Explaining Race Conditions to Non Programmers

Explaining Race Conditions to Non Programmers

A few weeks ago, I was down in Columbus at a coffee shop. This place happened to have a bathroom which needed a key to use. I went to the counter to ask for the key because mother nature called, but the key was nowhere to be found. Somebody was already in the bathroom and had the key with them.

No problem, I stood outside the bathroom door and soon enough, a gentleman appeared. In a knowing manner, he offered me the key. In moment of self admiration for my wit, I declined the key. I grabbed the door before it shut. We both smiled, both knowing that I was fine getting in the bathroom without the key.

I felt proud of my efficiency. I didn’t need to hold up use of the key. As a sat down – “things were put into motion which could not be undone” as Gandolf would say. But, it was only then that I realized this bathroom didn’t have stalls. I was exposed.

This was a race condition waiting to happen….

At any minute, somebody could walk in and I was trapped. The key was now happily laying on counter with the Baristas. Any unknowing customer could grab key and head toward the bathroom.

This had all the making of a classic race condition in programming – self admiring wit, gloating thoughts of efficiency, and a lack of foresight.

So, the next time you use a public bathroom which needs a key, remember to take the key. For those of you that do program, remember to do proper file locking, or lock management in a distributed system.

Remember the bathroom rule!!!

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Netflix – Technology Wizards or Good Content?

I love the content they produce like Orange is the New Black, Narcos, Stranger Things, and House of Cards. But, remember back to before Netflix produced this content? They were struggling with subscribers, under attack from cable companies, and their future looked very, very uncertain. So, how did they turn the ship around?

They started producing their own content. And, let’s be clear – software engineering at Netflix did not make that decision. This is a quintessential “business decision.” This was a decision to create value for their market – people who watch content through the Internet. They were a content distributor and they decided to enter an adjacent market – content creation.

Yet, time and time again Netflix is referenced as some kind of technology wizards, contributing the OSS Stack, moving to the cloud for almost everything, hiring only the best and the brightest.

They are held in high regard for “disrupting” the cable industry – but, for the wrong reasons. It’s not their technology that is their differentiated value proposition to the market. It is their cunning move to create content akin to HBO. At the same time, this places them in a stronger position to negotiate better contracts for their distribution business.

I would argue that they have succeeded, not because of their technology, but despite it. Their end user experience is rather lacking, yet they keep attracting and retaining subscribers. Here’s a few examples.

1. They finally, just recently added the ability to download movies and watch them offline. Even now, not all content can be downloaded, even some they produced, which makes no sense to me. Google Play and Amazon Prime have had this since almost the beginning of their service, yet nobody hails them as some great innovators.

2. It takes forever when you rewind or fast-forward. Again, Google Play and Amazon Prime both have smoother, better experiences.

3. Subtitles get blocked when the video is paused. Something thst is just really annoying when the reason that you paused it is so that you can read it slower.

So, the next time you hear somebody call Netflix a technology company, just quote their own CEO:

We spend money more like a media company than a tech company

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Intrinsic Value of Free Software?

Intrinsic Value of Free Software?

I recently read an article by Benjamin Mako Hill called When Free Software Isn’t Better. This article addresses the fundamental argument of importance, between the Open Source engineering paradigms and political Software Freedom. For an outsider, this argument can read more

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Allocation and Consequence

Pigeon FeathersThis weekend, I found the consequences of a hawk catching a pigeon in my driveway. It basically looked as though a grenade had blown it to pieces.  There were about a hundred and fifty feathers spread all over, strangely, there was not much red in the picture. This led me to a few thoughts on economics.

Also, this weekend, a couple of friends of mine, were having an extremely esoteric argument about version control systems. This is all the rage in programming right now.

It is wonderful that we have enough free time to discuss these obscure topics, but it is also one of the primary reasons that economists are led to believe that they are the only ones thinking about the “important” or “real” problems.

Seeing the pigeon, bothered me in a strange way, perhaps that I am not thinking about the important problems enough. Second, it’s body was completely annihilated, it is rare that we humans are left like that. Even if we die from a car accident or cancer, our bodies are usually left in tact for a funeral and burial. Humans like to control this process. To leave another human to be eaten by an animal is an insult to our pride. We are obsessed with the process.

The free spirited mind spends so much time thinking and arguing about the minutia, but in the end success or failure is binary, life or death. It is similar to how kittens play, while adults hunt and defend.

Your business and/or professional model must work or you will die. You can struggle all you want and still, indeed, fail. There is nothing wrong with incorporating new thoughts and techniques into your hunt, but do not place too much time and energy into fine tuning means to an end, while loosing sight of the end. In fact, we all fail eventually!

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Microsoft’s Mojo

Just read this article and, I hate to admit it; I really, really hate to admit it. I think Microsoft is right on with this one and it scares me. I see so many people looking at new technology in this down economy and that is helping Redhat because MS Server with SQL Server is about 5K/year. Compared to about 1K/year for RHEL5/MySQL, it looks pretty good. But if your cloud computing offers are about the same price, now you have competition and since Microsoft holds the home court advantage, this is bad.  People love the mushy familiarity of Windows, and if I they can buy it at 12 cents/hour, that is a pretty attractive offer.

Steve Ballmer is still an idiot though.

Update: Technically Linux on Amazon is a bit cheaper at .10 cents/hour, and Microsofts solution is a bit more expensive on storage too at 15 cents/gigabyte

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Has Web 2.0 had a Corrosive Effect on Democracy?

About two months ago, I watched a documentary on PBS entitled The Truth According to Wikipedia. As the title suggests, the film focuses on Wikipedia. But it’s really an exploration of how the Internet has enabled worldwide collaborative ventures, and how this has affected the way the world gathers, assembles, shares, uses, and discusses information. The creators were able to present in a clear, informative manner (a rarity for issues-based documentaries, in my experience) the reasoning of both proponents and critics of Wikipedia-style approaches to online media.

One of the critics featured in the film is Andrew Keen, founder of the defunct website, audiocafe.com. During the 90’s and early 2000’s, Keen was a strong proponent of Internet ideals, such as universal access to digital content, but more recently has developed a profound distaste for all things Web 2.0. In the past few years, he has gone on the offensive, arguing that the core values of the New Internet – decentralization, participation, and user-generation of content – have had an increasingly corrosive effect on our economy, politics, and culture. Consider the following excerpt from the film, where Keen addresses an audience of Web 2.0 architects and enthusiasts who believe that their,

‘MyWorld’ … will lead to ‘more democracy, more equality, and more freedom.’ Now I [i.e. Keen] strongly disagree; that’s the essence of my polemic. I argue ‘me’ – that this personalization of media, personalization of culture, the fragmentation of society, indeed, into ‘me,’ into everything becoming increasingly more personalized, is resulting in reality in less democracy, less equality, and less freedom. (The Truth According to Wikipedia, @ circa 12:15 – 13:01)

A bold thesis, to be sure. One that challenged me to evaluate my own intuitions on this issue and intrigued me enough to read Keen’s book on the subject, The Cult of the Amateur. I wanted to see how strong his argument was in support of his view. It essentially boiled down to this:

1. In order for our culture to survive. society needs “gatekeepers,” individuals whose judgments and abilities to perform certain duties can be trusted.

2. Experts and professionals are the gatekeepers of society.

3. But Web 2.0 principles destroy expertise and professionalism, since they require that one extol the anonymous amateur, elevating amateur judgment and performance to a level equal with and sometimes even superior to that of the expert or professional.

4. Therefore, Web 2.0 principles are a threat to the survival of our culture.

Keen spends virtually no time arguing for (1) and (2), instead opting to make the case for (3). He cites statistics about how, since the mid-90’s, profits have increasingly fallen in professional journalism and the music and film industries; he highlights cases where misinformation spread via the Internet has had damaging effects on people’s personal and professional lives; and he points to trends in marketing that increasingly blur the line between advertisement and content.  According to Keen, this evidence not only shows that blogs, social networking cites, and peer-to-peer file sharing technologies are responsible for lost revenue in journalism and the entertainment industry, effectively ruining the careers of media professionals the world over, it shows that amateurs and advertisers are taking over their roles and filling the Web with untrustworthy, low-quality content.

Of course, Keen’s own interpretation of this evidence is questionable: one could maintain that professional journalism and the music and movie industries are seeing reduced profits because they employ a legacy business model ill-equipped for the digital age, and one could dig in one’s heels and cite contrary evidence regarding the amount and quality of trustworthy content on the Internet. But debating the fine points about how Keen’s evidence should be interpreted is really a moot point. His analysis suffers from a more basic problem insofar as he has, at best, shown only that increased untrustworthiness of Internet content and decreased revenue in professional journalism has coincided with the implementation of Web 2.0 principles when what he needs to show in order for his argument to work is that the implementation of Web 2.0 principles has caused the supposed ‘destruction of expertise and professionalism.’

But suppose for a moment that Keen does establish a causal connection. Should it then be beyond any reasonable doubt that Web 2.0 threatens to unravel our culture? This hinges on the plausibility of Keen’s assumptions that gatekeepers are needed for the continuation of culture and that only experts and professionals can fill that niche. Now even granting that professionals are to be exclusively identified with gate keepers, it doesn’t necessarily follow that professionalization of a field or cultural activity will guarantee its survival. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere about my own field (i.e. philosophy), professionalization has largely proven to have a cannibalizing effect and the key to its survival may perhaps involve some degree of “informalizing” and “amatuerizing.”  So, contra Keen, Web 2.0 principles might enhance rather than threaten the survivability of culture in at least some cases.

Of course, Keen could admit that a healthy dose of amateurism is needed, while still maintaining that a society’s culture can’t do without its gatekeepers. But this begs the question: just what is it about the role of the gatekeeper that makes him or her so indispensable?  According to Keen, culture is about truth, and “the gate keeper is the key player in the truth, because the gatekeeper, whether they’re an editor at an encyclopedia, or a record agent, or a newspaper publisher, they’re the one’s who determine truth” (The Truth According to Wikipedia, @ circa 24:00-24:20) And in The Cult of the Amatuer, Keen draws on the work of anthropologist Ernest Gellner and political scientist Benedict Anderson to explain that gate keepers provide society cohesiveness by presenting the public a shared narrative and common worldview:

As anthropologist Ernest Gellner argues in his classic Nations and Nationalism, the core of the modern social contract is rooted in our common culture, in our language, and in our shared assumptions about the world. Modern man is socialized by what the anthropologist calls a common “high culture.” Our community and cultural identity, Geller says, come from newspapers and magazines, television, books, and movies. Mainstream media provides us with common frames of reference, a common conversation, and common values. Benedict Anderson, in Imagined Communities, explains that modern communities are established through the telling of common stories, the formation of communal myths, the shared sense of participating in the same daily narrative of life (The Cult of the Amatuer, p. 80).

The notion that truth, trustworthiness, and their intimate relationship (among other things) lie at the heart of culture should be unproblematic. However, Keen’s description of culture’s gatekeepers as determiners of truth sounds far less like our own cultural ideal – namely, a culture that is both free and democratic -  and more like the ideal state of Plato’s Republic. Indeed, Keen’s gate keepers are virtually indistinguishable from Plato’s description of the guardian class, whose role is to present a noble lie to an overwhelming mass of people inherently incapable of understanding truth. The culture Keen envisions is oligarchic, one in which societal control is placed in the hands of an elite class who have presumably exclusive access to truth and a monopoly on creativity. By contrast, a democratic society, whether it has professionals or not, leaves no room for Keen’s gate keepers. It assumes a fundamentally different epistemology and “technology” – one in which each person is presumed to be endowed with an inborn capability to discern truth and to utilize their creativity for productive purposes. Reality is supposed to be the determiner of truth, and it is through observation, conversation, and debate that we arrive at it. If anything, then, the principles of Web 2.0 would seem to compliment or support the ideal of democratic culture, rather than usher in it’s demise.

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Has Web 2.0 had a Corrosive Effect on Democracy? by Nathan M. Blackerby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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