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merlyn (47)

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Journal of merlyn (47)

Saturday July 15, 2006
02:31 AM

FLOSS weekly interviews *me*

Monday July 03, 2006
08:19 AM - part 2 of leo laporte

Part 2 of my podcast interview with Leo Laporte is up, where we talk about the origin of the name of the Amazon Mechanical Turk. Subscribe or just listen at
Friday June 23, 2006
05:45 AM

Why muni-provided "free" wi-fi is a bad idea

I'm against muni-provided connectivity for three reasons. And none of these apply to things like "police" or "fire", so let me explain why the typical analogy to "public services" doesn't apply.

First, there's the "accountability" issue:

Without "billing", there's no accountability. If I can get free connections, I can send spam to my heart's content, and you can't turn me off, because I can quickly become "another free user" in a matter of microseconds.

And I can start p2p-sharing my child pr0n and ripped movie and song collections, and again, you can't turn me off, because I don't actually have a contract with you to terminate. Sure, you can arrest me, but you have to find me in the mesh. It's not like you have a street address for me. Heck, I might even be operating from a van that constantly drives around.

Second, there's the "taxpayer dollar" issue:

Whether we like it or not, when citizens start paying for shipping bits, they're gonna want some say in the kinds of things that are being shipped across the wire. The moment the soccer mom figures out that part of her tax dollar is paying for that creepy guy over there to download his pr0n, she's gonna be storming city hall. And she's also going to be complaining loudly when she finds out that her son can access all sorts of evil things "over the city's wireless system!" She'll want controls put in place, and rightfully so. After all, she's paying for it.

As evidence, look at the constant tug-of-war and lawsuits regarding internet access at public libraries. Do you really want to open this up on a city-wide scale? It's the very same issue.

So, no matter how "open" some of us want this, it's going to start getting filtered. We'll never have a truly censorship-free mesh, except for perhaps the first six months. And if there's a constitutional challenge that comes down to a free-speech thing, it'll more likely get shut off than opened back up.

Third, we kill the incentive for competition:

OK, you say. Then if there's enough demand for an uncensored equivalent, some private sector can come along and provide a different mesh that provides the full bits.

Well, that's ignoring the economics of the situtation. To deploy a city-wide private sector net requires a fairly large infrastructure, and that can only be supported by having access to a large customer base. But most of the customers of the "free" citywide net won't be buying, because for them, the "free" net is almost good enough. This is false economics, because they're effectively being subsidized $10 a month by the city's taxbase, and if they had to choose between that and a $15 "get everything" net, they might make a more rational choice.

So, for these reasons, I say that cities must stay out of the wifi business. As much as I'd like "free" wifi, there's no such thing as a free lunch, and as soon as someone realizes they are paying for it, they'll want to control it.

I'd much rather have a few companies vie for my $15, than for me to get censored, slow, no-choice free service.

Disclaimer - I pay $60/month for Verizon's EVDO service. I'd still have that in every city, regardless of what they do. I'm speaking more for the friends of mine that can't justify that sort of cost.

Wednesday June 21, 2006
09:11 PM

Misquoting JWZ about databases

When some people are confonted with a database problem, they say to themselves, "I know, I'll use MySQL!"

Now they have two problems.

06:57 AM

Look what I could win!

Sunday June 18, 2006
01:58 PM

Grad school instructor, having never been to college?

I'm just thinking that my accomplishment of having taught a grad-school level course for credit (Intro to Perl 501 for without having ever been to college might be somewhat rare. Are there other instances that you've seen of a grad-school professor who has never themselves been to anything beyond a high-school education?
Friday June 16, 2006
11:25 PM

"Duck and Cover" and "A is for Atom"

Thanks to The Vintage Tooncast for making me aware (again) of Duck and Cover and A is for Atom.

Duck and Cover is a "civil defense" film about how to protect yourself in a nuclear blast. It'd be a perfect MST3K piece now: the idea of protecting yourself from radiation with a newspaper seems amazingly naive and almost malicious. The repetitive "and stay in that position until the danger has passed", without ever explaining (perhaps deliberately) how to know when that has been reached.

"A is for Atom" is an astonishingly complete and easy-to-watch piece describing precisely how uranium and plutonium bombs work, and goes on to explain how wonderful atomic power will be in the future, providing power, helping farmers, and even producing medical miracles. Of course, to acheive these goals, the dangers of nuclear waste are never mentioned, nor the medical risks from using nuke materials as tracers in the body.

Although these have both disappeared from the Tooncast feed by the time I watched them (I'm a bit behind), I'd really suggest subscribing to this feed, as they seem to be picking some amazingly cool stuff from and providing it directly to my video ipod on a regular basis.

Thursday June 08, 2006
10:52 AM

In praise of good testing

In my work for $client, last week I spent a few hours making sure that Devel::Cover was mostly happy with my code, running through enough branches so that when I had to "go live" with minor revisions, I could push the change with a fair degree of confidence.

This week, I concluded that a fundamental data structure (an in-memory hash-of-hashes) that controlled the entire operation and was passed from one part to the next of this 2000-line set of modules, should be changed to be permanent.

So I pulled out Rose::DB, designed a simple main-row-plus-1-to-n-children database schema, and started refactoring. Of course, after I got rid of the initial data structure, every test failed. I would take each test, run it, and watch it fail, and then I would keep hacking the code and fixing it again until the test passed. Then I'd move on to the next one.

Six hours later, my complex application was now completely running with Rose::DB-based persistence instead of an in-memory data structure. And I was very happy that the client had insisted on complete tests before I started, because I was now confident to push this new version into production.

Tests. Not just for breakfast, any more.

Friday June 02, 2006
10:42 AM

Not quite getting the picture

I had just seen United 93 , and after the movie, bumped in to a friend of mine, who is known more for her physical assets than her mental achievements. (Although she's not blonde, this week.)

I had stayed through the credits, and noticed a lot of "HIMSELF" and "HERSELF", which obviously added to the authenticity of this biopic feeling almost like a documentary. So I commented to her "Hey, a lot of the people originally involved played themselves", because it had impressed me.

She replied, "The people on the airplane?"


Monday May 29, 2006
01:39 PM

Geek Cruises News-es: the podcast

I've started a weekly podcast for You can subscribe via iTunes (the best for us, since it increases the popularity) or add the URL directly to your podcatcher.