2010-04-29

Peter Watts: Free?

Well, Peter Watts didn't go to jail. (For those not following this, you can do a web search and find the full story. I don't have the heart to look again at those articles.) This is a victory according to some, and I am happy that he can spend Canada Day home this year. Still, besides having to pay a fine and his lawyer, he's now a convicted felon and may never be able to enter the United States again, which is not an insignificant thing for a science fiction author where conventions are an important part of one's career. He certainly didn't get off scott-free.

But a particular line from Madeline Ashby's post on the sentencing rather summed up my view of the whole thing:
What happened to Peter Watts could happen to any of us.
Now I'm a Liberal, which, when I get into conversations with Americans in bars, appears to mean that I agree with right-wingers almost as much as left-wingers and have only a few of my views in common with libertarians. I certainly respect the risks that many law enforcement officers take every day, even those who are border guards on the Canadian border. (I must admit I do not know how dangerous that job is.)

But there's a difference here: LEOs chose that life, and, if the American ideal is to be believed, they did it to protect the rest of us. So why do I feel nervous crossing the U.S. border these days?

Beyond the day-to-day problems of the U.S., the 9/11 moral panic, NSA wiretapping, Bush rather extending (to use a polite term) executive power, Obama continuing that; all of these scare me. When I go there, it can happen to me, or anybody else, from illegal immigrant to full-fledged citizen. (For some it even happens if you don't go near America; just ask all those who've had a free flight to Gitmo.)

This is why, though I've always appreciated intellectually the ideas espoused by people like Scott Greenfield in his blog Simple Justice, I now feel a lot more viscerally what he's talking about.

It's terrible feeling at first, when you live amongst the free, to think, "I could be next." Perhaps you get used to it.

2010-04-26

$200 Million per Arrest

Congressman John J. Duncan Jr. has a fantastic article on the uselessness of air marshals. Best quote:

al Qaeda's most important accomplishment was not to hijack our planes but to hijack our political system.
Edit (2014-09-17): Sorry about turning off comments for this post, but somehow it got popular and spammers started deluging it with comments linking to their own stuff. Weird.

2010-04-24

Only a loser would delay the news for her blog.

Not Always Right is certainly full of social comment, but it invariably makes fun of people who don't understand what's going on. That of course means that, if the Internet is involved, it makes fun of people who don't quite understand the Internet.

That makes me wonder why this exchange is there, since it so clearly does involve understanding on the part of the customer this time, rather than the staff member:
(It is a few minutes after closing time and we lock the door. Moments later I hear the sound of breaking glass. I rush over and see a woman on the ground surrounded by glass. She had tried to walk through the door and broke it.)
Me: “Miss, are you alright?! Are you hurt anywhere?”
Customer: “No! No…I think I’m fine.”
Me: “Miss, let me show you somewhere to sit while we wait for security and the ambulance.”
Customer: “No! I don’t have time d*** it! I have to go write this in my blog!” *runs off*
Was it because she didn't just pull out her Blackberry and Twitter it?

2010-04-22

Is Open Source Worse at Innovation?

A comment on Charlie's Diary from William T Goodall rather stuck in my craw:
I think a new consensus is emerging - that open source is very good at solving some well-defined problems such as building services like web servers and database engines and scripting languages and very bad at things like building UI or innovation. Whereas closed source is very good at UI and innovation.
The irony of this, of course, is that his words come to me via arguably the biggest innovation in the last fifty years: the TCP/IP based Internet.

Those familiar with networking terms will know that "internetwork," often shorted to "internet" just as "network" has often been shortened to "net," is a technical term for a network of networks that can all communicate amongst each other. Let's see why, though there have been many internetworks or internets, this one gets the capital 'I'.

Through an open project, where ideas, standards and code were freely shared, TCP/IP was developed in the early 1970s as one of the world's first internetworking protocols, quite probably the first. It's not clear how much of the early code survives and how widely it was shared; the world was one of few hosts, and divided by a lot of different languages and architectures. Over the next ten years, however, the C programming lanuage and the Unix operating system started to take hold, and expansion in the use of C, in particular, made the open source network stack written by some folks at Berkeley University particularly popular. Probably because of this openness it became the primary research platform for TCP/IP: this is where many of TCP/IP's innovations started and were tested. As well, as commercial interest grew, the code became the base of many commercial products (including the first Windows TCP/IP stack).

Starting from the late 80s, the commercial world came out in force with their own protocols and innovations. Major competitors included not only the big firms such as IBM and DEC, but smaller firms that, for a while in the late 80s and early 90s, came to dominate the microcomputer networking market, such as Novell and later Microsoft. The 90s became a battleground for networking protocols, with TCP/IP fighting it out with the rest.

As it turned out, TCP/IP stayed ahead of the pack by continuing to be more innovative than the rest, dealing with technical problems earlier and better than its competitors. I spent the early 90s working with several different protocols. There were a surprising (to me at the time) number of things that could be done poorly, and most protocols did them poorly, at least at first. Some of them eventually caught up with TCP/IP, others never did, but TCP/IP was always overall the best.

Eventually, whether other protocols could eventually do what TCP/IP did made no difference: TCP/IP spent the 90s wiping the floor with its competition, and as of the early 2000s had essentially taken over the entire world's networking. There have been many internets, but the Internet is a TCP/IP-based one. It's hard to think of any proprietary system developed in the past fifty years that's been this successful, this innovative, and changed the world this much.

For those interested in studying this further, there are plenty of books on the history of the Internet, with varying coverage of TCP/IP versus other protocols. On of my favourites (though it stops in 1995) is Peter H. Salus' Casting the Net.