The Ranting Hacker

Rants, opinions, and you might occasionally find some useful information sneaks in.

On Writing for Money

I was recently reading a blog post[1] by a friend on twitter, which closed with the words, “No one makes money from writing, fool!” which got me thinking. Tom’s right, of course, it’s clear all around us – although I think your average long-form journalist might punch the first fiction writer who complains in her presence.

I often see writers lamenting this fact, or one very similar. Usually accompanied by much hand-wringing, complaints about “kids these days,” and exasperation that the author’s generation is the last of the true readers. That today’s youth have been lobotomised, their supposed “attention span” ruined by (depending on which decade) radio / comic books / television / video games / the internet; as a group both victims of, and yet clearly inferior to, the author and her peers.

Others jump up and down and claim that somehow “piracy” is responsible. That supply and demand for the written word is perfectly healthy, and simply being subverted by those ne’er-do-wells at The Pirate Bay.

These may indeed be contributing factors to the obviously increasing difficulty involved in making a living as a writer, although I’d be very surprised. I think the underlying cause is simpler, more fundamental.

As a reader, novelty is a big part of what I’m paying for. There are some books I’ll return to in my life but as a generalistion, a book to a reader is like a cup of coffee. Once I’ve read one and drunk the other, I’ve used them up. To the market though, a book is nothing like a cup of coffee: while it need be brewed but once, it can quench the newness-thirst of a thousand readers simultaneously, and their children’s too. The supply of material to read, particularly in fiction, is growing constantly; almost everything published in the last 40 years is still around, with more old content being made easily available on Kindle / iBooks / isohunt every day.

Authors retire or simply die at the same rate as readers, comparative rates of alcoholism notwithstanding- but they leave behind their work. As well as telling no tales, dead men buy no books.

In the short term, as the supply further outstrips demand, and the advertising model currently supporting a lot of non-fiction continues to falter, there will be less money to go around. There will be fewer full-time writers, more part-time writers, and all making less money at it. In theory, the best writers will be the ones who make it through. Good for those of us who like to read – and who do something else for a living. We can hope for all our sakes that the best writers will be the ones to see it through, and the quality of new material goes up. This should also drive the comparative attractiveness of a lot of older material down.

There will also be a lot of complaining on the internet.

In the medium term, we’ll eventually reach an equilibrium where the number of people writing for a living will be in balance with the the rate at which older material becomes too out-of-date to be relevant to contemporary audiences.

You’ll find that the Stephen Kings, Dan Browns, and Tom Clancys of the world will do fine. While their writing obviously meets a certain standard of quality, what they’re really selling is a) celebrity, and b) tribal membership.

I sympathise with those who would be professional writers, their only mistake being born in the tail of the twentieth century. Hopefully in the long term, we’ll all of us one day live in the world of Keynes’s dreams, where we don’t have to work 40 hours a week to keep our families safe, fed, warm and dry. That’s a world in which those born to it can write whatever they please, and take the time to do it as well as they possibly can.

There’ll also be a lot more time for reading.

[1: ] – apologies for stupid footnote link, when I try to put a link into WordPress’s stupid editing interface it just closes my post editor. I choose to blame PHP.

Obit Neil Armstrong

Obit Neil Armstrong

Godspeed Mr Armstrong.

On Guns

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a mate of mine: podcasting legend, cigar connoisseur and all round nice guy Cameron Reilly for the No Illusions podcast. I’d like to say that I was quoted out of context, unfairly edited, or something along those lines- but Cam’s not that kind of guy, and I really am that much of a rambler. If we were opposing politicians, you’d all be voting for Cam, and I wouldn’t blame you. Torn between trying to think before I speak, and my knowledge of Cameron’s honest editing style in which he likes to leave in all the authentic pauses, mistakes and stammers, I tend to drift between stream-of-consciousness and politician-worthy pauses like I’m trying not to be tricked into saying what I think. Which is a shame, because I am trying to say what I think. This can take a while when dealing with such a touchy subject as gun ownership. And a touchy subject it is, dealing as it does with uncomfortable subjects such as the state’s power over individuals, man’s freedom of self determination and self preservation, and even the value of a human life. I’d like to elaborate on my position here a little, in order to clarify why I believe in private gun ownership. I’m going to talk more about my own position than attempt to rebut Cameron’s, because frankly doing that via the premeditated and composed medium of the written word seems cowardly to me, and doesn’t give him his due.

Nor am I going to attempt to claim that reducing the number of guns won’t reduce gun deaths, as there’s nowhere near the evidence required to make that case one way or another. Anybody who’s done any sort of study of statistics should acknowledge this fact. In the old chestnut “lies, damned lies, and statistics” is more than a grain of truth.

I believe that “defending your castle against a home invader” is a valid reason to own a gun. If I appear to waver in that opinion in the podcast, it is because that’s not the reason I would want to own a gun. I want to own a gun for sport shooting, and as the ultimate, and frankly only reliable insurance against civil unrest, be it local or general, political, environmental, or economic. I don’t believe these events are especially likely, but when it comes to value for money, a firearm is probably the best investment one could have made, should it come to pass. This is why I would happily keep my hypothetical weapons disassembled and locked up. Those who are worried about individual invaders should be free to carry their weapon while on their own property, where it is safely under watch at all times. This may seem ridiculous to you and I, but a lot of people do it in the US in locales requiring un-carried weapons to be thoroughly secured.

If we say that cultural differences between the United States and the more heavily armed European countries account for the vast gap in firearm deaths, then I don’t believe we can in good conscience go on to say that this justifies disarming the populace. I must leave the question begging that this is in fact the case, as I have neither the data nor the training to answer it. It does show that it’s a leap to say that one thing causes the other, and that it could benefit mankind a great deal to investigate what cultural differences there might be that cause the discrepancy, if only to integrate that part of European culture into our own.

I certainly won’t bother addressing people who have and will project onto me the labels and imagined beliefs of American partisanship simply because I believe in private gun ownership. The saying “don’t draw your weapon unless you plan to use it” is not an encouragement to do violence, just the opposite. It is an admonishment not to menace your fellow man with a weapon that could kill him due to accident or poor judgement. A drawn weapon is no longer a deterrent against would-be assailants, but a terrifying, rapidly escalating and very bad situation.

I will address one point specifically though; when I say “most of the gun crimes are criminals killing criminals”, I do not mean to say also “therefore they do not matter.” To imply that I do and then compare the statement to saying “it’s just blacks killing blacks” is disingenuous to say the least. I know Cam, and I don’t think he’s trying to say that I mean “to hell with the blacks” (or bikies), but that is how it could be taken by his listeners, so I want to address it. What I should have said is that most of these deaths are “criminals killing people.” It’s not that these deaths therefore don’t matter, it’s that the way to address this problem isn’t by taking away guns, it’s by taking away criminals. Some people think that should be achieved with harsher sentencing and zero tolerance, I think the answer is to stop prohibition and reduce inequality. Either way, the solution to the deaths is to reduce the number of criminals, rather than citizens’ access to the tools these criminals use. Think of it as prevention versus treatment.

The main thrust of my position is that preservation of liberty must be weighed more heavily against the goals of personal safety on the scales of legislation. True liberty being the freedom to act and accept the consequences of your actions. An example most of us can agree on would be freedom to speak, and risk being sued for libel, is more important than the freedom from libellous allegations. The freedom to drive a car is more important than absolute freedom from being killed as a pedestrian crossing the road. You may believe that this is because “cars have other uses besides killing people”, but this is irrelevant. The dead pedestrian gained no value from the car. As a thought exercise, would you be happy with guns existing only in completely safe sporting arenas, with a guarantee no lives could be lost? To say that a gun’s only purpose is to kill people is no different than saying the purpose of the automobile is to turn hydrocarbons into work. Leaving aside sporting applications, which is a perfectly valid reason to own a gun whether you personally believe it worth the societal risk or not, the potential to kill people is simply the means by which a gun achieves its purpose. It is as a deterrent and, yes, a last line of defence against the violence of others. No sensible gun owner would say on his deathbed “if only I’d had a chance to shoot somebody- this gun has given me no value!” Can the same be said of any other tool, besides insurance?

Whether the threat of violence from third parties is reduced or not, nobody will argue that it will disappear completely with the prohibition of legal firearms. I say that we should therefore strive to retain for the honest citizen that deterrence and final freedom to take the ultimate action in defence of his only true property: his life and the sovereignty of his body.

Americans are fond of the saying “freedom isn’t free”. But the currency in which liberty is paid for is not the blood of young men spilled on the shores of oil-rich nations. It is danger, and the vigilance required to manage that danger. We will never have true safety, and the value of liberty is incalculable- we must not sell it to the state for fear of our fellow man, nor of the machines we have created.

3d Dreaming

We all know the story of printrbot; it was a Kickstarter smash, taking in a huge amount of money before the end of the campaign. This of course blew out the expecting shipping time, but it’s to be expected and it certainly didn’t bother most of us too much. It was  amazing to get on the RepRap train without having to cough up over a thousand bucks for MakerBot.

Despite never receiving any sort of shipping notification, my printrbot arrived yesterday. Now I can tell you it was a long day at work, knowing I finally had at least the makings of a 3d printer sitting in a box on my desk just waiting for quittin’ time! When I got home I unpacked everything, and after some googling (the printrbot web page isn’t much help) found some youtube videos detailing the assembly procedure, and jumped in.

I didn’t get far.

Two of the six threaded rods required for the kit had completely bad threads at one end where they were cut, where the nuts got irreparably jammed. Two more of the rods had some kinks in the threads, but some macgyvering with pvc tubing and a couple of pairs of pliers managed to brute-force the nuts over the bad spots. So I managed to get through the first two (of sixteen) videos with a lot of cursing and some imagination.

Then came video number three. The helpful narrator shows you what he calls the “y belt guide” that holds two bearings, and mentions that “it’s a pretty tight fit”. Such a tight fit that he doesn’t show the assembly, simply brings out one he’s prepared earlier, like so many TV chefs. He’s not fucking kidding. Either the printing tolerances are *really* low, or that part needs a serious re-design, mine never stood a chance of fitting the bearings. So I bevelled the edge of the post a little with a knife, and figured a good whack could get the bearing on once it’s lined up. Nope. Eventually, the part simply snapped off rather than fit the bearing, and I had to melt out the remainder with a screwdriver heated up in a flame.

Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t be too big a disaster, you could simply order a replacement part. Except for the fact that the parts are all listed as out of stock. Oh, and they won’t ship anything ordered through the store outside of the US. International shipping is “soon”. So, with the guys behind printrbot making it clear they’re too busy to answer emails, I’m basically screwed for the time being. I only know of one fellow in my network who already has a 3d printer (a MakerBot), and his is currently out of action as well. I’m out $550, and I’ve got a bunch of expensive spare parts I’ve gotta pack up order to get them into off the floor in my study and into a cupboard.

For me at least, the 3d dream is still quite a way off.

The path to hacker Nirvana

You’ve probably never heard of the Viewpoints Research Institute. Try not to pay attention to the aesthetics of their website and logo, and have a look at the first name on the left: Alan Kay is kind of a big deal, and not in the Ron Burgundy sense of things. If you write code for a living, you owe him big. And have a look at the board of advisers, while you’re at it. They’re probably doing some important shit.

If you’re remotely interested in the science of programming, the fundamental truths as it were, then you need to check out their work. Spend some time on the web site, read about “Foundations Of New Computing”, COLA, and OMeta. It’s important stuff.

On iPad app pricing

In the beginning, there was Newton. Then Steve said, “let there be iPhone” and there was. Hackers saw iPhone, and it was good. The hackers contrived to work their subtle magicks upon it, but Steve said unto them, “Nay! Cast not your spells upon mine chased device! Seek thee wisdom in the browser, it shall be thy path to iPhone.”

Time passed as time does.

Deep within his bosom, the Steve’s heart softened. And lo, he welcomed the Hackers unto iPhone. Under the watchful eyes of the Lords of the House of Approval, the Hackers did work their magicks and create wares for purchase in the iPhone bazaar.

Much success did the Hackers reap! So much in fact, that more Hackers from far away lands sought their passage to Steve’s land, and the promise of riches to be sought in the iPhone bazaar. The pull was felt far and wide, bringing Hackers of all skill levels, from all the guilds, and thieves too. All did seek their path to fortune, be it hard work, talent, artistry, or deception.

The Hackers foresaw ruin in this, as they do not abide competition. What value a priesthood when the common man may read publicly from the book of Ritchie? Many Hackers took to offering the product of their labours in return for the smallest coin of the land and they prospered, yet within them bitterness did ferment.

Steve was not seen, and the people feared he had taken abed with deathly sickness. Many whispered rumours of him crossing yonder into the ProDOS, and pondered the future of the land.

Time passed as time does.

After countless moons had crossed the night sky, their light seen only in Aluminium reflection, Steve came once more from the mount, in his craw a tablet.

The hackers did celebrate! Many set forth to repackage their wares, set upon charging twice and twice more the coin to which their customers had become accustomed, invoking the lesser god “Eitch-Dee” in response to their cries.

The Customers were not amused.

Food Diary apps – thoughts and ideas

It’s no secret I’m a fat bastard, and frankly, so is everybody else. I’ve tried a bunch of “food diary” products, and they all leave a *lot* to be desired, so I’m working on my own, which will initially be an iPhone / iPad application, but I intend to port it to AIR once I’m happy with the (more important) mobile experience. My current ideals are:

  • Dead-fucking-easy to get data into quickly at first, for refinement later.
  • Something to help you guess how many calories are in that shit you just ate coz you’re out having dinner with your mates
  • Something to make it dead easy to track just how many calories are in that night on the piss. With nice big drunk-friendly buttons :)
  • Completely non-scientific and simple daily excercise recording, ie “none” / “some” / “heaps” / “I’m fuckin dead”

If you’ve got any ideas, suggestions, gripes, based on these goals or your own experience with features you love or dearly wish for in existing apps for this sort of thing, please rant away in the comments.