An open letter to Richard M. Stallman

Subject: Events of the last week – open letter

This is perhaps the most difficult letter I’ve found myself in a position to write in my entire lifetime.

A couple of days ago, I was reading the cypherpunks mailing list when I came across a thread with news articles and commentary indicating you had been constructively removed from both your positions as Free Software Foundation president and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT. I know you refer to these as resignations, but it is obvious to me that you did not resign of your own free will.

To say the least, I think it is unfortunate that a decades-long legacy of trailblazing in the name of software freedom would come to such an abrupt and undignified end. From the coining and definition of the term “free software” itself, all the way to 2019 where GNU variants have outpaced all proprietary versions of Unix, the free software movement you have started has been an unquestionable success.

I’m not surprised that someone has chosen to “misunderstand[] and mischaracteriz[e]” something you have said. I’m a couple of decades younger and it’s happened to me more times than I care to count–often, but not always, by someone who has an interest in knocking me down to make themselves look better. It is awful that someone would mischaracterize your statements and use that as an excuse to constructively remove you from your tenured leadership positions.

I realize some of your viewpoints are not very popular. Some probably characterize a few of them as unreasonable (to put it nicely). But we need unreasonable people to bring change in an unreasonable world. You have established one hell of a great legacy when it comes to freedom in computing over the last 36 years, even if you get nowhere near the credit you’ve earned and most people think some guy from Finland did all of it when all he did was add the kernel at the end.

One of the other contributors to the cypherpunks list called upon you to withdraw your resignations. This is one of the rare occasions where I think this particular contributor is spot on and that resigning from your positions of leadership was the wrong call. Even if you suddenly decided, of your own free will, that it was time to retire (which I don’t believe for a second), the timing would be such that it looks like it’s because of the controversy.

We, the free software community, still need your leadership. I am looking forward to the day that the idea of proprietary software is the unreasonable idea and free software is the status quo everywhere: our computers, our smartphones, our tablet computers, and our connected appliances like TVs, refrigerators, HVAC units, etc. I still trust your leadership. I hope the majority of the community still do as well and see this attempt at constructively removing you from your positions for what it is: an unconscionable raw deal for a modern-day legend of computing history.

--
Shawn K. Quinn - [email address] - [phone number]
https://www.rantroulette.com

Stupid math tricks on social media

Recently as documented by this New York Times article, this rather ambiguous math problem (middle-school pre-algebra level) has been making the rounds. The article references the Yanny/Laurel controversy as well as the dress that people saw as different colors. I didn’t really take a side in either of those, but this one highlights some of the potentially ambiguous nature of mathematical notation.

The math problem in question:

x = 8 ÷ 2(2+2)

First, let me state the obvious: this is poorly written, and normally when using algebraic multiplication notation, i.e. putting the terms right next to each other, one would also use the fraction bar or vinculum instead of the obelus (“÷”) symbol. So instead, one would write either the equivalent of:

x = (8÷2)(2+2)

or

x = 8 ÷ (2(2+2))

Indeed, in the computer programming language Forth, which I have spent a bit of time dabbling in (still need to package up some of the code I’ve written into a proper release), there is no need to memorize the time-honored mnemonic of Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally for the order of operations (parentheses, then exponentiation, then multiplication and division, then addition and subtraction). One would code either of the following:

8 2 / 2 2 + *

or

8 2 2 + 2 * /

The first one gives you 16 as in the first example above (with the 8÷2 grouped together), the second one gives you 1 as in in the second example above (with the 8 being a term by itself).

The article’s author seems to imply the “correct” answer is 16. The fact that there’s any debate on the correct answer, and that I apparently arrived at the “wrong” answer despite my stellar math background (I aced every high school math class except geometry and that one only because I blew off all the major projects), says to me there’s something wrong with how the question is written. Nobody, and I mean nobody, uses this half-baked obelus symbol notation for division at any serious level of mathematics unless they are printing calculator buttons. This type of problem is one reason. The other is that a sloppily written (or blurry-printed!) obelus can look way too much like an addition symbol. Indeed, the author of the article goes on to state:

No professional mathematician would ever write something so obviously ambiguous. We would insert parentheses to indicate our meaning and to signal whether the division should be carried out first, or the multiplication.

The lessons to be learned here are:

  1. Be careful how you write math problems; and
  2. Apparently anything is fair game to debate on social media.

A disqualification for all the wrong reasons: the Maximum Security/Kentucky Derby controversy

So I’ve kind of taken a bit of a step back from following sports. I never was a huge horse racing fan, though my mom is and I wind up watching a few more horse races and movies about horse racing than I otherwise would because of that. So it is no big surprise, then, that I wound up in front of the TV for at least part of the Kentucky Derby and had a figurative front-row seat for the controversy that followed as Country House was awarded the win and Maximum Security was disqualified after a lengthy review.

I’m not sure what the stewards saw when reviewing the race footage or if they even had access to the actual NBC Sports broadcast footage versus something recorded by the track’s own cameras. In the days after the race it came to light that if any horse was to be disqualified for interference, it should have been Country House, and Maximum Security was the victim and not the perpetrator, according to a video included in a WAVE 3 News report.

That same report indicates that the owners of Maximum Security may file a lawsuit over the questionable officiating. I don’t blame them, as this is, if not a worst case scenario for what can go wrong in the officiating of a horse race, very close to one. Every game or sport, sooner or later, is going to have an officiating issue or some type of controversy over a call. Even competitive pinball has rules governing irregularities as well as officials who have to make judgment calls, and blown calls do happen there as well. The fact that the stewards took over 20 minutes, and still, according to many fans, got it way wrong, is not going to help the image of horse racing in the least. The Kentucky Racing Commission rubber-stamping the stewards’ decision isn’t a good look for the sport, either. I hope this is the last time a high-profile race like this ends in such a controversial decision, and I hope Maximum Security gets his rightfully earned victory back.

The Mueller report and current happenings at the federal level

I know it’s been a lot quieter than it should be here. I have not forgotten about this blog; the reality is that time has been at a premium, and even in the few cases where it hasn’t been, it has gotten so bad lately that I can’t focus because I’m that pissed off about it.

Of particular note, I did download the redacted Mueller report as soon as it came out, fearing it might later be made unavailable (though if that happens, certainly someone will put it up on BitTorrent, Freenet, or some other peer-to-peer network to help keep it in circulation even if our deranged-lunatic-in-chief tried to prohibit its further dissemination by law). I have read some of the news coverage about it (there’s almost no avoiding it when reading the news daily) but I have not had a chance to read the entire report for myself. Hopefully, I will be able to post take on the Mueller report by next Wednesday (May 22) if not sooner.

I want to comment briefly on the most recent event, now a couple of weeks old but still very relevant. Attorney General William Barr was scheduled to testify before the House of Representatives today and did not show up. This isn’t acceptable for any sitting government official, regardless of any politics or partisan conflict. It is functionally the same as blowing off a court appearance.

I mention politics because AG Barr had no issue testifying before the Senate. Currently, the Senate has a Republican majority, while the House has a Democratic majority. It’s obvious to me this is a partisan play. AG Barr was called to testify before the House on a justice-related matter of direct interest to everyone in this country. That partisan politics enters into this at all is wholly unacceptable because it implies that politics come before justice. That’s not what this country was founded upon, and it’s a slap in the face to what this country’s founders did in the late 18th century.

While I do have other topics I want to write about in the interim, I did not want it to look like I’m ignoring the immediate future of the country to blog about what some may perceive as trivial matters in comparison.

Regarding the Harding Street drug raid violence and related matters

During the evening of Monday, 2019 January 28, the execution of a drug-related search warrant by Houston Police Department officers ended with five officers going to the hospital, four for gunfire-related injuries and a fifth with a knee injury (KHOU.com report). In the aftermath of this, the president of the Houston Police Officers Union, Joe Gamaldi, minced no words in calling those who fired back upon the HPD officers “dirtbags” in addition to stating the following (quote from a later KHOU.com story):

If you’re the ones that are out there spreading the rhetoric that police officers are the enemy, just know we’ve all got your number now, we’re going to be keeping track of all of y’all, and we’re going to make sure that we hold you accountable every time you stir the pot on our police officers. We’ve had enough, folks. We’re out there doing our jobs every day, putting our lives on the line for our families.

I feel the need to address these latter comments as a long-time outspoken critic of some activities of law enforcement and the legal system.

First, I have never advocated violence against law enforcement officers or others who work in the legal system (such as attorneys, judges, etc). I condemn the violence that occurred this Monday with the same vigor that I condemned the murder of Deputy Darren Goforth in 2015. The actions of the suspects are an outrageous affront to decent society and it is my hope that the officers injured in the shootout make the best and speediest recovery possible given current medical technology.

I get that as the president of a police officers union in a large city, a lot of the job is PR and, by extension, playing up the cops as the good guys. I wish I could say for sure exactly what was intended by the words “stir the pot” in this context. I would like to think that First Amendment-protected nonviolent free speech, in the form of criticism of law enforcement officers who betray the trust of those they are supposed to be serving and protecting, is not being targeted as “stir[ring] the pot”.

It is unavoidable that sooner or later, some cops will prove it was a mistake to trust them with the power of the badge. There are bad apples in every field: medicine (doctors, nurses, EMTs), fast food/restaurants, messengers/couriers, information technology (including internet help desks and sysadmins), marketing and PR, entertainment (including youth-focused classes of entertainment such as face painting and balloon twisting), just to name a few. It stands to reason that some who enter law enforcement and the practice of the people’s/state’s side of criminal law will wind up showing their lack of fitness to serve their respective professions.

The difference is that a bad cop or a bad DA can really screw up a life or even multiple lives with a mistake, more so than most other professions. When they do, we, the people, have the right to be heard and speak out about it. We, the people, have just as much of a right to hold law enforcement and DAs accountable as we do to hold anyone else accountable. Sometimes the last-ditch appeal to the press is the only thing that really works.

I get that law enforcement is a risky business. But don’t forget the US Constitution is part of those laws as well.