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.