Google social search brouhaha
January 18th, 2012 by ravi

A few days ago Google announced a change to Search, awkwardly named (as is their wont) Google Plus your World, and the Google first responders have responded with suitable outrage (as is their wont). For a good rundown of all the noise read this TPM post. “Google just broke it’s search engine” – that’s Farhad Manjoo on Slate. The TPM guy, Carl Franzen, went with the more subtle “Google Search is Dead“.

The rub? Google has started displaying results from your social network as part of its search results. That’s the “your world” part of Google Plus Your World (henceforth G+YW). It’s the Plus part though that has tech bloggers in a huff. In particular, the fact that your social world that Google Search reports from happens to comprise of one social network: Google’s own Google Plus.

Hence the outrage: Google is disingenuously shutting Facebook and Twitter (among others) out of search results using this new “feature”.

But are they? It would help to separate the issues here.

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No RIP for RIM
January 17th, 2012 by ravi

Everyone and his dog has now opined on how RIM – maker of Blackberry mobile phones, once standard accessory with power suits – can reverse its current death march. Abandon the quaint co-CEO setup. Run Windows Phone OS. So on. The suggestions are plenty. And now there is talk of acquisition.

Better, I think, Michael Dell’s advice to Apple: return the cash to shareholders (RIM was recently trading below its book value!), give employees a good severance package (that’s me, not Dell), and let it sink to rest for it was never meant to float. For RIM was built on two premises, both false.

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You cannot fork a child
January 15th, 2012 by ravi

I am terrible at metaphors but I am going to ignore that and plough ahead with the one implied in the title of this post, and equate a software product to a baby (highly original, I know). The occasion is a post by Adam Martin lamenting that GitHub is killing Open Source. How? Like this:

This is a gross generalization – and not every project that loses its Author will get this problem – but I’ve encountered more and more “dead” projects on GitHub over the course of 2011.

Of course … the way GitHub is designed, those projects do not appear to be dead. Often they appear to be very much “alive” – there’s tonnes of activity.

But all that activity is going on in radically different and massively incompatible forks. It’s wasted time and energy, it’s programmers fixing the same bugs – multiple times – because they are NOT collaborating any more.

In the case I cited at the start, 100-plus developers have (probably) re-written the same fixes for the same problems.

The problem is very real. And urgent. However, the blame in my view does not lie with GitHub. That they provide, nay encourage forking, and make it difficult to transfer ownership (if I understand Adam correctly) no doubt exacerbates the problem. But the real issue is the frontiersman approach to development, the idea that each one duplicates (forks) the codebase in order to implement a change, postponing the pain of collaboration i.e., merging. Git (before GitHub) merely formalises this model under the auspicies of DVCS.

To emphasise my point, the real problem is not that Git or GitHub enables entropy or divergence. The real problem is not technical, but one of what is central to the effort. Consider Eric Raymond’s Cathedral and Bazaar metaphor in a very different sense. A Bazaar has no central object. It exists, often temporarily, for disparate individuals to assemble briefly to exchange goods and then go their separate ways. In contrast, a cathedral has a central focus. God, if you will (or spirituality, redemption, whatever your religion of choice prescribes). Unlike a bazaar which exists to facilitate free but undirected exchange, the very object of a cathedral (arguably) is to bring people together to a common goal or action.

Or, if you prefer, there is the African maxim made popular by Hillary Clinton: it takes a village to raise a child. The emphasis of the activity is the child and it’s rearing. And you cannot fork a child.

Is Internet access a human right?
January 5th, 2012 by ravi

Op-Ed by Vint Cerf in the New York Times / International Herald:

Internet Access Is Not a Human Right

[T]echnology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

A carefully argued piece.

Vi and Emacs
January 4th, 2012 by ravi

If you are a Unix fossil like me then you no doubt have a religious position on the greatest editor of all time. Either your mind is wired the right way and you appreciate the beauty of Vi or you were adopted early on by a band of baboons and prefer the finger gymnastics of Emacs :-).

The Register has an interview with Bill Joy (pretty much the father of modern computing, in my opinion) in which he talks about the history of Vi, where he says:

The people doing Emacs were sitting in labs at MIT with what were essentially fibre-channel links to the host, in contemporary terms. They were working on a PDP-10, which was a huge machine by comparison, with infinitely fast screens.

So they could have funny commands with the screen shimmering and all that, and meanwhile, I’m sitting at home in sort of World War II surplus housing at Berkeley with a modem and a terminal that can just barely get the cursor off the bottom line.

Joy goes on to say “People don’t know that vi was written for a world that doesn’t exist anymore“, which will no doubt serve as ammunition for the Emacs crowd! I think however that what might be an anachronism in one sense might in other important senses be pertinent (and even perhaps remedial) to contemporary needs and ailments.

I don’t have to look far for examples. Vi and Emacs are in typical use editors for programmers. Consider recent developments in text editing. The preference these days runs against complex multi-function tools with a zillion knobs, bells and whistles, to “distraction free” editors and simple styling methods such as Markdown.

Emacs is for lovers of complexity and with the mental (and at times physical) resources to support that complexity. Vi is for the rest of us who manage complexity by compartmentalising actions to aid concentration.

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