30 July 2016

Origin of the farthingale

Two extremely corpulent ladies, who were much incommoded by their embonpoint, had caused to be made for them under petticoats mounted on hoops, which they only wore in the privacy of their own apartments. One summer evening, however, they were tempted to take a stroll in the Tuilerics so accoutred. In order to avoid the remarks of the mob of footmen at the gates, they entered by the orangery, but lords and ladies are not less curious than their lacqueys. As soon as the pair appeared they were surrounded. The numbers rapidly increased ; they had barely time to retreat behind a bench, and but for the protection of a musketeer they would have been smothered or crushed to death by the pressure of the crowd. The poor women reached home more dead than alive, believing they had caused a great scandal. Far from that, they had set the fashion to the Court as well as the city.

—from A Cyclopaedia of Costume or Dictionary of Dress, Including Notices of Contemporaneous Fashions on the Continent ; and A General Chronological History of the Costumes of the principal Countries of Europe from the Commencement of the Christian Era to the Accession of George the Third by James Robinson Planché, Esq.

Either that (says the book), or it came from England; or maybe Germany. Or the theatre. Nobody really knows.

13 July 2016


Tell me, O muse, of the slightly bored but super-competent middle-aged pharmacist, who remembers three or four important things to tell every wanderer who comes by. Many lives she saves, among those who must sail between the dread monsters Disease and Treatment in high seas—and never knows it.

30 May 2016

A bitrot anecdote

The consequences of bitrot are not contained in the domain of the system administrator. Here’s Mario Carneiro on the state of a formal, computer-checkable proof of a mathematical theorem:

I was blown away when I discovered that Isabelle’s proof of the prime number theorem was done in Isabelle2005, and it was not upkept along with the AFP (archive of formal proofs). Moreover, apparently not even the creators know how to run Isabelle2005 anymore, and everything has changed since then so it’s not backward compatible by any stretch. Basically, the proof is lost at this point, and they are more likely to formalize an entirely different proof than upgrade the one they already have.

Meanwhile prose proofs dating back to the 1800s are still good. Though time will presumably destroy those too, if they are not “upkept”. Languages evolve and go extinct. Books are destroyed.

10 May 2016


I have subscribed to a daily print newspaper.

I really enjoy a good paper, but the one I subscribed to is not a good paper. It’s owned by Gannett. A lot of the content is exactly what’s in USA Today. Section B of my paper is, as far as I can tell, USA Today’s section A verbatim. And local coverage is thin. Sometimes the front page has 12 column-inches of news on it. A few stock photos and two-inch headlines holding up not so many words.

I knew all this going in. It’s why I never subscribed before.

I subscribed for three reasons.

  1. The handful of reporters left in that newsroom are vital civic infrastructure. The world is going to get a lot darker when they’re gone, and we’ll all wonder why.

  2. Not scowling at newsprint was a major gap in my curmudgeonly persona.

  3. I need a better news source.

We are going to have to have a little talk about that last thing. Shut up, you knew this was coming. Pull up a chair.

I know you. You get most of your news from Twitter and Facebook. (Or maybe you’re one of those assholes that bragged to me at a party that you get all your news from The Daily Show. Well, congratulations. But your news comes in headlines, followed by applause or boos, followed by sketch comedy, just like Twitter. It doesn’t get any shallower and you’re no better than anyone else.)

Oh, you also listen to This American Life? Gold star.

So how’s it going?

Even the worst newspaper is pretty great compared to the Internet. The ads are less intrusive. Even the wrap-around ad that I have to physically tear off the front page before I can read my paper is less intrusive than the crap people have to endure or physically dismiss online. (Yeah, I know, you use an ad blocker, so you are blissfully unaware of this.)

When the Internet first came along, we were all pretty excited about getting out from under the filters that the media imposed on us. Instead, our friends and the people we admire would be our filters. Well, we’ve discovered something interesting about ourselves. The filter we create for ourselves is dramatically worse. We never have any real idea what’s going on. We read more trash. We read more pop culture fluff. We have invented whole new genres of trash and pop culture fluff. We’re making ourselves worse.

Reading a newspaper is frustrating and enlightening and stupid and entertaining and anti-entertaining. The paper is chock full of content that’s not for me. ...And maybe that’s what’s so good about it. The people creating the content are not hostile toward me; they just don’t know I’m here. It’s relaxing.


There was a time not so long ago when software had a shelf life of five or ten years, easy.

Of course there was a time before that when software was written for very specific machines, like an Atari 2600, and those programs still run today on those very specific machines. Their shelf life is unlimited. But I’m talking about the PC era, when there were constantly new machines and new OS versions being released, and yet old software would still run on the newer stuff for years and years.

That time is over. Ubiquitous internet access is the culprit. We’re on a treadmill now.

Say you use a program called Buggy and Buggy uses OpenSSL. If OpenSSL releases a critical patch, nobody is going to wait to see what the Buggy team thinks about the new version. The old OpenSSL library is going to be deleted off your computer with prejudice, and the new one dropped in its place. Buggy will immediately start using this new OpenSSL version it was never tested with (and never will be -- Buggy’s maintainers are too busy testing their current codebase). The longer this goes on, the greater the difference between the environment on your computer and any environment in which Buggy could possibly have been tested by its maintainers. Eventually, something breaks.

A security-sensitive library like OpenSSL may sound like a special case, but it’s not. For one thing, you don’t know which software on your computer is security sensitive. But also, you’re going to get updates that fix other (non-security) bugs. You probably want those fixes; you definitely want the security fixes. And given that, the optimum strategy is to keep updating everything. As long as all your software stays on the treadmill, you’re OK.

But unmaintained software now rots. It happens fast. We’re not talking about this. I don’t know why.

24 February 2016

Former NSA director warns against back doors

The headline this Monday was: “Former director of NSA backs Apple on iPhone ‘back doors’”.

“Look, I used to run the NSA, OK?” Hayden says. “Please, please, Lord, put back doors in, because ... that back door will make it easier for me to do what I want to do. ...

“But when you step back and look at the whole question of American security and safety writ large, we are a safer, more secure nation without back doors.”

I have to give Michael Hayden credit for changing his mind on this and for speaking up about it, but it is a little late. The right time to “step back and look at the whole question of American security and safety writ large” is when you are in fact the director of the National Security Agency.

The NSA is the agency charged with protecting U.S. information systems against foreign attack. Sure, that mandate is less sexy than NSA’s sigint mission, but it’s even more important in practice. We are vulnerable. And it’s great that signals intelligence and information security are under the same agency, since there are tradeoffs to consider... except that nobody is considering them. The head of the National Security Agency didn’t see security as any part of his job.

Apparently, he thought he had a sigint job. But really I suspect he thought he had a political job, working for the President.

That's a shame. If the current director of the NSA happens to be reading this: please do your country a service and take a good hard look at your job description. Or better yet, a good hard look in the mirror. Act like an adult. Do the job that needs doing.