Older blog entries for thull (starting at number 9)

It's been a long while since I even looked at advogato, but looking at it today reminded me to update my web site info. And, what the hell, post something.

The new web site is http://www.tomhull.com/ -- I moved the old stuff to the ocston directory. (My good friends at Caldera had shut the ocston site down a month or two ago. Running on UnixWare, it was always pretty lame.) But I still haven't done much with the domain -- been too busy working on another web site to pay much attention to my own.

The other web site is: http://www.robertchristgau.com/ -- a public repository for a substantial chunk of Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau's encyclopedic writings. The centerpiece here is a database of 10K rock and more/less related albums, with grades and short reviews, consolidating Christgau's three decade-spanning Consumer Guide books. Lots of essays, too. All implemented with free software, of course: Linux, Apache, PHP, MySQL, ht://Dig.

Not much other news. Still no employment. Looking for consulting work (not much of that either) sucks. Home automation project is on hold. Same for Ftwalk. Been reading a lot -- mostly history, mostly background for the stupid antiterrorism war.

Got annoyed then bored with Advogato some time back. Came back for a look today, wanted to post a comment on Bruce Perens patents article, then found I've been busted back to Observer, so no longer have article posting credentials. Ironic, since observing was precisely what I was not doing. Fickle system.

FWIW, for the last couple of months I've been occasionally writing journal entries on my own web site: very little, I'm afraid, to read there on software -- mostly music, books, movies, recipes, Bill Mazeroski.

Speaking of patents, my pet idea is to throw the defensive patenters into therapy, specifically a program to be called Patents Anonymous (or more likely, just Software Patents Anonymous). This would be an organization that provides automatic cross-licensing to all members, and possibly other services, such as:

  • An open, running comment forum on all new software patents.
  • Prior art search.
  • Clean room tests of originality. (One way to test how original a patent is would be to pose similar problems to other developers, to see how frequently other developers come up with similar solutions. Don't know whether this would have any legal clout.)
  • A forum to log ideas that other might eventually patent. (This would allow free software developers to pre-emptively publish notices to foul would-be patenters.)

Took another look at my business plan draft last week, and it looked pretty pathetic. Spent the weekend rewriting it, then put it up here. That's right: first time I've ever seen a non-proprietary, openly-published business plan. Guess that proves how unfit I am to be CEO of anything.

I plan on writing this up further, spreading the word a bit. It's an interesting business model. Since I wrote the Free World piece, I've been looking for some way to convince end-users to finance free software development. While the business model is mostly brand-managed service. my plan is to break out a Development Fund line item on top of the usual service bills, to invest in continued future development. Kind of like a tip, or surtax, depending on one's point of view. But since it's a tip on top of professional services, I think there's a much better chance of paying it.

Many other interesting points. The idea of a Linux box in every house, with everything hooked up to it, through free software, should be pretty strategic.

Speaking of strategic, I've almost finished reading Ken Auletta's World War 3.0. The trial coverage is quite interesting, although I get the sense that the Justice Dept. acted much like they did with Al Capone (the guy's evil, so let's convict him of something, anything), which in turn confuses MS (who like Nixon is guilty of so much the only safe course is to deny everything). However, in the lulls between the trial coverage, we get long, slow background on MS's myriad business deals, along with yet another biography of Gates. In this sludge there are traces of what MS has in store for the home user -- the ignorant chattel of the consciousness industry.

Been a while since last entry -- thrown a few junk drafts away. Been an awfully frustrating stretch of time. Quick rundown:

  • I spent a lot of time trying to sort out a business concept for a service cooperative to support independent agents in installing and maintaining home networking and automation systems. This still seems to be the right idea, although I haven't gotten anyone else interested, and I haven't gotten a good handle on exactly what the technical side involves. (I tried tracking Neil Cherry's LinuxHA project, but without my own HA system I haven't been able to follow what's going on.) So, finally, I'm throwing my hands up in the air on that idea. I'd like to at least clean up my business plan notes and post them, but it's been hard to concentrate on something that feels like a failure.
  • Meanwhile, started looking for a job, which has always been difficult for me. My standards (work at home in KS, work on open source software) don't make it easier. I'm also kind of a senior guy expert at nothing in particular, with extensive dabbling but no convincing mastery in a number of fields -- most recently, kernel work, but the last kernel related interview I had was a severe embarrassment. I suppose I could go back to consulting on publishing systems, but as long as I insist on open source work, I feel like I have to start all over again. (I'm old enough to feel uneasy about that.)
  • I did get a bit of work done on my Ftwalk language. In fact, got past a problem that had been strumping me for months, which was how to build an RPM package. The problem wasn't how to build a RPM .spec file; rather, it was a conflict between my expectations of what a packaging system should do, and what RPM actually wants to do. My expectation is one should be able to simply do ...
    1. tar zxvf ftwalk-1.5.3.tar.gz
    2. cd ftwalk-1.5.3.tar.gz
    3. ./configure
    4. make
    5. su root -c 'make rpminstall'
    ... and get Ftwalk installed under package manager control. Alas, what RPM wants to do is:
    1. rpm -ba ftwalk-1.5.3.spec
    2. rpm -i ftwalk-1.5.3.i386.rpm
    This is not the place to go into the ins and outs of this, but suffice it to say that these are solutions to two different problems, that RPM makes it difficult to solve the first, and that the second is not anywhere near as simple as it looks (and certainly not worth the trouble for anyone who is actually working in the build area, as opposed to merely building in it).
  • Took a quick look at pliant's Pliant project. In some senses this is much like Ftwalk; e.g., that we both spent a long time working privately before disclosing this work to the world, and that the world has meanwhile adopted unaesthetic but mostly practical alternatives. But I would never characterize Ftwalk as "my life's work" -- however hard up I am for other accomplishments -- it is merely a small idea that got a little out of hand, which I handicap by ignoring it for long stretches, but find interesting and amusing enough that I don't seem to ever be willing to trash it. Pliant, on the other hand, is a big idea, which in part at least seems to be well reasoned. In particular, it does seem to be the case that there is a desire on the part of users for systems that are much simpler and cleaner than what we offer them, and that simplicity and cleanness and so forth are not especially well supported by the current tool set. But turning a sensible critique into a solution is never easy, and simple solutions tend to be unacceptably limiting.
  • I've been reading Peter Wayner's book, Free for All: How Linux and the Free Software Movement Undercut the High-Tech Titans. It's a useful book, with some information that I had not known that is good to have. However, it's got problems, too. For instance, page 9 asserts two intrepretations that are counter to my bent:
    1. That companies keep code private to keep secrets from their competitors. In my experience, this is done to keep the customers in the dark.
    2. That Linus Torvalds made Linux free to allow it to be distributed more broadly. I'd hazard a guess that Linus did this to get other people to help write Linux -- correctly perceiving that a reliable kernel is not something that one sane person can do all by himself.
    These are points that can be argued. More annoying is a tendency to over-dramatize and to raise innuendo (e.g., the discussion of whether Stallman is a communist). I'm also perplexed by what I guess is a literary motif: 22 chapters, all with single word titles, which form little ruminations on keywords like Love, Money, and Sex (although the latter was actually called "Fork"). Not done yet, but thus far I don't see anything that lives up to the subtitle. There is a book to be written about AT&T's Unix floundered under arrogance, greed and blunder, and ultimately fell prey to Linux. (True, the details of the epilogue are not in yet, but the plot line is secure.) This isn't that book. Nor is it the unfinished saga of how Microsoft meets its match. Anecdotes and generalizations, not much more.
  • I wrote down some notes on the US elections and pushed them up to my web site. Sometimes I think I'd like to chuck programming and try my hand as a pundit, but there doesn't seem to be nearly as much opportunity on the left as on the right (don't know that there's any support whatsoever for wherever the hell I stand).
  • Also put up a preliminary year-end music list. I'm planning on writing some annotation for this list at least. Meanwhile, there is some really superb saxophone out there (Rollins, Carter), and Jimmie Dale Gilmore has never sung better.
  • I'm very sad now to hear that my Aunt Edith Hixson has died. She was the last of my mother's family of eight; effectively the last person alive who knew my mother as a child. The end of a generation. She was born in Arkansas in 1911, followed the Okies to CA. She had a very tough life, which she suffered with quiet, modest dignity. I barely knew her while I was growing up, and had few chances to see her later, but they were intensely etched in my mind. I saw her last in July, shortly after my mother died. She may have seen in mom's death the inevitability of her own; in her death I see the finality of my mother's.

Back from Idaho yesterday. Threw out a lot of junk email today. So it goes.

The more I find out about the home networking and automation opportunity, the more overwhelmed I feel. Dug up stats saying that the current build rate for single family new houses is 1.5M/year, with a median price of $197K. OK, that works out to $295B/year. (Actually, the $197K is only for spec homes, about 2/3 of the total, the other 1/3 being custom-built; I'm guessing the latter are more expensive.) If you could put a decent $5K system into 10% of the new house market, and a bare-bones backbone $2.5K system into another 10%, you're talking $1125M/year. We're talking about a low margin service business here, but it's still a nice opportunity. (And the World Domination advocates should appreciate the strategic value of having free software as the backbone of every modern house.)

The big problem I see is not the product -- aside from some software gaps and cost issues that volume could fix, almost everything is ready now, off the shelf -- but getting the service and market messages together before the waters gets too polluted with all the other companies who can smell this market. (Fortunately, most of these companies are assuming Microsoft software, so don't expect much from computers.)

Leaves me wondering how does one find compatible entrepreneurs out there wherever?

Packing tonight, setting out for a long car trip tomorrow, across the mountains and out to Idaho. I guess it's the vacation I never got around to taking this year. Hopefully when I get back I'll know more about how the home automation business thing shapes up.

Finished reading Donald Rosenberg's Open Source: The Unauthorized White Papers. It's a useful book, basically a compendium of open source-related business activity. Not much earthshaking news, but it seems to be comprehensive enough. One bone is that while he has a lot to say about businesses making money off of open source, he doesn't have much to say about users saving money (and otherwise leading happier lives) by using open source software. He also misses the whole freedom issue, which should be important even to someone with a fairly narrow business focus because freedom is the engine that drives economic progress.

Deep breath. Had a fairly long entry underway when X bit the dust. This doesn't do much for my faith in the legendary robustness of Linux systems.

Thrashing a lot today, as various things popped into view. I saw a notice that on contex.com that the color prepress products that I had worked eight years on have been discontinued, that support contracts will not be renewed, and that the only support contact going forward will be an ex-employee with no access to the source code.

I find myself with very strong feelings about this, partly I'm sure because it was a critical and formative period in my life which left me with very strong emotional ties to the product, my colleagues, and our customers, but largely because I always identified with those customers -- who today are being told by Barco (a competitor who bought Contex two years ago) to abandon their SGI-based CEPS systems in favor of Barco's NT-based ones.

The lessons here are the obvious ones: that engineers who write software property lose it to the whims of the property owners; and that customers who rent that property in fact own nothing and have no rights. This is, of course, something I learned painfully over many years of doing just that, both as engineer and as customer.

Other items that popped up:

  • I read with interest raph's proposal to use the trust metric to help consumers sift through a vast distributed archive of MP3 music. One issue here is that music taste varies wildly; consequently one's view of who to trust is equally personal, and that is ultimately the only criteria that matters. I'm unusual in that I make almost all of my music buying decisions based on printed reviews. I've done this for a long time, and I buy a lot, so I've accumulated a lot of data which guides me in whose recommendations I do or do not trust, and one thing that I've learned is that no one reviewer is equally good in all fields. Still, my experience is with named writers, necessarily a small set; I wonder whether larger reviewer sets might start to become more reliable?
  • Got mail today saying that sourceforge will be using the trust metric to allow everyone to rate anyone. This strikes me as a pointless game -- although I'm sure that anyone who gets identified will be quite deserving. I suspect that one problem is that what the metric may turn out to measure is the topography of the developer community -- basically how closely groups of people work together, because the larger the population the less we really know about each other. The same dynamic may be present at Advogato, but the relative crudeness of the rating scale should make it less pronounced.
  • I understand that Sun has some scheme that allows one to compile Linux drivers and load them into Solaris. Fwiw, I urged SCO to do this same thing. My proposal was rejected, because the powers-that-be felt that allowing Linux drivers to be used in UnixWare would diminish the message that UDI is really the way to go.

The basketball goal took priority over the resume, but I finally cleaned up the resume and posted it here. I meant to hang hypernotes all over it, but was finding I could write forever on them, and it just gets more and more scathing and/or pathetic. Some day I'll get around to those notes; some day I'll call it autobiography, and it will be funny.

I also jotted down a couple of project ideas:

  • A database for recorded music. (The fruits of endless aggravation with the All-Music Guide.)
  • A business plan based on integrating a Linux firewall with structured wiring and home automation gadgets, and building this into new houses.
Needless to say, anyone interested in such projects please get in touch with me.

Working on resume. Last one I wrote (approx. 3 years ago) was something like 10 pages long, mostly because I felt some need to explain the context in which I did all of those strange things. I figured that the more people could read and know, the fewer dumb questions I'd have to fend, the fewer pointless interviews, etc. Of course, no more than 3-5 people actually read the thing, but they were entertained, and I did get a job (albeit not the one I was looking for). So this time the plan is to hypertext it: short summary with links to juicy details. Maybe I'll get it out today; or maybe I'll get my new basketball goal set up.

I was reading Andrew Leonard's Salon piece on how IBM wised up to open source, and saw a link to an old essay by Richard Gabriel, called "The Rise of Worse-Is-Better". Gabriel talks about two approaches:

  • The MIT Approach, characterized by the phrase "the right thing", which aspires to be correct, consistent, and complete.
  • The NJ Approach, which favors simplicity over consistency and completeness. (A better name for this might be "Simple uber Alles", or even KISS.)
The core argument is that simple systems are more accessible, more adaptable, have better survival characteristics, and therefore proliferate widely, whereas "right thing" systems are harder to build and maintain, are more expensive, etc. This much is pretty straightforward, and plenty of examples pop to mind. However, the interesting point is the assertion that people willingly adapt to the simpler systems rather than waiting for the "right thing" systems to adapt to them.

We see evidence of this all the time, but it's hard to shake the conviction that "better" must really be better. I used to work in the typesetting industry, and one of the things I worked on there was trying to automate the aesthetic rules of fine advertising typography -- kerning, hung punctuation, river avoidance, staggered rags, etc. -- but in the long run such concerns turned out to be irrelevant. It turned out that desktop publishers were so happy just to get their pages instantly, saving them trekking to the type shop and paying out a small fortune, that they were willing to forego a lot of finery.

But the arguments persist, ad infinitum, and they're hard to settle -- partly because nobody really argues for worse, the winners of "worse-is-better" just do it.

Last week (Thursday 7 Sept 2000) SCO laid off 190 employees. I was one of them.

The layoff was in preparation for finalizing the acquisition by Caldera of SCO's Server Software and Professional Services divisions. The layoffs should save the Caldera something like $5-7M/Q, which given that SCO's non-Tarantella divisions lost $10M last Q, and that Caldera itself lost some $7M in its last Q, isn't enough to make the new combine whole, but is a start.

The company line is that the people who were laid off were "redundant", and certainly there was some of that here. But there may also be some sort of behind-the-scenes battle for the soul of the new company. Certainly, one reason that SCO has been losing money all year is that it has faced ever stiffer competition from Linux, and that they are selling out to a Linux company can be viewed as capitulation. However, the Linux company in question (Caldera) is only generating $1.2M/Q in revenues, whereas SCO's Server/Services groups still account for $25M/Q. Even with the layoffs (and I've heard that Caldera laid people off, too, but not how many), SCO will still account for 75% or more of the combine's employees.

What may have made me "redundant" was that I was one of the few SCO employees working on open source projects -- specifically, the long-promised Linux port of sar (which also got shelved last week). SCO tended to view such projects as good will generators, but it's not too hard to imagine that the SCO managers who drew up the pink slip lists now see that as an unnecessary luxury since Caldera already enjoys all the good will it needs.

Or it may have just been a mercy killing: I had long argued that SCO's proprietary OS business was a dead-end, and that they had to move aggressively into Linux; that the real way to build a Linux business is through service, not proprietary bundling; and that what little value UnixWare still has is as historical legacy. None of these efforts amounted to a thing (other than possibly wearing my welcome out). It's been the most frustrating thing I've ever attempted to do, and I should be glad to put it behind me. (Keep telling myself that.)

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