back and forth to each other. Which, now that I think of it, sounds vaguely like some obscure, obsolete chat and news-posting protocols I know.

9 March 2009

Decklin Foster: Another Monopoly Rant

A cautionary tale: Verizon's DSL salespeople are completely incompetent. Several weeks ago, I ordered residential service. I was unable to get the prequalification app on their web site to work for my address, so I called in. I was told (1) I could get a modem for free, and (2) that I didn't need to do anything for the install except plug it in -- they'd just be turning something on at the CO, perhaps even before the date my service was scheduled to begin. These were both, of course, pure fiction. On the install date, while at work, I got a call from a tech who had shown up at my house to rewire something. Luckily, I was able to rendezvous with him later in the day. The service worked briefly and then went down. Over the next few days, I called in, was told to wait at home for 8 hours, no one showed up, I called in again, was told "oh, sorry, it's going to be tomorrow", waited all day the next day, no one showed up again... a week and two actual visits later, I finally had connectivity. I can't really blame them for whatever the line problem was, but to repeatedly treat my time as worthless by making me wait at home for an entire day just in case a tech can get there, even though it's highly unlikely they will, is just offensive. Then, I received my first bill and... was charged for the modem. Calling in again, I was told that the deal I was offered was for online orders only, and even if I specifically confirmed with the sales person that he could get me the same deal since the web site wouldn't let me complete an order (and I already had an old, power-sucking modem anyway), there was no way I could get a refund. So I got an RMA and planned to go shopping for a replacement (people are selling the same model on Craigslist for $10). The RMA came in an email which also told me that if I did not return the equipment within X days I would be charged $100. This is all utter bullshit. Do not use Verizon. If your only other option is Comcast, as it is here, just steal your neighbor's wireless or tether your 3G. They could have left me reasonably happy with the whole botched situation if they had provided a honest estimate of how long it would really take to get someone out (even if it was "days"), or given me access to the same information without having to go through a call center of people only trained to read a script about how to power-cycle your router or whatever. And if they actually apologized for a saleperson convincing me to sign up by lying about what I would be charged. But why would they? What are you going to do, switch to an ISP that treats you like a human being and doesn't fuck with your traffic? Ha. Ha ha ha. Good luck with that.

5 March 2009

Decklin Foster: You're talking about things I haven't done yet

I've been converting all my Mercurial repositories to Git. One of the motivations for this was hg's poor handling of branches and tags: branches are just another metadata field on a commit, and tags are entries in a text file called .hgtags that is tracked in the repository(!). Git has its flaws as well, but I prefer its view that branches and tags are just refs, which are pointers that exist at the repository level and are pushed or pulled around in much the same way as the objects they refer to. The excellent script included in contrib created Git tags corresponding to my old Mercurial tags, but of course didn't modify the actual commits. So I still had a .hgtags file in my Git repository, and a boilerplate commit of the form "Add tag foo for changeset bar" each time I added to it (recall that .hgtags is just another file. Thankfully, I never had to deal with two branches where I added different tags...). I wanted to remove these. Git has a 'filter-branch' command that can totally rewrite or expunge commits; this is of course a horrible idea for already published code, but there's no harm in using while initially preparing a repository. While I appreciate git's object model and speed, I must agree with its detractors that the user interface is terrible. It took some tinkering to get git-filter-branch to do what I wanted, so I'm writing this to save my notes for next time (and in case someone else is searching for how to do this). Here's the command I arrived at:
git filter-branch \
    --tag-name-filter cat \
    --index-filter 'git update-index --remove .hgtags'
    --commit-filter \
        'if [ $# = 3 ] && git diff-tree --quiet $1 $3; then
             skip_commit "$@"
             git commit-tree "$@"
         fi' \
The tag name filter is always necessary if you want tags to be updated to point to the corresponding commits on the new, rewritten branch. I consider this a UI failure -- when a branch is rewritten, the ref is modified, and the old one moved to refs/original. Tags, on the other hand, stay where they are, without any indication on the new branch that this is where you might want to move that old tag and sign it again or whatever. IMHO they ought to be handled the same as branches. The index filter is simply an efficient way of removing the unwanted file from all commits. This and the tag filter are both covered in the manual page. Writing a commit filter is a little more obscure. After .hgtags is removed from the index, we may end up at one of those useless "Added tag foo" commits and have no changes to record in the commit. By default, of course, filter-branch still records these -- the commit message might be useful, or something. But I want to suppress them. The commit filter is called with a tree -- you're at the point between write-tree and commit-tree (I recommend Git from the bottom up if you're confused here.) It gets that tree ($1), and then "-p PARENT" for each parent, just like commit-tree. So, if this is a normal commit with one parent, there will be 3 arguments. (If there's only one argument, there is no parent, i.e., the first commit, and if there are more, then it's a merge.) This is the only case we want to mess with. If there are no changes between our tree and the parent's tree, then it's one of those no-op commits, and we can skip it (skip_commit, a shell function defined by filter-tree, uses some deep magic to hand us the original parent again next time). I think diffing the index and the parent would work as well, but this seemed clearer. It still feels like a hack, so I'd love to hear from anyone who can suggest improvements. Since this is a special case, maybe it's better off being implemented in itself. There's always more than one way to do it. Update: Teemu Likonen points out that the next version of Git (1.6.2, not yet in unstable) will have a --prune-empty option which makes this particular problem totally trivial. I am starting to get the feeling that the Git developers are all reading our minds... :-)

13 November 2008

Decklin Foster: Film at 11

Managers are dicks. (ObBookMeme: "What's hard is sorting the result list so that the good results show up near the top.") (Something I am working on now that Njiiri has search, but who gives a fuck, right?)

Decklin Foster: A bit late, but still

Happy Armistice Day.

8 November 2008

Decklin Foster: Generally, "deal with huge amounts of" means "identify the 98% you can ignore"

Ted lays it out.

5 November 2008

Decklin Foster: Hello America, I missed you

As we walked back toward Mass Ave to catch the bus last night, fresh from the euphoria of my friend Josef's election-night party, I thought about how fortunate we are to be here, now. We cheered, we screamed, we sang the national anthem at the top of our lungs, popped champagne, and danced. I'm on some stranger's facebook somewhere, at the edge of a crowd of people smiling for what felt like the first time in years. I knew I'd remember, but I wanted to write something down. I'd been following along on Twitter all night, but I didn't know what to say when the good news finally came. I thought about our friends in California, where Prop 8 looked like it was going to win. Despite how far we've come, it's likely three states are about to write discrimination into their laws or constitutions rather than out of them. So I picked up my phone and just typed in, "charged." Everyone was excited, yes. I haven't felt electrified by the possibility of change like that in a very long time. But we also haven't automatically won change by changing our leaders. We have won a responsibility to make that change happen. "Yes we did", we joked to each other, and I emailed to my parents in the morning. But no one actually meant, "yes we can win an election". That's just the starting line. Now, we are charged with making America better. We are charged with protecting the liberties of everyone. I wanted to remember that too. That's why it matters that we won. Eight years from now, this could be a nation where the whole idea of "banning gay marriage" sounds as antiquated and offensive as segregated schools or not letting women vote. We have the ability to change our culture, nothing more. Mandates don't do that; people do. And yes, we can.

2 November 2008

Decklin Foster: Tap that class

And now, something entirely impractical. I picked up Beginning Ruby by Peter Cooper the other day to look for some teaching material. Flipping through, I came across a basic feature that had heretofore escaped my notice: the Struct class. If you want to use a class for nothing more than bundling together a few values, you can create a Struct instead of writing out initialize and attr_accessor yourself. The idiom is like this:
class Server <, :port, :password)
  def to_s
    port == 6600 ? host : "# host :# port "
That particular one's from Njiiri (which may clue you in that it took me several months to get around to writing this post). For educational purposes, it's nice: you can point out how we give a name to a class (I've also tried to explain assignment as "naming" rather than "storing"), that there's an unnamed class (classes are also objects!), and overriding a method (which uses the dynamically defined stuff), without any boilerplate to get in the way. So it's tempting to use this in a lesson. Unfortunately, Ruby is a little bit weird here, and you run into those distracting "practical" issues about the particular language you're working in. Your classes can't subclass Class, and thus you can't say like you can Struct is actually implemented in C (or Java, or whatever's native). So you have to do some handwaving. This is because the "metaclasses" we have in Ruby are implemented, so to speak, as singleton classes of objects (including class objects). I do not mean this as a criticism of Matz at all, but they seem like more of a serendipitous thing than an intentional design -- "hey, if we implement classes in this particular way, we get this sort of metaclassing automatically [1]." (The clearest explanation of why this is that I've found is in the first chapter of Advanced Rails by Brad Ediger.) I wanted to be able to just subclass Class, rather than have all that fun power that we normally get to abuse in Ruby, only because I think this is the clearest way to explain the abstraction. Even I still have trouble describing singletons in plain English. Struct is intuitively a class of classes, and factors out similar/boring stuff -- a good practice. It could be an example of how to refactor some simple classes, if only we could follow it. I decided to give up on the idea for my tutorial, but it kept me up at night. Ruby metaclasses clearly can do anything that the sort of Struct-like metaclasses I have in my mind -- "parametric" classes, if you will -- can do, and I can dynamically define just about anything; why not make it happen? We can instantiate Class itself, but the tool we have to shape that class is singleton methods. This can certainly be abstracted away. So, I whipped something up. Before getting to it, though, let's visit a new construct in Ruby 1.9 and 1.8.7: Object#tap. Apart from the obvious debugging use described in its documentation, it makes it quite easy to factor out this pattern:
def gimme_a_thing
  thing =
Into something closer to the style of functional or declarative programming:
def gimme_a_thing  thing 
(Well, "do stuff" is obviously still procedural, but A for effort.) Which one is "better" could probably be the subject of much debate, but: I really prefer the second one; even though it has exactly the same effect, it looks like "what" rather than "how" (something else I try to beat into impressionable young heads. :-)), which is I think easier to write tests for. I'm going to use it here, because it's shorter. Now, Object#tap passes the object as an argument to the block; in our case, we are going to define a metaclass, so we want to work with self, instead. So we define a new version, class_tap -- by analogy with class_def, I suppose --- which class_evals the block rather than simply evaluating it:
class Class
  def class_tap(&blk)
    tap  _self  _self.class_eval &blk  
And to do the following trickery, we make use of MetAid, written by why the lucky stiff -- it's very small, so we could always just incorporate the bits we want into the code here, but this short file provides a common vocabulary for talking about metaclass stuff which is quite valuable. Now, we can write a method to create our new classes on the fly. Here's what I came up with:
require 'metaid'
class << Class
  def meta(_super=Object, &blk)
    new.class_tap do                     # 1
      meta_def :new do  *args            # 2 do   # 3
          class_exec *args, &blk         # 4
(Note the "class << Class", opening the singleton, rather than "class Class", opening Class itself. Also, the distinction between new and -- they are the same method, but from inside the meta_def we're no longer in the Class class.) The lines of meta itself mean:
  1. The value of this thing is a generated class, which we will describe thusly:
  2. Its singleton class has a new method, which gives you a value that is:
  3. Another generated class, which is defined by:
  4. the original block, which now gets run with new's arguments.
Nary an assignment in sight! The (embarrassing) caveat is that methods in the block that defines the new class instance cannot use def to create methods as normal. A def is evaluated in a totally fresh scope (I don't think I get the opinion behind this decision, to be honest), so we need to use class_def instead. This is, I must admit, rather hideous. Perhaps someday the language will change. But, first things first: now we can implement Struct in pure Ruby.
class MyStruct < Class.meta \
  do  *args 
    attr_accessor *args
    class_def :initialize do  *instance_args do  attr, val 
        instance_variable_set :"@# attr ", val
The real Struct class does a few other nice things for you, but this is the heart of it; I can go back to that Njiiri example and just swap in MyStruct for Struct (Providing an instant performance gain of -200%... :-)). Here's a "shapes" example from my abandoned OO lesson:
class Polygon <
  def perimeter
class RegularPolygonClass < Class.meta(Polygon) \
  do  n_sides 
    class_def :initialize do  side_length 
      @sides = [side_length] * n_sides
    class_def :area do
      @sides.size * @sides.first**2 / Math.tan(Math::PI / @sides.size) / 4
class Square <; end
class Pentagon <; end
(Note that area has no free variables and thus could actually be defined with def. It would just look funny.) You only have to change one number here to make new polygon classes, rather than accumulating parameter lint or explicitly subclassing and redefining something implicit just for the derived class [2]. In a way it the exact analogue of the imperative vs. tap style described above. There is quite a bit of aesthetics involved; one way is not "right". Apart from the syntactical wart, I like being able to do things this way. Ruby is, as they say, optimized for programmer happiness and the principle of least surprise. Still, I'm sure it is quite slow, and I don't particularly need it for any real-world application right now. For an intro to OO it's way too much complexity to have lurking unexplained beneath the surface and still requires getting bogged down in the language you happen to be using. But hey! It's neat.
[1]I basically try to do this whenever possible, anyway. Design decisions are like sex: they're better when they're free.
[2]Of course, if Ruby class variables were not leaked across the entire inheritance hierarchy, something as trivial as this one-variable example would be... trivial. At least, few people would actually miss metaprogramming features. Blub blub blub.

30 October 2008

Decklin Foster: Pumpkins for Obama So basically, my girlfriend and I are huge geeks.

Decklin Foster: A long-overdue explanation

Regarding that last post. I received the list via email from Alan Sondheim earlier in the week, and felt like putting up a link to it. No particular reason; it seemed appropriate for one of those sui-generis enigmatic tumblelog things. I was disappointed to find that none of the mailing lists where I might have been able to find it had public archives. (One way of dealing with people who complain about spammers harvesting their address, I suppose...) So, I said to myself, I've got 8+ years of this guy's email work, I'd like to share it with the world, and I have Mnemosyne, which I had always thought, in the back of my mind, would be a neat way to archive email written as email rather than written as a "blog". So, a little hacking later... The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive (Warning: some parts are NSFW). It has already given me some ideas for improving the example templates; I'll release 0.12 soon with the changes I had to make to get this running. (Final tally: 4500 messages, 75 seconds from a clean htdocs, 12 to no-op. On whatever the cheapest Linode [1] [2] is. Eh. I can do better.)
[1]Incidentally: Linode has been great. Highly recommended.
[2]Also: yeah, I know my footnotes are broken. Working on it.

Decklin Foster: Some Events in New York City in 1902

Some Events in New York City in 1902.

27 October 2008

Decklin Foster: We could customer care less

(And now, a cathartic "I hate this company and I am never patronizing them again, please don't either" post. I should have done ones for at least Speakeasy/Covad and IBM's server division last year. Ah well.) I went to go register a new domain yesterday (announcement soon! Probably this weekend). I've been using Joker for a while, IIRC on the principle that the cooks were using it so it must be decent enough. While registering, I had a bunch of problems with the horrid, useless "Verified by Visa" popup [1] that you see everywhere these days, and eventually this must have looked like suspicious activity to the bank so my card was declined. I only actually found this out when I got mail saying my order was canceled. Okay, sure. I wrote back and explained what I thought was going on and that I'd like to resolve it. Another half hour later, I got this response:
please use
for all support inquiries.
Regards, your team
This is complete and utter bullshit [2]. If a company is going to mail me, I expect to be able to mail them. I have a mail client; it manages communication the way I want it to, and runs my preferred editor to compose messages (which is, in fact, how I am writing this very blog post). I am sick of dicking around on JavaScript-requiring web forms that all work differently and typing in postage-stamp-sized little textareas. Anything I do type in them is lost, because unlike my email client, web forms don't save sent messages unless the authors feel like letting you have a Cc:. When a company forces me to do this, I take it as a sign of disrespect. I tolerate a web browser [3] for reading pages; "applications" are universally painful [4]. One of the things I used to like about Joker was the PGP mail interface. AFAIK, they have not killed it (I didn't bother to check), but with automatic "we don't want to listen to you unless you inconvenience yourself" bounces like this, what's the point? I surmise that there is, or was, some smart person there who understood how (and more to the point, why) to hook a pseudo-mailbox up to a software system, and that they have been overridden by someone in management who realized it's much easier to have dime-a-dozen webmonkeys hook a form up to the same system since 90% of users just don't care (and even people who do notice and dislike this, but are not as inflamed as I, have come to expect it because everyone else refuses mail, so, y'know, pick yr battles son, etc.). Not the sort of culture I put faith my in. The irony of it all was that I was registering this domain to run a service I had decided to create specifically because of another site refusing mail and directing me to an even lamer web form. That would take incoming mail and, you know... process it with software. Suffice it to say, I am no longer going to be their customer. In deciding who to use instead, I figured I'd do a survey of where the domains in that "Subscription" column [5] on Planet Debian were registered, but... WHOIS is basically useless. Every server just returns free text, formatted differently by (apparently) every implementation under the sun. Cheaply parsing something out from .com/.org/.net is possible, but InterNIC kindly blacklists your IP after making more than a few requests in a few minutes. I guess I'm just gonna go with Gandi (but other suggestions would be welcome). In somewhat unrelated developments, I went to to update my nameservers for Where the Bus At? last week. There was no authentication or anything on the request form, so I just filled it in and sent it off. I got some automatic mail saying I need to print out a PDF, sign it, and fax it internationally. Annoying, and hardly as secure as mailing them with PGP, but whatever. But then, also yesterday, I got another mail saying the update was complete (lo and behold, it was). I am now somewhat concerned about the security of my domain: it seems like anyone can come by and put something in the form and if I'm not around to notice the courtesy mail and ask that they stop the request, it'll eventually go through, no questions asked. I have not yet written them to figure out what the deal is, though. Kinda burned out. I guess I didn't really have high hopes for dealing directly with a ccTLD registrar (this was the first time I've done it... I can't believe I blew 60 on a cutesy domain name) rather than a reseller who competes in a market, but then, I go and google "domain registrar" and look at all the AdWords dollars spent trying to compete with GoDaddy [6] and just kind of want to put my head in my hands. On DJB's DNS pages there's this bit about setting up a domain. It doesn't say "How to (buy register whatever) a domain name". It says, "How to receive a delegation from .com". Which is of course, how it works. And what I want to buy. I don't want "parking" or even gratis nameservers. Just a delegation from .com. Please. No AdWords came up when I googled for that phrase to copy the link. Sometimes I guess markets just sink to the bottom. Anyway. I feel like there's a free-software angle here. My continuing irrational hatred of using other people's forms, web-based mailing-list substitutes, nameservers, etc. stems not so much from their suckage but from the fact that there is no longer any software there, in front of me, for the four freedoms to possibly apply to. Being able to run your mail reader for any purpose doesn't win you much if no one uses mail. I don't really know what to do about this.
[1]It was only twelve dollars! If I go to hipster market or some other place with brand-new POS systems they don't even make me sign a paper slip for less than $20 or so. But this is the sort of thing dreamed up by people who think good security is setting a cookie to denote that I've answered "what was your first dog's name" or whatever. IF YOU WANT TO BREAK INTO MY BANK ACCOUNTS: I've set the answer to every single one of these questions to "security theater". Easy to remember.
[2]Not to mention a glaringly RESTless URI.
[3]Also, as a rule I normally try not to have anything up on my desktop that I can't close and re-open at any time, thanks to screen, MPD, emacsclient, actually using my browser's bookmark function and resisting the lure of tab-bar.js, etc. Web browsers are supposed to suck at preserving state; HTTP is stateless. See also here (and for further reading on that in the Haskell world, check out Yi. I'm hoping to switch to it someday).
[4]Debbugs, for example, may not have the slickest interface, but if I want to do flags, labels, archiving, threading, or whatever, I can; I'm not at the mercy of some front-end web developer. But we've all heard this litany before.
[5]Thanks, Hpricot!
[6]Even if GoDaddy's customer service were completely hacker-friendly, I would not use them, because their president Hates America.

20 October 2008

Decklin Foster: And yet I swear this oath

There was a lot of political talk last week in the US about this guy "Joe the Plumber". I'm really quite mystified by the (lack of) Democratic response to this one; it seems like a perfect opportunity for the Dems to explain what their ideals actually mean, after years of complete inarticulacy. The Republican party, and conservatives in general, have somehow successfully sold their platform of, as Robert Reich brilliantly put it on the Daily Show last week, "socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else", to poor but socially-conservative citizens for quite some time. They've convinced people to vote against their economic self-interest, and cut taxes on the rich instead of themselves. Is voting for policies that directly benefit you less necessarily bad? I don't think so. In many cases, selflessness and altruism are better in the long run. Conservative economic policies speak to a sense of right and wrong that give people a feeling of purpose, and so an incentive to create: this is mine, I made it, you can't take it away. In a theoretical sense, leaving more wealth in the hands of the rich should "trickle down" to society in general, by providing more capital, and thus creating jobs, etc. However, I do not believe that this is why Americans, specifically, tend to support conservative economic policy. The USA has this idea of the "American Dream", pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, if you will, and striking it rich through hard work and character. It's advantageous for conservatives to sell this idea because it makes people think "tax the rich? What if I get rich?", which is a sort of enlightened self-interest, arguably. And it gets poor people to vote for them. What makes this "plumber" thing interesting to me is that is should demonstrate where this approach ought to fall down, logically and emotionally. But it does not. Here is the problem. A working stiff who earns "five figures", such as myself, generally makes that money by going to an employer every day, performing some services for them, and then drawing a paycheck. Where this money comes from is abstracted away (this is the marvelous thing we call "business"). Let's say you want to sell the "American Dream" to this person. They get their paycheck every week, and there's a chunk taken out of it by Uncle Sam. Maybe they're saving up to start a business, or go to college, etc. They sure could do it faster if taxes weren't so high. So you remind them this: when you do strike it rich (since this is America, where anyone can strike it rich), do you want those taxes to be even greater? This story contains a lie of omission, probably the greatest lie ever told in US politics, and one that has almost universally succeeded as far back as I can remember. And that is: when you do make that jump to where our hypothetical Joe is, making just over a quarter-million dollars, that it's not going to look any different. You'll get your paycheck from some abstracted source, just like before, but more will be taken out unless we stop raising taxes on those higher income brackets. There will be some node higher up in the tree for that wealth to "trickle down" from; you could say it's implied, even, that wealth is created at the root and destroyed at the leaves. What's wrong here? Simple: a self-employed plumber does not have a paycheck, except maybe to him/herself for accounting purposes. They collect their income in the form of payments from customers. They don't have an abstraction: they hire more labor and become the abstraction. If their customers have no money, the abstraction leaks, their employees have to be laid off (and then can no longer afford plumbing services themselves). The success of the plumber depends as much on how many people are able to pay them as it does on his costs (such as taxes). We want to make sure those customers can still pay. This is, in theory terms, the idea of demand-side or Keynesian economics. (Not really exactly. I took about two econ courses. But bear with me for a moment.) Now, you can argue demand-side vs. what we would call supply-side economics, which is the idea that no, first you have to stop taxing Joe so he can hire people so they have money to go buy things, for ages. People have made whole careers out of it. I am not here to do that. What I am here to wonder out loud is: why is this argument not happening, now, in our public sphere? Even if only as a small plot point in one Presidential campaign? There are very good arguments for both sides (I agree with the Keynesians, myself), and they should be what this debate is about, not digging up dirt on some guy whose real name, horrors, might not be "Joe" or protests about all those you-know-what poor people getting "government giveaways" that are disturbingly close to racism in my opinion. When I turn on talk radio I hear zombies, unable to string together any thought more complicated than "Democrat == higher taxes on everyone" (which would be depressing even if the claim were true). It begins to get unsettling when you understand your opponent's argument, and yet watch them completely unable to articulate it. When they deal with this by appealing to fear and thought-killing sound bites, it gets alarming. Obama has backpedaled whenever the whole issue has come up. In the last debate, he was saved by merely shutting up and letting out enough rope for McCain to hang himself. Not very inspiring. As a result I hear repetitions of Obama's phrase "spread the wealth around" constantly met on the airwaves with... silence. He won't touch it, and honestly, I can't blame him for not wanting to fan the flames of class warfare with only two more weeks left to stick it out. But I don't understand why, and why a single person on the left hasn't had the faith that this idea can be discussed in our society. I think that, whichever side you are rooting for (and yeah, I am for the Democrats), the Democrats should have won this point readily. Not to belabor the point, but it really amazes me that they have not. It wouldn't have taken much. Here's what you do: go to Wherever, OH with your crack PR team and find several of "Joe the Plumber"s customers. Interview them all. A few of them are, in this economy, going to be really hurting. If you're lucky: Remember that Joe owes taxes to the IRS. Very possibly, someone owes Joe money! That would be a coup. You just put them in front of the media and the whole thing sells itself. Mary needs to make these repairs... if only her tax credit were larger... etc. This would not settle the argument, by any means, especially not for political junkies. But it would begin it. We could talk about policy, whether one way of "spreading" things will result in more wealth to spread than another, instead of red-baiting. I feel a bit ripped off that we haven't even gotten that much. The theory part is pretty much irrelevant to most people; that's fine. But they deserve context. I can only assume that my ("my") party is still either terrified or stupid. I hope winning the Presidency changes that somewhat. That whole right and wrong, purpose, "noble cause" thing, right? Right, guys?

19 October 2008

Decklin Foster: Njiiri 0.2.0

Seems like it's been ages since I've been able to do this (probably because it has!): I've released a brand-new piece of software. Njiiri is a client for MPD, using GTK+, written in Ruby. I don't see a lot of desktop apps out there using Ruby, so this was a new and fun experience for me. I've tried to make it as "boring" as possible, in the sense of looking vaguely like a proper, HIG-compliant GNOME app, with (appropriately) no pointless configuration knobs. The browser, in particular, is a mostly pixel-for-pixel clone of the standard file-open dialog. And it's accessed by a big toolbar button with a stock "Open" icon. Basically, if desktop software makes me think ("oh, I'm in iTunes, all the controls work differently, let's adjust our approach"), it's failed. For me, anyway. So, I'm pretty happy with the direction I'm going (even though I'm very much not there yet. I haven't hooked up search, for example). One of the things I like about MPD is that it gives me the freedom to remove things if I want to. And I like removing things; small is beautiful. For example, I originally had no place to stick a crossfading control in, so I was going to just dump it. If you need it, "mpc crossfade" is a terminal away. (It turned out that it did eventually fit nicely into my layout. I'm a bit obsessive about aesthetics.) In a similar way, I've avoided duplicating anything I do with homegrown scripts or mpdtoys; there's just no need. What I want out of a GUI frontend is a sort-of tangible way to manipulate things when I feel like looking at them visually for a bit. Then I close it and move on. MPD certainly isn't the most wonderful implementation of a system which allows that, but the client ecosystem is quite diverse and I'd say it deserves a look if any of this sounds interesting to you.

14 October 2008

Decklin Foster: The cradle rocks above an abyss

In related news: with sup out of the way, I have returned to packaging Mnemosyne, the program that powers this blog. It is also in NEW, so expect to see it soon. (Like sup, which is packaged as sup-mail since sup is the Software Update Protocol, it is mnemosyne-blog since mnemosyne is the program formerly known as PyQt MemAid.) If you're just joining us, Mnemosyne compiles a Maildir into a static site. You can use it for a blog or just about anything else where a traditional CMS would be overkill. It's all XML and Python-extensible. The documentation kind of sucks, though, so I'm also hoping I get some more users from this to tell me what to fix. It hasn't otherwise seen much action since the beginning of 2006. Drop me a line if you have any feedback! (If it's not obvious, I think blog "comments" in general are pretty worthless. But with some craftiness, they could certainly be implemented within Mnemosyne as it stands. As could a general mailing list archive, etc...)

13 October 2008

Decklin Foster: What's sup?

After some weeks of final testing, I've just uploaded packages for sup-mail to NEW. I'm pretty excited about this. Sup is a console-based MUA, like mutt (which I have used for many years). A few things distinguish it from most mail readers targeted at geeks like us:
  • Sup has no folders, a la Gmail. After watching many friends and even fellow hackers switch to Gmail, I have to admit: this literal hierarchical organization thing doesn't scale. I was planning to totally redo my mail folder system Any Day Now for about six months prior to starting on this. It was never going to happen.
  • Sup uses a Ferret full-text index to make this approach plausible. Search is super fast and beats (for me) both any kind of "organization" I could have disciplined myself into and the fine-grained control of something like mutt's search. It's sort of like git: until you do it, you don't realize how much more productive you can be when previously-expensive operations become instantaneous.
  • Sup works with threads, not messages; this is another thing Gmail got right. I used to waste brain cells thinking about which messages in a thread were worthwhile enough to save or not. Given the absurdly cheap price of disk relative to what we can type out in plain text since, like, a decade ago, this is crazy. In the index, I only have to look at whether a thread has new chatter or not, not its size, shape, or where the new messages are relative to it. All that's in the thread-view buffer where I actually read content.
  • Sup is written in Ruby. Back in the dawn of time, I used Gnus, and while I wasn't very good at elisp, the hackability afforded by being written in a high-level language was very nice compared to programs mostly implemented in C (even if they had a tacked-on scripting language). Plus, I love Ruby right now.
Despite all of those wins, sup currently has many drawbacks, and I don't recommend it for everyone. (And I mean everyone who thinks that the above are good ideas and are interested in using it; plenty of people, I'm sure, already think everything about this is idiotic, not new, or inferior to their preferred MUA. That's fine! You can ignore it all.) Here's what's still problematic:
  • At version 0.6, sup is very much not-yet-1.0. While it handles insanely large amounts of email without breaking a sweat, I still keep an additional backup of everything. (If Ferret crashes, the original copies of mail will be untouched, but it never hurts to be paranoid.)
  • The flow of data from your physical mail store to the sup index is currently one-way only. Actually removing deleted/spam messages is a big hack (if it works at all), and labels/flags/etc live entirely in Ferret-land. If you want to manipulate an actual mailbox, mutt is still the tool for the job (and then, you need to re-sync sup). This is probably the deal-breaker for most of us. I jumped in anyway because I feel like it can be solved (or more likely, made irrelevant) later.
  • William (upstream) is currently re-designing the whole thing from scratch, replacing the index library with Sphinx, and decoupling the index from the console frontend. As a result, the previous item is pretty much a non-priority (and bugs in general are not going to get the same amount of love as usual). I am hoping that we end up dumping mail into the index directly, then writing more frontends to write to Maildir backup, serve as webmail/whatever, but this is a long way off. On the plus side, thanks to Thrift, they will not be limited to Ruby.
  • Ruby's ncurses library still doesn't handle Unicode correctly. It can be patched (still doesn't work totally right), but I'm trying to find a more permanent solution for Debian.
So, if you're interested enough that you want to deal with these warts for now, apt-get install sup-mail (as soon as it hits the archive) and join us! Hopefully being in Debian will increase the userbase and get things fixed faster. If you're unsure, stay tuned for the next-generation version later. (There are screenshots and a few introductory docs over at Rubyforge that illustrate and explain all this in more depth, which I recommend checking out if you're still saying, "...huh." Me, I'm a sucker for any piece of software with a manifesto.)

8 October 2008

Decklin Foster: Mass cynicism

"Obama had the additional skill of criticizing George W. Bush."
Basically: yes. And that's what passes for politics over here, folks. Sorry about your economies and all that.