Older blog entries for mbp (starting at number 232)

I've just been to a ClearCase training course by Island Training. It was really good: the instructor knew his stuff, made it not boring, and nicely catalyzed discussion about how it relates to our own build system. Tim says that HP's in-house training is always excellent and it seems to be true.

I have more respect for ClearCase now: in it's favour, it is a nicely generalized database, and it's very consistently unixy (mkview, lsview, rmview, ...). It avoids some problems with CVS, like not handling directory restructuring, and not being able to mark tags or branches obsolete without removing them. I even worked out how to do merges in emacs rather than through the silly built-in tools.

On the other hand, I think putting it into the kernel is a perfect example of a design that looks good at first but really ought to be dropped on consideration. (At the moment, our build machine is rebooting probably because ClearCase somehow interferes with loopback devices.) And it's still the perfect antidote for distcc's speed.

I've now mostly moved into my new apartment. I feel really grown up to actually (fractionally) own it. I have taken advantage of my newly acquired right to bang and drill holes in the walls.

After much prodding earlier in the year from my brother in law, I finally read The Science of Discworld. It's really excellent. The title might make you think it will be a bit too silly, but it's not at all. As well as a nice and entertaining overview of major areas like physics and evolution, it also has probably the best explanation of the epistimology and social processes (Popper and Kuhn) of science that I've seen in a general audience book. It is quite fair to compare it to Gould or Dennett, and perhaps gives an even better under standing of the way science actually progresses, rather than presenting it as a body of immutable facts. And I like their suggestion that space elevators will have elevator music.


I was flabbergasted to read this story in the AFR, quoting John Moses speaking at a memorial for Bali bombing victims:

In Canberra, Prime Minister John Howard lit a candle in StPaul's Anglican Church and listened while priest John Moses sermonised on the inadequacy of "sentimental humanism". [...]

"Decency without doctrine ... spiritual laziness," he called it. [...]

Speaking to the Prime Minister, Professor Moses said it was necessary for Christ to become the conscience of the state and the role of the state was to be an instrument of God.

I don't know whether it's more distressing to me that somebody would espouse such an opinion in this century, or that it would apparently get a hearing from Howard. I suppose I'm not surprised by the second, but it still disappoints me to see it.

"Decency without doctrine" actually sounds to me like an superb practical approach to morality in a pluralist modern world. I cannot understand the imbalance of mind that makes one want to respond to supposed religious violence by re-establishing a state religion.

In any case, even if we wanted to go along with that, it seems to me that Jesus would have encouraged people to turn the other cheek. I don't suppose anyone holding that opinion would be invited to speak at official functions.


It is necessary for the Koran to become the conscience of the state, and the role of the state is to be an instrument of Allah.

Mm. Doesn't sound so reasonable (to western ears) now, does it?

After a lot of fiddling, I got XFree86 4.2, GARNOME 0.18, Mozilla, and OpenOffice to all agree to use FreeType fonts. I have to say the results look very nice indeed, very smooth and nicely antialiased.

It took me ages to work out that I needed to re-run mkfontdir, because Debian had somehow forgotten. (I guess I probably have used that command once, years ago.) It's fundamental to friendly/reliable software design that caches should regenerate themselves if they're out of date. X11 is, as they say, a complete fucking flying circus.

I guess it's getting better, through FreeType and the GNOME font installer and so on, but at the moment the functionality is nice but the usability is very nasty indeed.

I'm sure Windows is just as ugly on the inside. A friend of mine, by installing a TrueType font using the approved method , managed to trash a Wince device so completely that the motherboard needed to be replaced. (Soldered-on persistent memory, I suppose.)


linux.conf.au registrations are open; the programme should be announced any day.

I am really pleased with the distcc test suite. It catches a decent fraction of bugs, and new ones that are reported can usually be tested to prevent regression.

I think the trick to testing is to start early, and be disciplined about keeping on adding them as you go. Like washing up, if you leave it for three months then it looks very intimidating. :-)


being non digital:

Canberra is accurately described as having pulse-width-modulated weather: Spring days fluctuate between maximums of about 12C and 25C, until eventually warmth wins out.

Last weekend was warm. I took my motorbike up over the Snowy Mountains highway from Cooma to Adaminaby. It was very beautiful indeed. It does feel like the roof of the continent.

Also, I just got the keys to my new apartment, and I'm going to start moving this weekend. Yay.

A year or two after emigrating, she happened to be in Paris on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of her country (Czechoslovakia). A protest march had been scheduled, and she felt driven to take part. Fists raised high, the young Frenchmen shouted out slogans condemning Soviet imperialism. She liked the slogans, but to her surprise she found herself unable to shout along with them. She lasted only a few minutes in the parade.

When she told her French friends about it, they were amazed. ``You mean you don't want to fight the occupation of your country?'' She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison. But she knew she would never be able to make them understand. Embarrassed, she changed the subject.

-- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Zaitcev has a good point about OPN being lilo's demonstrated delivery.

I guess it is hard to tell how much of the value comes from rlevin himself, and how much from the server and channel operators and users. But that's true to some extent for any large project: the founder or leader gets most of the credit, even if their work is made possible by many smaller contributions. Nothing particularly wrong with that.

So there you go.


Another interesting step towards microkernel design in Linux is kernel mode linux, which is supposed to allow user programs to execute in kernel context. I won't say the guy isn't on drugs, but it's an interesting hack.

I found this, by the way, at sweetcode, which is a nice little site.

the status is that rob levin should show us the code

(amateur social psychology for fun and profit)

rlevin writes

I agree completely that, when the issue is code, there is no substitute for at least providing a reference implementation that can be critiqued. My only point in commenting was to note that not every issue is a code issue. Sometimes some community people use the refrain "show me the code" in a way that denies the significance of social or procedural issues, and confuses implementation with goal-setting.

The motto "show me the code" doesn't literally mean that source code is the only acceptable demonstration. Other phrases that get at the same idea are "talk is cheap" and (my current favourite) "all hat and no cattle". (That doesn't, by the way, mean that you need to literally own cows to get respect.)

For a meritocracy to be meaningful, people's contributions have to be visible in some way that can be assessed by their peers. This can be in ways other than code: artwork, writing, speaking, web sites, and organizing conferences spring to mind.

The subtext of Rob's diary entries seems to be that he wants people to value his efforts in things such as goal-setting and procedures. Indeed, a little while ago, he claimed the work was so important, and has was so uniquely qualified to do it, that people ought to pay him to do it full time.

But this directly conflicts with the "show us the code" mindset, and I suspect this is why it irritated so many people. Nobody can actually see what it is Rob does, whether it's worthwhile, and whether he does it well. So who can tell? The default position encoded by "show us the code" is to assume that it's just vapor until demonstrated otherwise.

30 Sep 2002 (updated 30 Sep 2002 at 06:14 UTC) »


24 Sep 2002 (updated 24 Sep 2002 at 07:25 UTC) »

I reviewed the linux.conf.au papers, and put up a little advogato article regarding it. (This is for people, like me, who only read recentlog.) The standard this year should be excellent.

There are so many things I want to fix in the build system at work and not enough time.

Christian Reis wrote a good paper contrasting XP and open source.

proofs I think some confusion is caused by the two different meanings that "proof" has in English. One is to "establish beyond all doubt", and the other is "mathematical argument".

I was recently saying that software cannot be established beyond doubt to be correct, in part because we cannot really completely define "correct" for practical programs. You can make an argument that nothing can ever be proved absolutely beyond doubt, only contingently.

On the other hand, raph and graydon correctly point out that formal arguments can be useful in trying to establish confidence, and I certainly agree with that.

I think there is less of a gap between quotidien testing techniques and proof than some people on both sides of the gap might suspect.

19 Sep 2002 (updated 25 Sep 2002 at 03:18 UTC) »
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Stephen Kapp was the "president" of the UK virus writing team "ARCV"

Here's a quote from "The Risks Digest - Volume 17: Issue 16 Friday 2 June 1995":

"In 1993, another English virus writer, Stephen Kapp, was arrested in connection with telephone fraud charges. Kapp was known as the "President of ARCV," or ARCV virus writing group which stood for Association of Really Cruel Viruses."

Just do a websearh for "Stephen Kapp ARCV virus" and all will be told!

Now you *know* why a bastard like this ripped off your code.


A well-wisher...

(The RISKS article mentions another previously prominent virus author, Clinton Haines, who I knew a little in Brisbane. He died of a heroin overdose a while ago.)

eating pudding

Seeing is deceiving. It's eating that's believing. -- James Thurber

I'm surprised by graydon being annoyed at the statement that it is impossible to be completely sure that a program is completely free of bugs.

graydon describes bugs as being states that we do not want to reach, and he suggests that we can do proofs to demonstrate that the program does not reach them. I agree that this is useful, however: (a) proofs alone cannot demonstrate that a program will not reach a bug state, and in fact (b) nothing can demonstrate that beyond doubt.

We always have an imperfect understanding of the way our system will behave in the real world. Therefore we are not able to completely identify ahead of time which states ought to be considered bugs, let alone which bugs are most important.

For distcc, I've tried to make a good effort at both demonstrating ahead of time that the design would work, and also at testing it thoroughly. However, during the course of testing I discovered a kernel bug and an undocumented behaviour in gcc, amongst other things. distcc has a bug because it needs to work around these limits.

These are states which turn out to be bugs but which were initially believed not to be. Unless we make unrealistic assumptions of omniscience, then really I don't see how these could have been discovered other than through testing. (This is even more serious in Samba, where the protocol it's meant to perform is undocumented and very complex.)

Let me try to state it more precisely. Represent our program as a function f(i) => o from input to output -- for interesting programs, the input and output will be large ensembles of values, and so are astronomical in number. Now define a correctness function cf(i), which is true for inputs where f is correct.

The proposition P is that "there are no bugs in program X", which is to say that for every i, cf(i) is true. As I understand it, Popper's point of view is that we cannot ever be sure that we have proved P is universally true. There are too many inputs to examine them all, and if we make a theoretical argument it may be flawed, or it may not correspond to reality. Some people disagree with him.

Rather than trying to gain confidence by piling up evidence in favour of P, Popper says that it is better to try hard to falsify it, either by finding inputs for which is is not true, or by showing that P is internally inconsistent. Considering formal description of f is one good way to find ways in which it is not always correct.

Popper describes science as a stepwise process of formulating theories and then trying to falsify them. This seems broadly like the way people do software. However, perhaps we can do better science by making programs which better support falsification by either tests or proofs. For example being well factored, well documented, and deterministic helps both approaches. Popper's results don't stop us finding scientific theories that are both useful and also almost certainly true. Similarly, never being absolutely sure that a program is bug free ought not to discourage use from developing good software and being appropriate confident in it.

minor bug

Every year in developing countries, a million people die from urban air pollution and twice that number from exposure to stove smoke inside their homes. Another three million unfortunates die prematurely every year from water-related diseases. [The Economist]

Wow. (Yes, I am taking those numbers with a grain of salt, and yes, everybody has to die of *something*, but still.)

giants, shoulders of

graydon, you might like distcc. It's somewhat similar to your doozer program, but perhaps a bit faster (in C, not Perl) and easier to set up (it doesn't need a shared filesystem). (Or perhaps not.)

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