The Null Device

2008/4/29

Linux filesystem developer Hans Reiser has been found guilty of the first-degree murder of his wife. He is yet to be sentenced, though apparently the death penalty is not being considered.

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Two teenage thugs have been sentenced to "life imprisonment" for beating a young woman to death because of her Goth attire. The two will serve a minimum of 18 and 16 years respectively, and could be out in their mid-30s. Meanwhile, violence against goths (or "grungers") is still common in Britain, especially amongst, it would seem, the less intelligent sectors of society:

On the social networking site Bebo, there's a group called grungers-should-die, which sets out its mission statement as follows: "Join this band if u think grungers / goth should die ... tell us some story about u bashing some grungers." On the comment wall, a girl has obliged: "fuckin bashed a grunger the uva day innit."
Coles says the goth community is misunderstood. "What people don't understand is that the goth community is largely a peaceful one, full of intelligent people that have often been shunned by normal society and choose to keep company with other likeminded souls. In 22 years of running clubs I've not seen one fight, or indeed any trouble."

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2008/4/28

InformIT has an interview with Donald Knuth; he's skeptical about multicore processors, unit testing and reusable code, doesn't like the idea of eXtreme Programming™, and has more or less conceded that literate programming is unlikely to become mainstream any time soon, whilst still believing that it is a superior way to write code:

In my experience, software created with literate programming has turned out to be significantly better than software developed in more traditional ways. Yet ordinary software is usually okay—I’d give it a grade of C (or maybe C++), but not F; hence, the traditional methods stay with us. Since they’re understood by a vast community of programmers, most people have no big incentive to change, just as I’m not motivated to learn Esperanto even though it might be preferable to English and German and French and Russian (if everybody switched).
Jon Bentley probably hit the nail on the head when he once was asked why literate programming hasn’t taken the whole world by storm. He observed that a small percentage of the world’s population is good at programming, and a small percentage is good at writing; apparently I am asking everybody to be in both subsets.
With the caveat that there’s no reason anybody should care about the opinions of a computer scientist/mathematician like me regarding software development, let me just say that almost everything I’ve ever heard associated with the term "extreme programming" sounds like exactly the wrong way to go...with one exception. The exception is the idea of working in teams and reading each other’s code. That idea is crucial, and it might even mask out all the terrible aspects of extreme programming that alarm me.

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Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, posits an interesting theory: that entertainment television, an arguably stupefying medium, arose in the 20th century as a temporary coping mechanism for dealing with a surplus of free time and cognitive capacity, a way for people to harmlessly manage free time they had no traditional uses for. A parallel he quotes was the explosion in consumption of gin (in those days a disreputable, highly intoxicating drink) during the mass migration from the countryside to the cities in Britain:

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing-- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.
And it wasn't until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders--a lot of things we like--didn't happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.
Television, Shirky argues, fulfils the same role. During the 20th century, a majority of the population found itself with something they didn't have before: free time. Since there was no use for this, it was more of a crisis than an opportunity, and once again, society turned to an intoxicant as a means of control:
If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would've come off the whole enterprise, I'd say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened--rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before--free time.
And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.
We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan's Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.
Now, Shirky claims, society is figuring out ways to use surplus cognitive capacity more productively than by watching sitcoms. With the internet, people are starting to turn the television off and use their time, if not more productively, more interactively. This can take the form of amateur collective efforts such as Wikipedia or of pasting captions onto photographs of cats or playing multiplayer games. (Granted, in this early stage, even contributions to Wikipedia often are about TV shows, but this will probably pass):
And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.
This is not a passing phase, Shirky asserts, but a profound social shift; he cites as an example an anecdote illustrating that young children today are already in a post-television mindset, in which a one-directional consumeristic medium is seen as broken, rather than just as "the way things are and have always been":
I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn't what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, "What you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."
Will, in a generation or two, our descendents look back on the entire 20th century as an age of stupidity and conformism, sort of like the mythical Leave-it-to-Beaver 1950s writ large? (Assuming, of course, they're not too busy avoiding starvation or fighting over the Earth's remaining oil supplies or something.)

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