Posts for May 2010

2010-05-01: Vacation


Hello from the first full day of vacation!

The picture is of the Manuka or New Zealand Tea Tree in my mother's back yard. She had been bemoaning the difficulty of taking pictures of it, so I tried a few different angles and this is the one that I was the happiest with. It's basically a giant bush covered in pink flowers, and at this time of year, in bees. It puts on a nice display every year.

Yesterday was the day of travel heading on vacation, which was another wonderful example of how lovely and civilized travel by train is. I dread having to fly anywhere, but being able to curl up in a train seat with a good book and watch the world go by, and then get up and get food whenever I feel like it, is a pure pleasure.

I'm now almost caught up on book reviews except for the book I finished today. I brought a large pile of books with me and plan on reading until I feel unwound from recent events at work (organizational chaos, my former manager being let go for dubious reasons, an upgrade that's failed a couple of times and that I still need to do when I get back, and lots of frustrating argument about technical strategies). Then, I'll either just keep reading or poke at Debian and free software work.

It's lovely to have a whole week during which I can do anything I feel like doing.

Some other recent things of note:

2010-05-02: remctl 2.16

The primary change in this release of remctl is the addition of Ruby bindings, contributed by Anthony M. Martinez. I added a test suite, hopefully added compatibility with Ruby 1.9.1, and messed with the coding style a bit; hopefully I didn't introduce any bugs. Ruby's method of building add-on modules, as with Perl, Python, and PHP, fixes various problems seen in other languages at the cost of failing spectacularly in some new and different way.

This version also adds pcre:* and regex:* ACL types for remctld, based on work by Anton Lundin. pcre:* is only available if the PCRE libraries are available, but let you use full Perl-compatible regular expressions. The regex:* ACL type is available on any system with POSIX regex libraries, but only supports POSIX regexes.

remctld also now sets the environment variable REMCTL_COMMAND to the command that causes a program to be run, thanks to Thomas L. Kula.

There are also a few other bug fixes and improvements, including a general update to the latest rra-c-util and C TAP Harness.

You can get the latest version from the remctl distribution page.

2010-05-02: A little productivity

Folded rose

When I'm here on vacation, I of course have to take pictures of my mother's roses. So here's the first of what will eventually be several.

If there's one thing that I most wish that my current camera has, it's better handling of color. I don't think it knows how to devote enough colorspace to a particular color, and of course it's not a good enough camera to shoot RAW (which I suspect would help). So shooting anything with a lot of saturated color tends to result in JPEG or camera artifacts, as you can see in this one.

I poked around on-line this morning and then went and read and finished another book. That's lovely. That's something I rarely take the time to do during the day at home, since weekends are already so crowded with the things I can't do during the week. Then I felt like doing something a bit productive, so got the remctl release out that I'd been working on for the past couple of weeks, which promptly cured that feeling. I don't think I'm going to be getting much done for at least a few more days of vacation; I'm still way low on energy for doing anything productive.

A review will be coming, but I can say now that series readers will be happy with Brust's Iorich. I just wish he could write books in the Vlad series faster!

2010-05-03: Still recovering


Another in the long list of reasons why I like graffiti in general and think it's often an improvement over what was there without it. This "smiley" was on one of those boring green utility boxes at Transfer Beach in Ladysmith, British Columbia.

This also sums up my mood today. I cannot tell you how happy I was to not be at work and to be able to completely ignore work. I came over to the laptop periodically during the day and looked through stuff on-line and felt profoundly uninterested in doing any of it, as well as feeling that "OMG, I have way too much to do" feeling. So I just went back to my book instead.

I'm guessing somewhere around Wednesday I'm going to feel more recharged. I was very drained and more in need of vacation than I usually am.

2010-05-04: Thoughts on attention

Sunlit creeper

I felt like a season-appropriate picture, so here's a picture I took almost exactly two years ago while wandering around Stanford. I love the Green Earth Sciences building, particularly for photography. There are so many cool things to capture, particularly the plants that grow around the outside of it.

I'm starting to feel my brain regenerate from vacation. I can tell because I ended up doing a couple new versions of the OpenAFS packages today after finishing another book, and I'm starting to have the pondering "how do I want to tweak my life" sorts of thoughts that I have most productively after some unwinding time during vacation.

One of the things I keep struggling with is that I have a ton of things I want to do and not all of them are going to get done. I focus so strongly on completing things that this is rough. I don't know how to let things go that won't ever happen, so I'm always struggling with ever-growing to-do lists. (All this is background material; this won't come as a surprise to anyone who knows me.) That leads to stress, but it also leads to decision paralysis. There are too many things on my to-do list, and the first time I look it over, they all need to get done and I immediately start feeling guilty about more things than I can do immediately.

This is, I think, one of the major flaws in the Getting Things Done system. David Allen really doesn't like priority systems or daily A/B/C lists because he feels like things change too much during the day, but working from my full next-action list frequently feels overwhelming and guilt-inducing. For the week before I went on vacation, I started trying to use GTD in a hybrid with the Cycle System from Time Management for System Administrators: taking some time every morning to pull things out of my large to-do list, prioritize a bit for the day using a simple A/B/C notation, and feel like I have a doable chunk for that day. I'm going to do this even more seriously when I get back, since it lets me finish a list during the day and helps me convince myself that I'm usefully using each day. It lets me focus my attention on the productive parts rather than the guilt-inducing parts.

The other half of this, though, is to reduce the number of things I'm committing to do, since I'm committing to do too much. There are hard and easy parts of this, and I'm still struggling with the hard parts. But one of the easy parts is that I expose myself to distractions all the time, and a lot of those are unnecessary. I've basically not watched TV during this vacation and I've not missed it. I'm pondering seriously reducing the TV I watch when I get home and consciously giving up committments to watch certain shows. I also spend a lot of time reading news sites and staying aware of current events, and I'm not sure that's a useful use of my time. By and large, I'm never going to do anything about that data and it just makes me mad, so why am I exposing myself to it? I should be generally aware of world events, but I don't need to be reading detailed comments (particularly from the sort of people who tend to comment).

And the largest key is to just do something. Make a conscious choice to do something specific, whether off my to-do list or to get up and take a walk or go read, but make a conscious choice. A lot of that time-wasting, attention-wasting activity like poking around on the web comes from not making a conscious decision and falling into default behavior. That's almost always unsatisfying; I could almost always be doing something I'd enjoy more, even if that means doing something purely recreational. Having the energy to always make those choices conscious is, I think, the main thing I need to be working on.

2010-05-05: git-pbuilder 1.10

This is a minor update of the glue script that I use between git-buildpackage and pbuilder (with cowbuilder). The primary feature it has over other versions of a similar script is that one can set an environment variable to specify the chroot in which to build.

This update changes the -i regex to include all of the Git-relevant parts of the standard dpkg-source exclusion regex. Before, the regex tried to exclude only .git directories, but also used insufficient quoting and ended up excluding any file containing git. That should be fixed, and now it should exclude .gitattributes files as well. Thanks to Allard Hoeve for the bug report.

You can get the latest version from my miscellaneous scripts page.

2010-05-09: The undead copyright myths

I spend so much time seeing discussions about copyright law (due to lots of work around free software) that I'm constantly surprised at the myths that keep resurfacing in other discussions among people who don't deal with the edges of copyright as much as free software developers do.

Note: Somewhat US-specific, although not entirely so.

  1. Trademarks have to be defended or can be lost because the point of a trademark is that it distinguishes your product from your competitors in a marketplace. Trademarks are specific to commercial endeavors and a market, and trademark law is about avoiding confusion (intentional or unintentional). Copyright is not specific to commercial endeavors or related cases of brand identification (service marks, for instance), and does not have to be defended.

    (It may be possible, in specific circumstances, to end up not being able to enforce your rights because you didn't press a claim. See the defense of laches. But this is an affirmative defense related to putting the defending party in a bad situation by waiting to enforce your claim, and is far from the situation with trademark where active enforcement is required. Laches is intended for cases where someone implies you have a right to do something, you invest a million dollars into a business plan based on that belief, and then they show up at the last minute saying "aha!" and sue you. It's a protection against bait and switch, in other words, and therefore is not that applicable to the typical copyright case.)

  2. Pre-Berne copyright laws are weird. If whatever special case of copyright you're basing your argument on happened before 1988 when the United States adopted Berne (realistically, more like the 1970s), it probably doesn't apply. If it involves copyright renewal or losing copyright because it wasn't registered properly, it has nothing to do with modern intellectual property law.

  3. You don't know what is fair use. That's because no one knows what is fair use. There isn't much case law, the case law is often contradictory, and lawyers err on the side of caution, not on the side of allowing as much as possible. No one really knows the truth of statements like "fanfic is / is not fair use." There's some evidence both ways, and it's not settled. It will probably depend, more than anyone expects, on the specific details of the specific work. Sadly, it will also probably depend somewhat on which judge one gets, at least until something gets appealed all the way to high courts in multiple countries (which is unlikely given the tiny amounts of money normally available to at least one and usually both of the parties).

There's a lot of misinformation about this stuff. See, for example, George R.R. Martin on fan fiction. He's someone with significant experience in both film and writing, including professional writer's organizations. And yet he made all of those errors to varying extents.

I know this stuff because of my involvement in free software, where we deal with edge cases of copyright law all the time in the process of making it do neat tricks for us. Commercial software developers often come across as appallingly ignorant about intellectual property, probably because they stay in the center of it surrounded by conservative lawyers and have never had reason to explore the edges. I suppose the same thing is likely true of fanfic writers and commercial writers: the average fanfic writer probably knows a lot more about the ins and outs of copyright law and fair use, although the average commercial writer knows much more about book contracts and royalty payments.

2010-05-16: Hugo nominee haul II

Looks like it's going to be three book orders total to pick up all the Hugo nominees this year, since I'm going to get Julian Comstock when it comes out in mass market.

Paolo Bacigalupi — The Windup Girl (sff)
Elizabeth Bear — Bone and Jewel Creatures (sff)
Mark Forster — Do It Tomorrow (non-fiction)
Jane Jacobs — Cities and the Wealth of Nations (non-fiction)
Guy Gavriel Kay — Under Heaven (sff)
J.A. Pitts — Black Blade Blues (sff)

The Windup Girl just won the Nebula award for best novel. It's the Hugo nominee in this lot. I've already read The City & The City, Boneshaker, and Palimpsest (review pending on the last), and I have Wake sitting by my bedside. I'm not sure if I'm going to finish it before I go to a conference, and it's probably not good airplane reading material (I suspect I'll work on Ilium for that).

I've stopped going to Baycon, but I still generally try to read all the Hugo nominees by about that time. Looks like I won't make it this year, but I will have read about half of them, maybe one more than that.

I'm nearly done with Do It Tomorrow (in fact, I'm writing this journal post partly as an exercise from that book) and love it. It directly deals with what I think is the biggest flaw in Getting Things Done and looks like it's going to be extremely helpful. There will be a much longer review coming later.

2010-05-22: California primaries

Voting time again, and as I normally do, here's a record of who and what I'm voting for and why, in the hope that it will be useful to others.


Proposition 13: YES. We're only voting on this because of the dumb rules around taxes in this state. It's a straightforward cleanup of the property tax codes around earthquake safety improvements that basically simplifies and merges existing exclusions for property tax reassessment and makes the law simpler. In a sane legal system, the state assembly would have been able to just pass this. No one is even bothering to argue against it.

Proposition 14: YES. This is the reason to vote in this primary. Even if you don't care about anything else in the elction, go vote for this proposition.

What this proposition does is turn the California election system into a runoff system. The primaries, rather than being a selection process internal to each party (and hence often tending to select extreme candidates, particularly for Republicans in California), will become the first round of the general election. All candidates from all parties will compete together. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will then be on the final ballot in the November election.

I of course would love to see an even more sophisticated voting system, such as proportional representation or Condorcet, but this is a huge advance over the one-shot plurality system we have now. For tight districts balanced between Republican and Democrat, there will be no significant change; November will still see an election between the Republican and the Democrat, just with the additional clarity of having all the no-hope candidates taken off the ballot after they lose in the primaries. But in districts that are very liberal or very conservative, where the "other" party has no real chance, we'll instead have the opportunity to see two Democrats on the final ballot, perhaps one moderate and one more liberal. Or two Republicans, one moderate and one more conservative. In other words, the two largest groups in each district will have the opportunity to fight it out in the general election for who will represent that district, instead of having the election artificially forced into Democrat vs. Republican lines.

Vote for this. It's as close as you can get to an all-around win in politics. It doesn't favor either party; instead, it improves the voting system to make it more representative and more democratic in the true meaning of the term. It makes it more likely that the representative elected will be close to the prevailing opinion of the district in which they're elected. The only people who can possibly gain from this proposition failing are the moribund leadership of the two big parties, who enjoy and manipulate the current system and who are afraid of possibly seeing final election ballots between a Democrat and a Green or a Republican and a Tea Party candidate, because they want elections to be forced into the Democrat vs. Republican dichotomy instead of reflecting the actual splits within the district.

If you want electoral reform, vote for this proposition. It's the best and most practical voting reform we're likely to ever see on the ballot.

Proposition 15: YES. I'm in general very skeptical of public funding of elections in the United States, mostly because any voluntary system will not effectively remove lobbyist money from elections. As soon as there's enough money at stake, the candidate will just opt out of the system.

However, I think that this proposition might have some minor positive effects in some situations, particularly involving smaller races, and I think it's an experiment we have to continue to try. I also see no effective drawback. The public funding is coming entirely from new taxes on lobbyists, and I'm happy to see them pay way, way more than the taxes levied by this proposition. The endorsements are also impressive, from the AARP to the League of Women Voters, and the arguments against the proposition printed in the voter information guide are basically lies.

Proposition 16: NO. You're kidding me, right? It's been a while since I've seen such a blatant attempt by a corporation to pass a law designed to limit the competition they have to face. What this proposition basically says is that local communities aren't allowed to switch away from PG&E to a less stupid, less mis-managed, and less corrupt way of handling power generation. As a former PG&E customer and a happy customer of exactly the sort of municipal utility that this proposition would make considerably more difficult, fuck PG&E. Vote no.

Proposition 17: NO. Because of course what we need in the middle of a recession is another way to screw over poor people.

These laws are either written by people who are outright evil, or they're written by people who have never known anyone who struggled to make ends meet in their life. I have a friend who had to drop auto insurance for financial reasons (and then struggle to get to work without driving) until he could save enough money to afford the premium. Proposition 17 would have made that premium even higher because there was a period when he couldn't afford it. This is bullshit. The mild decline that some of us may receive in insurance rates isn't worth the blatant unfairness.

Statewide office:

I'm registered decline-to-state, so I get a non-partisan ballot, which may be substantially different than what other people see. (Vote for Proposition 14!) Only listing primaries where there's some hope of a contested race.

Lieutenant Governor: Gavin Newsom. He's not someone I particularly like at a personal level (I think he's a publicity-seeking grandstander), but he's still about the most progressive person who has any chance of getting elected to state-wide office, and I'm happy to support that.

Attorney General: Kamala Harris. My primary goal in voting for attorney general is to try to find someone who's not "tough on crime" and instead understands that crime is a harder problem than locking people up. Harris seems like the best of a fairly uninspiring lot, among the candidates who look likely to win. One can certainly do worse than a black woman who grew up in Oakland when looking for someone who understands the complexity of crime problems.

Insurance Commissioner: Dave Jones. Both candidates in the primary look solid. I'll go with the one with the Chronicle and Mercury News endorsements.

Local offices:

State Assembly (District 21): Josh Becker. Rich Gordon is getting the general endorsements because he has more practical experience, but given how messed up state government is right now, I'd rather elect someone a bit different.

Judge of the Superior Court (Office 7): Thomas Spielbauer. As previously mentioned here, I lean towards voting against all prosecutors for judges. I'm even more comfortable with that decision here, based on the candidate statements. Spielbauer sounds like exactly ths sort of judge we could use more of: concerned with fairness, concerned with citizen rights, and not inclined to defer to prosecutors.

Judge of the Superior Court (Office 11): Vanessa A. Zecher. A prosecutor versus a former district attorney. Eh. Voting for the one who isn't currently a prosecutor.

Judge of the Superior Court (Office 11): Bob Camors. Voting for the non-prosecutor and the person who states in their position statement that they want rehabilitiation for non-violent drug offenders.

2010-05-30: Back home

I spent the last week at the AFS and Kerberos Best Practices Workshop, this year held in Urbana-Champaign at the University of Illinois. It was a great venue for the conference and very energizing to spend a week talking with people and getting to concentrate only on AFS. In between presentations, I got a ton of AFS work done, particularly on documentation. A lot is going on in the AFS world right now, with development happening as fast as I think it ever has in AFS's development.

The downside is that I spent all of last week being socially "on," pretty much constantly interacting with people, so I'm completely exhausted. It's great fun, but I always pay the price for it later. Thankfully, I've had this weekend to relax. Tomorrow, I'm meeting up with friends for the afternoon, but I have the holiday morning to myself. Then it's back to work, but with new time management techniques to apply that I'm feeling excited about (from Do It Tomorrow — review forthcoming).

A couple of new books came in while I was gone:

Algis Budrys — Benchmarks (non-fiction)
Pamela Dean — The Whim of the Dragon (sff)

I finished Wake by Robert Sawyer on the plane and am more than halfway through Ilium. I still need to get a copy of Julien Comstock to get the last Hugo nominee, but I think I'm going to wait until I can put the new Jacqueline Carey novel in the same order.

Reading is one thing that's worked very well so far this year, particularly in the past month. My vacation at the beginning of May got me back into the rhythm of it, and I'm really enjoying the additional inflow of creativity and things to think about. It's definitely worth it to make time for reading nearly every day.

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