Poul-Henning Kamp argues, in A Generation Lost In The Bazaar, that the open-source bazaar of Unix has become an insupportable mess.

Today's Unix/Posix-like operating systems, even including IBM's z/OS mainframe version, as seen with 1980 eyes are identical; yet the 31,085 lines of configure for libtool still check if and exist, even though the Unixen which lacked them had neither sufficient memory to execute libtool nor disks big enough for its 16-MB source code.*

Most comment threads are awful, and there’s plenty of trash in this article’s long comment thread. But there are also fine McLuhan moments, including sudden appearances from Eric Raymond (author of The Cathedral and The Bazaar) and David MacKenzie, author of the autoconf program that Kamp ridicules.

As the creator of Autoconf, I'd like to apologize to everyone for using m4. I chose it to minimize dependencies, as it was on every Unix-like system already. Many of us were on 28kbps dialup and people would complain about the time needed to download a big package like Perl. Then I hit so many Unix m4 limitations and bugs that I ended up requiring the GNU version anyway. I probably should have started over at that point with another approach. It's true that I did most of that work before I'd earned my CS degree, but no one more experienced deigned to tackle the practical problems I needed to solve, so I had to. (Larry Wall had half-tackled them.)

One thing that Kamp misses, surprisingly, is the tremendous change in our sense of craftsmanship and style. I know that my handwriting has changed a ton in the last decade. Hasn’t everybody’s?

  • Removed two superfluous commas from the original. A charitable person might send a copy of Fowler to the ACM.

A public lecture series at Harvard on Science and Cooking returns with superstars like Ferran Adriá (El Bulli), David Chang (momofuku), David McGee (On Food and Cooking), and Wylie Dufresne (wd-50). Videos will be available free on iTunes and YouTube.

Mondays at 7.

Science and Cooking
Aug 12 27 2012

Mac Power Users

Derek van Ittersum joins Mac Power Users to talk about how he uses Tinderbox and DevonThink Pro for his research.

The segment starts at around 30:10.

Over at HTLit, I set out to defend the indefensible and ask, “What is the notorious Hitman Absolution trailer trying to say?”

Aug 12 22 2012



I'm going to be giving a talk about digital humanities, NeoVictorian computing, and our new understanding of the digital next month in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta.

I know less than nothing about West Bengal. Surprisingly, my list of Usual Suspects for travel has come up empty,. It you know what I should see, or eat, during a necessarily short trip to this part of the world, please Email me.

Aug 12 20 2012

The Black Isle

by Sandi Tan

Born to affluence in 1920’s Shanghai, Cassandra faces formidable afflictions. Her twin brother gets all the attention, and all the best presents. Her mother is distant, her father feckless, and even a child can see that Shanghai is falling apart.

More strangely, Cassandra sees ghosts; indeed, she sees them everywhere, and her growing world is always filled with the hungry spirits of the past. This strange ability shapes Cassandra but does not dominate her; she is not a slayer or a priestess, she’s just a well-drawn Chinese girl who happens to see ghosts.

She lives in interesting times. Her father flees the Depression and heads to the Black Isle, a large island at the tip of the Malay peninsula that shares much with the Singapore we know. Her mother and twin sisters will follow in time; she never sees them again – at least not as you and I see. But even in this new island home, ghosts are everywhere. War follows, and then years as a freedom fighter, and then more years as the neglected former consort of the newly-independent island’s Prime Minister. And then, a distant Professor starts stirring the ghosts once more.

One obvious touchstone for The Black Isle is James Clavell’s King Rat, his good book. The war is the heart of The Black Isle, and Tan quietly builds an argument that for much of China, the short twentieth century was experienced as one long war. Another, less obvious, is the title story of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, for Cassandra’s struggle is not so much with her suffocatingly-close twin and her war-criminal lover as with herself. Self-loathing would be conventional, and Cassandra is bored by convention, yet she cannot escape the haunting wrongness. Cassandra sees ghosts – aggrieved spirits – everywhere, and in her world betrayal is the norm, peace the silent and easily-forgotten exception.

The Black Isle is a Secret History of a country that resembles one we know, blending myth, history, and invented detail. This was an intriguing decision, inviting the reader to imagine the ghost books that must have been imagined in its making. On the one hand, little would need to change to make this a literal secret history, though doing so might incur the displeasure of that nation’s leaders. Alternatively, we could follow China Miéville into urban fantasy, forbearing the fields we know entirely and describing an imaginary world that just happens to be China much as City and The City describes an imaginary Eastern Europe and Foundation describes the fall of an imaginary Rome.

All historical fiction invites suspicion of Orientalism. Tan handles her sexy Chinese protagonist with grace and honesty. Knotty and perhaps unsolvable questions of craft and history appear continuously here, as perhaps they must, but Tan (like Cassandra) manages to avoid disaster while not fearing to get down in the muck with the ghosts

Cassandra embodies a complex and thoughtful reflection on femininity and feminism in the Chinese diaspora.

Adventures in literary data visualization, by Kemper Smith.

Aug 12 9 2012


Textmate has gone open source.

This is not good news. One assumes that, if Allan Odgaard could make something approximating a living by improving Textmate, that’s what he’d be doing, just as he’s done for the last eight years.

Though I own a copy, I don’t use Textmate a lot. I’m a BBEdit guy, and the XCode editor is fine with me, but lots of programmers love it. Textmate’s plug-in “bundles” were truly pioneering, and they’ve had a lot of influence.

Aug 12 8 2012


by John Scalzi

Highly recommended at Readercon, despite the fact that Scalzi (who is, after all, president of SFWA) is not often discussed at Readercon.

Ensign Andrew Dahl, newly assigned to the starship Intrepid, finds his new job more hazardous than in ought to be. Indeed, most of the junior officers are acutely aware that, for a junior officer, being assigned to an “away team” is very bad news. The senior officers always come back, but ensigns die in countless horrible and pointless ways and they’re determined to understand why in this pleasant, metafictional romp.

Aug 12 6 2012


Mark Anderson recently pulled the release dates from the Tinderbox release notes, put them into a Tinderbox timeline view, and then “gussied them up” in Timeline 3D.

That’s a bunch of releases.

Aug 12 1 2012

On Conferences

People don’t think about conferences, don’t learn what they’re for, and don’t teach their students and colleagues and friends to use conferences well.

There’s a bit of post-conference flap making the rounds. I spent yesterday building an elaborate object-oriented system that elegantly saws off the branch on which it is sitting. There are parts all over the floor of my office, payroll to be met, accounting to be done, and a campaign to be won. Some brief observations might help anyway.

  1. “Conference” means “bringing together.” Busy people come from far away to pursue a topic in which they’re passionately interested. Conferences are short, intense, and important. The stakes are high: things said and done here will be remembered for a long time.
  2. There are three stages of conference-going. At stage one, you attend sessions and take notes and try desperately to keep up and to understand what’s going on. At stage two, you still attend sessions and you present them, but you do a lot of your work in the lobby and the dining room and the bar, greeting colleagues you haven’t seen since the last conference, making plans, exchanging research observations, finding resources. At stage three, you can sit in the lobby in a comfortable chair; everyone knows you, and people will come up to you to pay their respects, exchange news, offer gifts, and receive advice.
  3. Never assume that anyone else knows who you are or what you’ve accomplished. This is especially important if you are famous and have done important work.
  4. At no stage of conference-going are you entitled to choose to whom you speak. A conference, like a ship or a private party, is a universal introduction; every registered attendee is your acquaintance. Everyone who wants it is entitled to share your time and attention.
  5. There are no exceptions to rule 4 for (a) people who are wrong, (b) people who are uncongenial, (c) students, or (d) people who are not useful to you.
  6. If you need to meet with someone and don’t want interruptions, you must (a) leave the building, (b) go to an empty room with a door you can close, and (c) remove your badge. Restaurants and bars are not private. (An exception may be made for entertainers and politicians who are so recognizable that they could never eat at a conference if this rule were enforced. You can table-hop to say hello to Donald Knuth or Umberto Eco, but let Woody Allen and Lauren Bacall eat their pasta in peace.)
  7. If you are a player in this game, you have 15,000 close personal friends. You may think, “this unpleasant young fellow seems vaguely familiar,” but to him, you’re someone he’s followed for a decade. He’s read all your books, and he remembers the great talk you had in the lobby in Columbus in ’06 like it was yesterday.
  8. Conferences bring together all kinds of people with all kinds of customs, habits, and beliefs. That’s why we call them conferences. Some of these people won’t be like you. Some will believe things you don’t like.
  9. Greetings differ. Wendy gets three kisses, Franca two, Cathy expects a hug, Clare a bow. Getting this right takes experience, and even then you’ll get it wrong. Many greeting customs depend on the degree of intimacy between two people, and their relative seniority. At conferences, you can never make assumptions about how close you are, or your relative rank. You will commit many blunders. Slightly exaggerated formality helps. Everyone knows that Americans are hopelessly informal; good humor and candid sincereity will lend your blunders a certain American charm.
  10. Money and marketing are always present; there is nothing outside the economy. Conferences strive to keep money at a discrete distance. Learn and respect these rules. Be generous in small matters, and remain general when discussing large.
  11. Sex is always present; we are creatures. There’s work to be done, and that’s not why we’re here, but we see the world as it is.
  12. Some people think that going to bed with someone is a great way to get acquainted. Some think that a handshake is an intimacy reserved for close family. Some people discover their soul mates at conferences. Some people live their dreams. Don’t make assumptions: do make allowances.
  13. You are not at home. The community is not your family. You are not safe. You may feel this way, because you are among people who share your passionate interest. That feeling is an illusion.
  14. At stage two, “How are you?” is a tricky question. Grandma Mary always said to reply with enthusiasm, because if The Lord hears you complain, He might think you ungrateful for His many blessings and withdraw them. And besides you just won this year’s Flujist Prize and you should be thankful. Grandma Ruth always said to reply with deprecation, because if a passing spirit heard you bragging about how wonderful your life is, they might stop and see what they can do about that. And besides, they just gave you a Flujist Prize, and you shouldn’t gloat.
  15. Everyone is entitled to your attention. If there is not sufficient time and attention for everyone who wants some, exchange contact information. Always have plenty of cards, even if you’re famous. Have great cards; it helps. (If you’re really famous, it’s OK to give cards that have contact information for your personal assistant.) Even if everyone knows you, that card is giving a gift. Write something on the card you give; that’s another gift. (If you’ve written a book, giving away copies is another nice getaway.)
  16. Make allowances, and then make more allowances. Some people are jerks. Some people are unlikable. Some people are wrong. Some people’s bad manners are good manners when they are at home. Some people you meet at the conference have had their hopes crushed earlier that very day; the interview for their dream job went badly, their editor just turned down their new book, they’d really expected to get the Flujist Prize this year, some kid from Georgia just read a paper about their dissertation topic and now they’re going to have to start over and three years’ work is out the window. They’re far from home, and that martini was huge.
  17. If things start to go badly, don’t try to fix them in the field. Apologize, accept the apology, exchange contact information, and follow up after the conference.
  18. Civility is the essence. Retain it, whatever the provocation.