Chris X Edwards

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Microsoft - Turning It Around?

2015-04-30 22:00

So much Microsoft news today! And it’s not negative! What’s going on? The New York Times has a long piece about Microsoft and then there is this Gizmodo article which does a pretty good job of summarizing the Microsoft Zeitgeist.

It is no coincidence that I had to explain my personal legal system before discussing Microsoft. Although many have tried, no company has managed to insult my intelligence while simultaneously overwhelming me with their stupidity like Microsoft. When I say "insult my intelligence" what I mean is the complete opposite of something like this recent news that Microsoft will be making their Visual Studio Debug Engine open source. Something has changed at Microsoft.

As the unicorn graphic in the Gizmodo article says, this is a new beginning. Microsoft has never competed in the marketplace of ideas. To me they have always been more of an extortion racket than anything. ("Sure would be a shame if something terrible were to happen to all your data… that’s in our proprietary formats.") But as the computing landscape changed their relentless pressure to control their users and quash competition and innovation drove people to gladly jump at the chance to escape (notably Apple, and a little Linuxy thing called Android). In office settings Microsoft is still primary for the same reason that many of those offices still have fax machines.

I’m biased, but I like to credit the free software movement for growing the idea that it can be possible to dislodge the tyranny of a company which literally controlled all information. Think about that - the only thing that stood between Microsoft and the super-villian style enslavement of mankind was their obvious incompetence. It certainly wasn’t benevolent principles. And by working together, with the help of the internet, it has been done. Microsoft’s reign of bullying is over.

Now Microsoft is getting some lashings of their own hardball tactics. ("Sure would be a shame if all our Steam customers suddenly started using Linux.") So, yes, please do suck on that Microsoft.

The article says, "change has been building for almost a year now". Let me be much more specific - the change has been since February 4, 2014. Satya Nadella is clearly someone whom I can respect. Steve Ballmer was not. Ballmer was not a computer person. He was a predatory finance person. His tone deaf hubris ensured that the best thinkers in the world of technology would, at best, proceed with Microsoft reluctantly. Here’s a nice quote which almost perfectly captures a primary reason for my hostility towards Microsoft.

The situation is so much better for programmers today - a cheap used PC, a Linux CD, and an internet account, and you have all the tools necessary to work your way to any level of programming skill you want to shoot for.

From the book "Masters of Doom"
— John Carmack

A benevolent dictator, they were not.

While Ballmer believed that the economic might of Microsoft’s monopolies could sustain it, his disdain for the people serious about their computing drove them to build alternatives from scratch. The fact that these alternatives emerged as so compelling was lost on the clueless Ballmer.

But, as the Times article says "…Mr. Nadella has shown a sense of humility." 15 years ago, I would not have been able to imagine a more surprising and welcome description of modern Microsoft. So in the 1990s, Microsoft was a creepy 800 pound gorilla who was ruining the state of the art of computer technology with destructive turf wars and a cowardly lack of competitive spirit. Their products seemed like they were designed for and by children. But with Ballmer gone? Well things have brightened considerably!

As with the opening of some of their projects, one strategic move I found especially canny was Microsoft’s financial support of Cyanogenmod. This reminded me a lot of Mono. When Microsoft tried to snuff out the absurd fervor for Java by coming up with their own half-assed programming framework (or whatever .NET is) which they would then leverage their platform monopoly to force people to use, the brilliant Miguel de Icaza came up with an open source implementation. I think that really did knock the wind out of Microsoft’s predatory spirit. What could they do? Pressure people to use .NET or a completely free alternative? Tough call for Microsoft. Satya obviously learned from this maneuver. If your competitor is kicking your ass, dump a functional equivalent in the public domain. That’s what Cyanogenmod is doing to Google’s Android (bravo to Cyanogen, of course) and now, weirdly Microsoft is helping to make your phone suck a tiny bit less. Call me astonished. Of course, now the question on everyone’s mind is, will Microsoft ruin Cyanogenmod? They promise they won’t.

Phones are filled with such bad software that the only thing I can stand to do with them is SSH back to a sensible computer; so I don’t really even have a dog in that race. Likewise is another area where Microsoft is really set to change their tune. From a long time Linux perspective, I’ve watched over the years as those weird foreign people with their weird foreign ways have trickled over to Linux because Microsoft was just not doing the job when it came to native language support. Linux wasn’t either, of course, but in Linux, you can always fix it yourself. (Linux = easy things hard, hard things hard; Microsoft = easy things easy, hard things impossible.) This didn’t concern me personally since I’m just a weird English speaking foreigner but with Satya, I think sensitivities to the broader markets will be improving. The Skype real time translator they’ve been working on is a good example of that. (No, Satya didn’t start that project, but he didn’t cancel it either.)

What I do take personally is serious computing. What I mean by serious computing is the opposite of the puerile "computing" most people do most of the time, things like salarymen typesetting documents which should never actually be printed on paper. And porn and lolcats and Netflix. What I mean by serious computing is exemplified by the area which drives and inspires all innovations in it - gaming.

Of course boycotting Microsoft for the last 20 years has not really turned me into much of a pro gamer, but if there’s one area I begrudgingly respect Microsoft for, it’s their ability to not completely piss off their gaming community.

I exchanged some supportive messages with the author of this brilliant but bipolar explanation of why Microsoft is evil and yet the only thing you should be using. He was basically trying to say that PC gaming (100% Microsoft) is good and console gaming (50% Microsoft) is bad because Microsoft is evil. Well, I’m sympathetic, but you can see that the gamers are in a bit of a tight spot. Which was very clever of Microsoft.

I do not think it is well appreciated that people who are passionate about their computing are often passionate about gaming. I think Microsoft gets this and they’ve managed to get a lot of otherwise smart computer people on their side through a kind of Stockholm syndrome.

But the gaming connection goes deeper. Let’s say you want a game that doesn’t suck, you know, with lag spikes during garbage collection and run time optimization. What do you use to program it? Well if you’re serious, you use C/Cpp. And who has been driving that train in the last 20 years? It’s not Bell Labs! Microsoft has been dedicated to the preservation and improvement of C/Cpp like no other entity. All the modern C++ revisions and improvements owe much to them.

On to DirectX. This is really irritating to those of us in the free software world because the tables are quite turned here. DirectX, as far as I can tell is reasonably well documented and relatively nice to use compared to OpenGL, which I can personally attest is a nightmare. It is DirectX that is forcing innovation in OpenGL. But still, note the careful commitment to the gamers and game developers. No wonder it’s hard for them to leave the platform. While in the last decade Apple has done everything right it seems, when it comes to gaming, it is the opposite. Apple has done everything wrong and Microsoft has done the innovation.

Remember when I mentioned lag spikes during GC and run time tricks? One of the most ironic things Microsoft has done is their acquisition of Mojang. Quite surprising indeed after Notch’s rant about how uncool Facebook is. Minecraft was a game one could play without paying Microsoft an OS rent. And it still is. The fact that it is in Java is very weird. But the irony keeps coming! In Notch’s rant he says something interesting.

Of course, [Oculus] wanted Minecraft. I said that it doesn’t really fit the platform, since it’s very motion based, runs on java (that has a hard time delivering rock solid 90 fps, especially since the players build their own potentially hugely complex levels), and relies a lot on GUI.

— Notch

So what is Microsoft going to do with Minecraft? Feature it in their augmented reality Hololens gear! My son has turned me into a Minecraft enthusiast and fun as it is, I have to wonder if a new toy, even one as important as a modern Lego, would really replace the kind of revenue that a $100 rent on all computing devices used to provide. But consider this too, is it really wise to put all your eggs in the VR/AR basket and target that to kids? Check out this interesting document about the Oculus Rift.

"WARNING Children: This product should not be used by children under the age of 13."

— Oculus Health & Safety Document

Ouch. When I first learned about the problems with VR and kids I was pretty disappointed (and glad to be an adult). I sure hope MSR has some really good tricks up their sleeves to handle this. That’s not entirely improbable. If there is one thing Microsoft has always done well it’s hire good people. With bad management out of the way, perhaps they can be allowed to do some good. Interesting times!

The Law

2015-04-30 16:11

This is an important post because I am going to discuss what may be my most important and practical personal philosophical perspective. If you wish to interact with me it is essential to understanding my personal sovereignty.

Rules are ubiquitous. They provide structure to life figuratively and literally. When rules are promulgated by nation states they are laws. A law means that to continue existing in the jurisdiction covered by the law, you must obey it. Such laws can get very complex. Laws can also be more profound, asserting the ethos of an entire people.

But it is not necessary to confine laws to nation states. We all have our own personal laws. I have many guidelines such as please don’t feed me cauliflower or MS Word email attachments. But those are just helpful tips for optimal relations.

After a lifetime of contemplation I have discovered that there is only one law that those who interact with me must follow. It is not optional. I have paid a huge price to enforce this law and will continue to do so. If you flagrantly violate it, our interaction will terminate.

The Law is quite simple really. The Law has three parts which are to be taken as a whole. The Law is as follows.

Part One: (You may) Treat me like an idiot.

Part Two: (You may) Be an idiot.

Part Three: (You must) Never combine one and two.

It’s that simple. As Steven Wolfram demonstrates, astonishing richness and complexity can emerge from simple rules and I have found that pretty much all acrimonious interactions I’ve ever had involve a violation of the Law.

At first glance the Law may seem rather obvious or uninteresting or even a bit grumpy. But that is not the case. Obviously people don’t like to be treated like idiots but what the Law is saying is that I actually do not mind it as much as other people. I am not immune to errors and incorrect beliefs and I am quite happy to have them corrected. During that process if you are compelled to treat me like an idiot I’m actually rather willing to overlook that. It’s not optimal to be sure and we won’t be best friends but I’ve learned a lot from supercilious wankers who’ve treated me like I was stupid, i.e. when I was being stupid. But the key ingredient was that these people were extremely competent relative to me on the topic in question.

There is a second point to stress, which is much more germane to my daily life of interacting with people who, for example, must use computers but have not dedicated their lives to understanding them. If you self identify as an idiot or a dummy, that’s absolutely not a problem for me. I actually very much enjoy helping people, especially the underdog. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to train people how to use rather complicated software where I slowly realized that the learners were functionally illiterate. Never mind fancy computer concepts, they could not read. Their respect for me caused me to really take extraordinary measures to help them out.

Finally, the Law suggests a profound truth that we can all probably strive to live by. Ideally one treats others with respect and invests in the intellectual wherewithal to be helpful. Although I envision directing future violators of the Law to this clear statement of my policy, most people who casually read my writing are my good friends. I want to say to them that the Law also correctly predicts exactly why we are friends, precisely because you have very rarely, if ever, committed either Part One or Part Two.

I Shall Speak Of It

2015-04-24 11:48

Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier?

{Who still speaks today of the extermination of the Armenians?}

— Attributed to Adolf Hitler**

** For the complicated details of this quote’s provenance, read all about the Obersalzberg Speech.

Exactly 100 years ago on the night of 23–24 April 1915 the government of the Ottoman Empire rounded up and imprisoned an estimated 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders. This set in motion events that eventually led to the deaths of around 1.8 million Armenians, predominantly civilians, who were systematically exterminated. I do not think I risk violating the spirit of Godwin’s Law by suggesting that these events were eerily analogous to Kristallnacht and the Holocaust of World War 2.

Being a part of a culture that perpetrates barbaric mass violence on innocent people is never going to end especially well. Even when you think you’ve gotten away with it your unlucky descendants will have to live with the legacy of your execrable deeds. Perhaps the only thing that more flagrantly demonstrates intellectual laziness than such craven violence is later pretending it did not happen or was justified, especially when confronted with substantial evidence to the contrary.

For almost a century there has been some controversy about the Armenian Genocide. Despite being the event that caused the the word "genocide" and the concept of crimes against humanity to be invented, Turkey emphatically denies that a "genocide" occurred. So much so that it is a crime there to assert that a genocide did in fact occur. In other countries (Switzerland for example) it is a crime to deny that such a genocide occurred.

What’s crazy is that few argue whether or not countless Armenian men, women, and children were systematically and horrifically murdered. They clearly were. Turkey seems mostly intent on denying that the word "genocide" should be applied to the case. To me that is essentially like saying, "Sure I murdered them but I didn’t have a very good plan." Basically second degree murder instead of first degree.

My perspective on murder differs from the law in that I’m rather unsympathetic to the defense of incompetence. I feel much safer around people who plan to kill a specific person for a specific reason and then do so than the people who at any time could just kill anyone for no particular reason.

But does anyone really need to quibble about terminology in this case? Would the Turks prefer we call it the "Extermination of the Armenian People by Turkish Incompetence"? That would still be misleadingly generous. Imagine your most extenuated intentional murder scenario. Maybe a barroom brawl, road rage, cheating spouse, etc. How many instances of such a crime committed by the same person do you think the police would be willing to believe were spontaneous? Two, maybe three at the most. After "accidentally" running over the fourth pedestrian, the police will surely be reopening the files on one through three.

We’re not (just) talking about about the political assassination of a few hundred people. We’re talking about roughly half of Armenians. This doesn’t "just happen". The claim that the lack of good planning and high-quality German engineering somehow makes the crime less serious seems delusional to me. Furthermore, this isn’t an isolated case. The Turks claim that the chaos and general turbulence of World War 1 caused the depopulation of Armenians which would almost be plausible if it were not for the fact that non Armenians were hardly thus affected. Oh, and the other genocides. Yes, it seems the Ottoman Turks had been practicing for 1915 with previous massacres of Armenians.

The point of this is not to humiliate anyone (still alive anyway). On the contrary, the essential objective is to eliminate future opprobrium. The idea is to not let the important historic implications of a people’s actions become unaccounted externalities of their present policy. It is essential to remember the darkest parts of human history as accurately as possible if we are to most effectively prevent future occurrences.

I will not forget the Armenians.

Not Quite Linked In

2015-04-23 14:25

Since I’m on the topic of LinkedIn I’ll mention this interesting experience.

Someone I was supposed to talk to was introduced to me with an accompanying LinkedIn URL.

https://www.linkedin.com/pub/theguysname/5/428/205

Since I didn’t understand what the trailing numbers were I assumed the worst, that they were to track me. Instead of using that supplied URL, I searched for the guy’s name in the LinkedIn search box. I did this while not logged into my account. Strangely LinkedIn showed my picture, and assumed I was the user (probably based on IP number and/or cookies). The problem is that if I was not the user, say I had borrowed someone’s computer, it would be highly misleading to see my photo with the caption "Chris X Edwards - Research at Sandia National Laboratories" which LinkedIn showed. I presume it was a job ad, but to someone who is not me, it looks like I not only would condone working for a source of nuclear weapons but that I currently actually do!

I found the guy easily enough and was able to see his full employment history. LinkedIn then told me that to see his full profile I need to log in. Fine, be that way. After I logged in, however, I could no longer see his employment history. Or anything! They even suppressed his last name which I originally searched for!

With LinkedIn, it’s definitely a fine line between being a user and, as RMS calls them, being a "used".

Bespoke PC

2015-04-23 11:39

I tend to build work stations for people to actually do specific productive things on. A major reason to build these yourself is that you get exactly what you want. If you just want to browse the web or watch lolcats, anything will do, but if you have a specific and unusual agenda (like doing actual work with a computer), then the flexibility and customizability of building it yourself can not be matched by complete solution vendors.

This article clearly points out the second critical reason to build your own work stations.

Workstations are among the best builds you should put together yourself. Big box companies often markup their machines by thousands of dollars and get away with it because businesses and professionals are willing to pay for the extra cost. However, if you’re willing to spend a couple hours on a weekend building your own brand new workstation, you can easily save thousands of dollars! No longer will you need to pay Dell, HP, or Apple $5,000 for what you can build yourself for $2,000!

Here are my favorite useful resources for configuring new PC builds.

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