- I'm back.
Astronomy Hacks is complete,
at least from our point of view. Starting this morning, the O'Reilly
production folks go to work converting our manuscript into a finished
book. They're fast-tracking this one big time. Ordinarily, it might
take four months from submission of the completed manuscript until the
books hit the warehouses. For this book, they're going to do it in two
Our part of the work isn't completely finished. We'll have queries to
respond to, galley proofs to check and correct, and so on. But it's all
downhill from here, as far as our part is concerned.
We're pretty happy with the book overall. I said to Barbara the other
night, "This would have been a better book if we'd had more time." She
replied, "You always say that." And both are true. But at some point,
just have to declare the book finished, or it would go on forever.
remember at one mystery conference encountering a lady who was hauling
around the manuscript mystery novel she'd written, trying to get an
agent or publisher to look at it. I asked her how long it had taken her
to write her book, and she said almost twenty years. I remember
thinking she'd need more than the usual amount of luck to talk an agent
into representing her or a publisher into publishing her if the most
they could expect from her was one book
every twenty years. If I were writing novels, I'd be knocking out at
least two or three a year.
It's funny. Early in her career, Lois McMaster Bujold had an elevator
encounter with the guy who would eventually become her publisher. He
told her, "If you write three books a year for me for seven years, I'll
make you a star." She replied (or at least thought), "How about one
book a year for twenty-one years?"
Although I've never written fiction, I've never understood why everyone
claims it's so difficult and time-consuming. Writing consists of
organizing your thoughts, constructing sentences and paragraphs from
those thoughts, and then getting those sentences and paragraphs down on
paper or up on the screen. It's not rocket surgery. I've always
suspected that people who claim they can't write, or can write only
slowly, in fact can't think, or can think only slowly.
It has been said of Isaac Asimov, who cranked out books like a
chicken cranks out eggs, that his experience with writer's block was
the worst ten minutes of his life. That means Asimov is ten minutes up
on me, so far. I've never experienced writer's block, and I hope I
never do. When I sit down at a keyboard, I just start writing. Now,
sometimes what I write is crap, certainly, but I've never had any
problem with churning out some sort of text.
I haven't done a word count on Astronomy
Hacks, but I'd guess I probably averaged 2,000 to 2,500 words a
day, seven days a week, during the 69 days of this project. In reality,
I would have been cranking out about twice that if it hadn't been for
all the time needed for non-writing tasks, such as shooting images,
talking to vendors, interacting with O'Reilly, and so on.
The latest example of someone being screwed
by proprietary software is ironic.
Linus Torvalds made a big mistake back in 2002 when he standardized on
BitKeeper source-code management (SCM) software to maintain the Linux
Stallman tried to tell him, but as usual Stallman used his
lunatic-fringe political arguments instead of some very practical
arguments that might have convinced Linus to choose an open source
The basic situation is this: BitKeeper was and is the best product on
the market for maintaining large distributed programming projects with
many developers. BitKeeper sells a commercial version of their product,
but until recently also offered a free (as in beer, not as in speech)
version that was used by many contributors to the Linux kernel.
BitMover, the company that produces BitKeeper, just pulled the rug out
from under Linux development by yanking the free version of their
software, replacing it with a more crippled version that's inadequate
for Linux kernel development. BitMover's motivation for the change was
that at least one OSS programmer was writing an SCM
that was interoperable with BitKeeper. Linus's only real choice now
abandon BitKeeper and move to some open source SCM system. None
of those are very good. Yet.
In the short term, Linux kernel development will be a bit chaotic. But
that won't last long. As bad as Linus's decision to go with BitKeeper
was, Larry McVoy, the owner of BitMover, really blew it. Presumably, he
thinks Linux kernel development will move to the commercial version of
BitKeeper. That ain't gonna happen, for several reasons. Instead, with
one stupid decision, McVoy just destroyed his own company.
I mean, think about it. You have thousands of the world's best
programmers working away on the Linux kernel, which epitomizes free and
open source software. They're happily using the "free" version of
BitKeeper, until McVoy yanks it out from under them. What are they
going to do? Buy a copy of the commercial version of BitKeeper? Not
bloody likely. They're going to turn, en
masse, on McVoy's company, and destroy it. How? Well, I'll pose
a theoretical question. How long will it take for a self-selecting
subset of the 5,000 top programmers in the world to churn out an open
source competitor to BitKeeper that matches and exceeds the abilities
of the commercial product? In probably six months, or perhaps a year at
the outside, McVoy will face a superior product that sells for $0. His
company will go down the tubes.
If McVoy had been smart, he would have offered a free copy of his
commercial version to anyone working on Linux kernel development, or
indeed on any free/open-source project. He would never have been able
to sell his product to those people anyway, but by giving it to them he
would have eliminated their motivation to produce their own competing
product. McVoy could have continued selling the commercial version to
commercial and private software developers. McVoy would have been a
hero to the free/OSS folks, and could have continued making
good money on his commercial version. Now, he's screwed. The entire
market, free/OSS, commercial, and private developers, will eventually
switch to the free version-tracking software, and probably sooner
rather than later. Why not? It'll be as good or better than BitKeeper,
and it won't cost anything. BitMover, RIP.
- We have a new cover for the book.
Yesterday was occupied with the usual last-minute stuff. The book
actually went to production about lunch time. I experienced the usual
let-down when a book reaches completion, going from full-speed ahead
and dozens of balls in the air to having nothing left to do. Now it's
pretty much up to O'Reilly's production folks to get the book ready and
out the door. It should hit the bookstores around late June. I'm
already thinking about the second edition.
Now it's back to the grind. I have to get the taxes done this week, and
I have to catch up on a lot of things I'd let slide while we completed
the book. Barbara has a list of things that need to be done around the
My Windows XP system died last week, as the book was in its final
stages. Well, it didn't die, but the grace period on activation ran
out. It still worked, but I knew that would change if I rebooted. Every
couple hours, it'd pop up a message to tell me the grace period had
expired. When I finally rebooted it yesterday, it wouldn't let me log
in. Oh, well.
I'll probably convert that system into my new primary desktop. My
current primary desktop runs Xandros 2.5 Business Edition on an Antec
Aria SFF system with an Intel D865GRH motherboard with a Pentium 4/3.2
processor. The dead XP system is an Intel D925XCV motherboard with a
Pentium 4/570 processor and an nVIDIA GeForce6 6800 in an Antec P160
case. I'll install Xandros 3 on that system, and convert the Aria
system to a Windows 2000 test-bed, assuming I can find one of my
Windows 2000 CDs. I may not even bother to connect that system to the
network. I'll just use it to rip and burn CDs and DVDs. If dvdshrink
were available for Linux, I wouldn't bother having a Windows system at
all, other than test-bed systems for doing screen shots for the
I was also thinking about building a PVR system around MythTV, but I
don't think I'll bother. Barbara and I dropped everything but basic
cable TV service in February, and we haven't missed anything. There's
almost nothing on we want to record, so it seems pointless to build a
PVR system. I may still build one, but if I do it'll be for the
hardware books and as an intellectual exercise rather than to fill any
And there are a bunch of other projects I need to get to work on.
I got some interesting mail about the BitKeeper issue. Most people seem
puzzled about the position Linus Torvalds has reportedly taken, and I
confess I'm among that group. Some, however, blame Tridge for the
crisis. Here's a representative message from someone who thinks Tridge
Original Message --------
Date: Mon, 11 Apr 2005 17:05:03 -0500
From: Christensen, Chris (Aspen Research)
To: Robert Bruce Thompson
You said "Linus Torvalds made a big mistake back in 2002 when he
standardized on BitKeeper "
You could also argue that in 2-3 years with bitkeeper, the Linux kernel
has made much greater strides (in what is becoming and ever more
complex piece of software) than in any similar period before bitkeeper,
and the kernel developers are certainly no worse off now than they were
before bitkeeper. I wouldn't call it a big mistake: it was a
choice that had consequences.
I would say that Larry McEvoy made the larger mistake. Andrew
Tridgell whose obstreporous antagonism toward bitkeeper is the reason
for the current state of affairs has, I think, something to answer to
the rest of the kernel developers for. The experience with
bitkeeper has given expectations to some very smart software
developers, so I agree that there should soon be a viable
There may not be an english language verision of it:
I think it's like the old Fram oil filter commercial, "Pay me now, or
pay me later." Three years ago, Linus could have chosen not to go with
a commercial SCM system. If he'd done that, we'd have had a usable OSS
SCM within a few months. The Linux kernel might be a few months behind
where it is now. But we'd have an OSS infrastructure in place, and
wouldn't be dealing with a sea change today. Better to have bitten the
bullet back then, when things were simpler, than throw a monkey-wrench
into the works now.
As to the other, I'm not particularly worried. Linux in particular and
OSS in general are usually represented as a world-wide effort, but the
truth is that US and western European programmers are responsible for
about 99.9% of the software we use, both OSS and commercial. I haven't
seen much coming out of Africa, South America, or Asia, unless you
count things like Ubuntu, which is pretty much a repackaging of the
work of US and western European coders. As to there not being an
English-language version, any such product would be doomed to fail.
- I've been cleaning up the mess that always results when I
write a book. This time, there are only a few hundred files, most of
them images, and a total of a couple gigabytes of disk space occupied.
I was going to move everything to my "holding" directory, which is kind
of an intermediate storage area between active and archive, but I
noticed that holding is already at 4 GB.
I use holding so that I don't have to back up my main archive
directories frequently. Stuff remains in our working directories until
they no longer fit on one DVD, at which point I sweep everything not
actively in use to the holding directory and burn a new DVD of the
holding directory (actually, I burn two copies, both to have a spare
and in case a file isn't readable from one or the other DVD.) When
holding gets full, it all gets swept to the archive directories and I
then burn a new set of archive backups to DVD. Since holding is just
about full now, I might as well sweep everything--holding and unused
active files--directly to archive.
But that means I'll need to burn a new set of archive DVDs. Urk. I just
checked, and the archive directories are currently about 45 GB. That's
10 or 11 DVDs per copy, times two for the spare copy. Hmmm. Checking
further, I see that about half of the disk space is being eaten by
/archive/install, which contains installation files, ISO images, etc.
And I wonder if I'll ever again need Office 97, Windows NT SP1, or Red
Hat Linux 5.2, to name just a few.
I freely admit that I am a packrat, but surely even a packrat has its
limits. It sounds stupid, but I'm afraid if I delete something I'll
later find I need it desperately and it's no longer available anywhere.
That actually has happened in the past, although admittedly not often.
Well, okay. Once.
But looking at these directories I think to myself that some of these
files may literally no longer exist anywhere except on my hard drives.
I mean, I have full sets of patch files for Novell NetWare 3.X. I have
.arj files, for heaven's sake, not to mention .arc files that predate
the creation of the .zip format. And I just found an executable with a
1985 date, and some data files from 1981. If I save these files,
archaeologists hundreds or thousands of years in the future may give
thanks when they dig up my hard drive.
I am a keeper. Barbara is a thrower-away. I've often wondered about
married couples who are both one or the other. If they're both keepers,
they must constantly have to buy larger homes. If they're both
throwers-away, they must spend a lot of money replacing things they
should have kept.
I remember years ago being in a museum, looking at an artifact. I don't
remember what it was, but I do remember that it was described as "the
only known example of...". And I remember thinking at the time that
sometime back in about 1515 that artifact was owned by a married
couple. The wife kept encouraging the husband to throw it out, but he
resisted. And, because he insisted on keeping it, we now have "the only
known example" sitting in a museum.
- Bob Walder is back.
I used to read Bob's journal page every day--one of my few regular
daily visits to websites--and I was sorry to see him abandon it in
mid-2002. But Bob is back now, so presumably we'll be reading more
stories about him, Lynne, Benson, and a new family member.
Chuck Waggoner has this to say over on the messageboard:
It is inconceivable to me
that there would not be an English version of any significant program.
EVERYBODY in my German classes in Deutschland, speaks
they come from all over the globe (amazingly, among the best
English-speakers are the French). A lot of advanced technical
in Europe are taught only in English. My experience has been that
best engineers and technicians speak flawless English, and use it quite
a bit in their work--either in dealing with reference information or to
communicate across borders, even if the communication is strictly
between European countries. And, just so, developers from around
world, speaking different languages, use English as the common language
for communication. Even in China, with its dozens of different
dialects which make many millions unable to communicate with each
other, English is becoming the common language to bridge that gap.
Programs like Exact Audio Copy and IrfanView--both
created in Germany--have English as the primary language for the
if the program--unbelievably--turned out to be developed in one
non-English speaking country, there would be a super-quick translation
to English, done by someone.
English became the default world language a long time ago. Someone who
does not speak, read, and write English is at a severe disadvantage in
today's international economy. I've heard it argued that English became
dominant because of the economic and cultural power of the United
States, and before it the United Kingdom. That may be true in part, but
it goes further.
English is dominant because it is inherently superior to other
languages. The reason becomes clear when you compare the number of
words in the English language to the number of words in other
languages. Other languages typically have only a fifth to a tenth the
number of words available in English. Where other languages make one
word serve to convey many subtly different meanings, English offers
many related but nuanced words. An English speaker who has mastered the
vocabulary can communicate fine distinctions more readily than a
speaker of any other language.
Obviously there are exceptions to this generalization. The Eskimos,
for example, supposedly have twenty (or fifty) words for snow, and some
languages have very specific words for family relationships that are
not available in English. In English, for example, your mother's
second-oldest brother is your uncle, just as is any other sibling of
your mother or father. In some languages, I'm told, there is a specific
word to convey that exact relationship. But in general English offers
by far the widest choice of words, and so is the most powerful and
flexible language on the planet.
Americans are often criticized for their inability to speak other
languages. I think provincialism has nothing to do with it. I think
most Americans, reasonably enough, think they already speak the best
language available and so see no point to learning another.
Taxes today and tomorrow. Ugh.
- Taxes. Ugh.
- Tax returns are done, except for recopying them neatly,
photocopying, and actually sending them off. Double ugh.
The smartest thing the government ever did was making permanent the
"temporary withholding" instituted "for the duration of the emergency"
during World War II. Nowadays, withholding is a matter of personal
safety for politicians.
I'd like to see us return to the days of no withholding, when on 15
April everyone had to write a check for the full amount of taxes due.
Make all taxes due that day: income taxes, social security (the full
amount, including the concealed half), Medicare, property taxes, sales
taxes, vehicle taxes, gasoline taxes, tobacco taxes, alcohol taxes,
excise taxes, and so on. There would be a revolution. We peasants would
storm the legislatures with pitchforks and torches held high. We'd hang
politicians from lampposts. And they would deserve it.
It's no wonder that I'm an anarchist. The wonder is that everyone isn't.
- The taxes are done and off, and I have a whole year to calm
down. Well, except for the quarterly estimated taxes, but sending in a
few thousand dollars here and there gets me less outraged than the big
I keep reading about these girls being abducted, raped, and murdered.
The perpetrator nearly always turns out to be a convicted "sex
offender". And I read about calls for a national sex offender registry
and think to myself that these people are missing the point entirely.
We don't need local registries of sex offenders, let alone a national
registry. What we need is for these bastards to be locked away
permanently or, better, killed.
Part of the problem is the politically-correct "sex offender" label,
which covers everything from people who haven't really done anything
wrong at all to the most vicious, predatory child-rapists and
murderers. An 18 year old guy who engages in voluntary sex with his 14
year old girlfriend, for example, may be lumped into the "sex offender"
group with a guy who abducts, rapes, and murders a six year old girl,
as may a flasher or a peeping Tom.
Considering only those criminals who truly deserve the name sex
offender--the violent rapists and child molesters--it's acknowledged by
everyone except the hopelessly politically correct and soft-hearted and
-brained liberals that the recidivism rate is essentially 100%. If you
release these people from prison, they're going to do it again. Period.
The solution is pretty obvious. Don't release them. Stop treating
statutory rape as rape. It isn't. But establish Draconian penalties for
true rape with violence, and enforce them without exception. At the
least, any violent sex offender who is caught and convicted should be
sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Better
still, execute him, and do it quickly. Or simply declare him an outlaw
in the original wolfshead sense, and toss him to the family and friends
of his victim or victims.
It seems to me that the parents of these murdered girls should have
recourse against the people who freed their daughters' killers. They
knew or should have known that it was inevitable that these bastards
would abduct, rape, and murder again, and yet they knowingly released
them into the community. The police aren't responsible. Had it been up
to them, these criminals would have ceased breathing long ago. But the
parole boards, courts, and legislators should be held personally
responsible for these preventable tragedies.
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All