OS wars, 15 years later

Many years ago, I wrote this little bit and filed it under "humor":

I finally identified the essential difference between Windows users and those of other operating systems. It's very simple, actually. Windows users will bitch and moan about their operating system at every turn. They'll complain about bloat, viruses, bugs, prices, Bill Gates... just about everything Windows, yet they would never, ever try an alternative.

Unsurprisingly, Linux users are the polar opposites. They positively love their OS; if they see any flaws in it, they're totally willing to overlook them. They use what they like and they like what they use. Still, offer to introduce them to some other OS (the more obscure the better) and they'll jump at the opportunity to try something new. As long as it's not Windows, of course.

Last but not least, Mac fans are, well, fanatical about their favorite platform, which they consider perfect. Trying something else? Surely you're kidding! Windows is totally uncool and Linux is for rocket scientists. No wonder everyone else disagrees with them.

Can we all get along, for a change?

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Nowadays it's like this:

Read more... Tags: technology, culture

Ancients, archaeologists and assumptions

So, a friend just pointed me at this; Winged Gods and walking griffons: A plate with a depiction of Scythian Gods has been found in Middle Don.

Oh, really? Dear archaeologists: nowadays we depict famous singers with wings and the like. Doesn't mean we consider them literal deities1. Is that what your colleagues will assume about our present civilization in two thousand years?

1) Or rather: we kind of treat them that way, but we're also in on the joke.

The Ancients weren't stupid. In fact they were mostly like us. Except for one thing: they had a very different worldview. Even today, other cultures don't share the western civilization's obsession with a pretend, impossible scientific objectivity, and instead adopt more nuanced stances.

Which reminds me that European alchemists likely didn't believe in literal angels and demons. They were simply trying to build a conceptual framework for dealing with new discoveries, and their language included spirituality because it was part of their lives. How else? We've tried reductionism, and look where it got us: treating people like cogs in a machine. Abstractions. Statistics.

They weren't any smarter than us in the past, either. But often much wiser.

Tags: science, philosophy

Programmers and languages

Eight months ago, I (re)learned the Nim programming language, as mentioned in a blog post at the time. It proved a good choice for a handful of filler projects, but nothing else since. For some others it just didn't work out. And I dismissed that as normal... until yesterday, when the official website published the transcript of a conference presentation from earlier this year, named Zen of Nim

How badly I misunderstood this language and its creator. To wit:

If the compiler cannot reason about the code, neither can the programmer.

Unh... Look. You... realize the compiler is a dumb machine, while the programmer is a human being, right? Who is almost certainly about as intelligent as you are. Which is much less than you think you are. Otherwise you'd trust your fellow programmers a little, or at least give them the benefit of the doubt.

There should be one and only one programming language for everything.

That... is just plain dangerous, in addition to being false. Monocultures are a recipe for disaster, for many reasons.

I stopped reading at that point, but now I'm thinking. Ours is a culture of arrogance, itself built on top of a mentality that values "intelligence" (or rather a narrow, skewed definition thereof) above all else, including practicality, never mind the actual needs of others. But this is too much.

Having a safety on your gun is good. Having to solve a sliding puzzle every time you need to fire the gun makes it useless.

And that's why Python is the most popular language in the world right now, while this new crop of compiled languages struggles to find adopters. Unless, of course, they have the backing of Google or Mozilla, with their marketing power.

Funny that, I thought it was a meritocracy, where the best X genuinely wins.

Tags: programming, critique

Software, free to be political

It keeps coming up lately, but not quite like this. Free Software is an Abject Failure sounds inflammatory, but please go read, and consider the arguments. Warning: it's long.

Did you? Good. Now you know how people fight and win Communist revolutions only to become dictators and install a totalitarian regime with centralized economy instead of the Communism they promised.

Tip: even a commons has owners. It doesn't "belong to everybody". At the very least, resources need caretakers. And one thing any caretaker must do is fend off vandals. That's exclusionary by definition. It has to be, in order to keep those resources in good condition for everyone else's benefit.

The fires of idealism are necessary to set things in motion. But they must be tempered by the cold shower of pragmatic concerns, lest you burn down the very thing you were trying to build.

Funny how software proves yet again to be a social, which is to say political, issue. You know, as opposed to an exercise in abstraction, somehow divorced from its real-world uses.

I don't have any solutions. The Commons Clause, an add-on for liberal licenses, looks like it could help. And the Artistic License 2.0 is a statement I like. But ultimately we need to figure out better ways of working together, because neither law nor tech are enough by themselves.

There are still good ways and bad ways to do it. Don't turn into a dinosaur.

Tags: software, politics

Autumn of Apps

I'm always on the lookout for more software to get creative with, but not every week brings such a bounty: three of them coming one after another, all so useful and fun I can't wait to show everyone. Follow me.

For one: I already knew about the *ledger family of apps, but hadn't paid much attention before coming across the Plain Text Accounting website. And it's fascinating. While my trial run lasted less than a week, for various reasons, ledger-likes prove easy to use and educational. If you happen to use Debian, the top three are available in the repositories, having reasonable size and dependencies.

Speaking of Debian. While looking for something to inspect JSON files with, I found much more: VisiData, a tool to view, explore and manipulate (mainly) tabular files such as CSV, but also capable of dealing with formats from SQLite databases, through XML and even zip archives or directories on disk. I have an old version here, but it's still plenty useful. Just somewhat cryptic initially, but documentation helps.

Last but not least: if the previous two seem too nerdy, I also looked at a bunch of Kanban board apps, and one of them is unexpectedly nice: Nullboard runs in any mainstream browser, saving data to local storage and/or files. It's also simple, clear, fast and works as advertised. Very lightweight, too. Not my thing to be honest, but it's a different way of looking at things and I might find a use for it yet.

Thought there would be more to say about one or two of them at least, but not today. Until further updates, enjoy, and remember: stay curious! You never know what other people thought of that could inform your work in novel ways.

Tags: software, review

Being orderly

"You're so orlderly," mom often tells me. "Just like [common friend]. I was always scatterbrained, not like the two of you," she adds regretfully.

But being orderly is something you do, not something you are. Deliberate, continuous effort. And it's essential if you value your time and sanity.

Adult life is hard, and never gets easier. It can however quickly get harder.

"I don't know how you do it," mom also says. But mom, I showed you many times.

It's not a secret, or a magic trick, or some innate trait that can't be taught.

In cooking shows, each chef has a personal style and technique, and that's part of why it's so fascinating to watch many of them. But look carefully, and you'll notice that all of them do certain things the same way. Namely, how they start.

Free up a tabletop and wipe it clean. Measure all the ingredients and line them up in the required quantities. Ready all the pots, pans, spoons and so on that you expect to need for the task at hand.

No, it's not just for the camera. It's literally self-defense: the only way you can have a hope that things will go smoothly. And it applies to any activity.

Read more... Tags: personal, philosophy

FlatPress: blogging for the people

It's been more than half a year since I reviewed any software here, and that's a shame. I love playing with new toys. Or in this case old toys that never caught my eye until now for some reason.

Screenshot of a website with a maroon-grey-black design, showing the About page of a typical blog.

FlatPress has been around for a while; in fact it just turned fifteen this spring. It's a flat-file CMS made for personal blogging, and one of the lightest out there. Also fresh and usable despite its age.

Read more... Tags: blog, software, review

It's not how safe the vaccines are

So, one of my favorite bloggers just posted an in-depth analysis of the risks posed by the virus versus the vaccine, based on official data from the Swiss government. I trust Alex, and the Swiss government must be competent enough. No idea how the figures apply to other countries, but things can't be that much different given the kind of ratios we're talking (see below).

To wit: it turns out the virus is ten times more dangerous than the vaccines, so the math is very much in favor of getting vaccinated if you can. But! It also turns out the vaccines are ten times more dangerous than we were told, and that's the problem here. You know why? Because we were lied to. And that means saying good bye to trust. Which is a key ingredient of society, and even more so of the doctor-patient relationship.

By the way: remember at first when many were like "the vaccines are safe, you dolt! Just get any of them in you!" and then reports started pouring in? Turns out, that was irresponsible in the extreme. In a recent interview, Dr. Alexandru Rafila, Romania's most trusted medical expert right now, said very clearly: first talk to your doctor.

You don't subject people to risk on purpose without weighing the options first.

That has another side, too: I said the virus is ten times more dangerous than the vaccine. And never mind that relative figures lie: one person is still a victim. But what does that ratio mean, exactly? It refers to how bad it can be if you do get the virus. But will you? People seem to assume that everyone will sooner or later, but that's absurd. So what are the chances that an ordinary person who takes reasonable precautions, like working from home, avoiding crowds and so on, will get the virus anyway?

Nobody's talking about that. It's all "be responsible! get stung!" gung-ho crap.

Responsible towards whom? You can still transmit the virus. Wear a mask.

Tags: pandemic, politics

Defending privacy with bad arguments

I wrote the following lines sometime in the first half of 2020, and for lack of a good place I moved them around so much, the exact date is long gone:

You want democracy, not cryptography

Yo, crypto-heads. Encrypted communication doesn't protect your privacy. Laws protect your privacy, and democratic oversight of lawmakers, so you can ensure those laws stay. A tyrannical government can easily do any of the following:

  • ban strong encryption if not all encryption;
  • mandate backdoors into encrypted communication systems;
  • force people to unlock their encrypted media, even without a warrant.

What do you mean, all that is already happening, and in supposedly democratic countries, not some dictatorship?

And look where we are one year later:

  • The European Parliament just passed a law to let law enforcement spy on everyone's electronic communications without a warrant, supposedly as a way to curb child porn. But we all know what it will be used for.
  • Not to be outdone, Apple announced an even worse technological measure they'll build into devices supposedly for the same reason, which has been already demonstrated to work really, really badly.

Things can always get worse however. Since then, I thought about another thing:

Read more... Tags: technology, politics

Trains and tribulations

Around mid-July, a train derailed in Feteşti, Romania, a major transportation hub almost halfway between the capital Bucharest, and Constanţa: one of the main ports at the Black Sea, not 200 kilometers away in a straight line. No-one was hurt, but traffic was badly disrupted.

Ten days later, two trains collided in the same train station. Luckily they were cargo trains, so no-one was hurt. Don't ask me how the drivers are in one piece, because the site looked like something out of a disaster movie.

I had return tickets on that route the very next day, booked a week in advance. We knew the risks, yet commited to the trip anyway for fear of travel getting even harder in August. Suffice to say, our train left Constanţa half an hour after it was supposed to reach Bucharest, and things went downhill from there. For one thing, AC didn't work most of the time, on a day with 37 degrees Celsius in the shadow. Luckily we had a little water and crackers, and the train had a bar able to help some of the other passengers.

Besides, we were home "only" 4h40m after we were supposed to. When we turned on the TV, they said another train that had left along the same route a night before still hadn't made it to its destination. (By morning they had, after a 29h trip.) Aside from the obvious issue with blocked tracks and downed power lines, their locomotive broke down en-route, and the one sent to rescue them also broke down.

The kicker? A whole other train on a whole other route suffered from the exact same problem that day. This second train was "only" stuck in the middle of nowhere for 12 hours (stranding hundreds of kids in the process), but seriously? On the same day? We're talking a systemic problem here.

Read more... Tags: Romania, technology, disaster