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Reading List, July 2017

  1. Cyrus Farivar, WinAMP woes: How the greatest MP3 player undid itself, in Ars Technica, 3 July 2017. [Online]: https://arstechnica.com/business/2017/07/winamp-how-greatest-mp3-player-undid-itself/

    A fascinating tale of WinAMP, my favourite music player in the early 2000s, and how it was run into the ground by AOL.

  2. Mike Masnick, State dept. enlists Hollywood and its friends to start a fake Twitter fight over intellectual property, in Techdirt, 5 July 2017. [Online]: https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20170705/10241437723/state-dept-enlists-hollywood-friends-to-start-fake-twitter-fight-over-intellectual-property.shtml

    This article is just so crazy that I find it very hard to believe. If it indeed turns out to be a fake, I may actually delete it from this list. Apparently, the State department wants to start a fake Twitter feud to advance MPAA and RIAA propaganda, and they thought that reaching out to Stanford Law School professors and students was a good idea.

    Well, turns out it is true. Ars Technica has also confirmed this story.

  3. Joris Giovannangeli, Skylake bug: A detective story, in Ahrefs, 28 June 2017. [Online]: https://tech.ahrefs.com/skylake-bug-a-detective-story-ab1ad2beddcd

    This is a fascinating read on how developers discovered a bug hiding deep in Intel’s microcode on Skylake processors. The bug has now been patched, but this story remains extremely important as a cautionary tale when dealing with levels of abstraction that are now prevalent in computer systems.

    Processors could have bugs hiding deep in their systems, and these hardware or microcode bugs could seriously affect the software running on the processors. While most bugs would be in the software layers, sometimes hardware bugs could affect perfectly correct software. Or sometimes a compiler bug could affect perfectly correct high-level code. Bugs affecting correctness could be hiding in the operating system, in the virtualisation environment, in shared libraries, anywhere. Writing software is an exercise in trusting the layers upon layers of abstraction that we now deal with.

  4. Clara Turnage, Most Republicans think colleges are bad for the country. Why?, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 July 2017. [Online]: http://www.chronicle.com/article/Most-Republicans-Think/240587

    Sadly, this is not The Onion. According to this article, 58% of Republicans and right-leaning independents do not trust colleges and universities. These statistics are crazy. The article talks about how colleges and universities are considered “liberal” and on how most people take their cues from leaders and media pundits on their side of the aisle.

  5. John Timmer, New ‘bribery game’ shows that sometimes, transparency makes things worse, in Ars Technica, 15 July 2017. [Online]: https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/07/researchers-look-at-roots-of-bribery-using-game-theory/

    Summary of a research paper published in Nature Human Behaviour (DOI: 10.1038/s41562-017-0138). The takeaway here is that in any society, corruption will occur, and the stronger the central government, the more the corruption, especially when bribery is an option and leads to a wealthy leader. Secondly, transparency in government does not help matters, what is needed is transparency about bribery, but that’s unlikely to happen. It seems like the thing that would really lower corruption is a strong economy.

    This is research based on a very specific game played by a small-ish group of people, so the results may not be representative of real life. Nevertheless, interesting research.

  6. David Kravets, Animal rights? Monkey selfie case may undo evolution of the internet, in Ars Technica, 15 July 2017. [Online]: https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2017/07/animal-rights-monkey-selfie-case-may-undo-evolution-of-the-internet/

    This article points out the legal battle that PETA is engaged in to grant copyright to a monkey who snapped a selfie. The author of the article points out that PETA is suing the organisation that supplied software to publish a book for copyright infringement, as that software was used to publish a book that PETA alleges caused copyright infringement. This is crazy, because it is the equivalent of suing Microsoft because someone used MS Word to type a bootlegged copy of Harry Potter.

    My opinion is that PETA is just being the obnoxious, holier than thou, stupid idiots that they have always been, and are a danger to animal rights everywhere because they are the strawmen that people will point to and group all the reasonable activists with. This is fun times for PETA, trying to stay relevant by suing a photographer to the point that he is now broke. The fact that they are now trying to sue the organisation that provided software to the photographer just shows that they are being vexatious litigants who are clamming up the system with frivolous lawsuits.

    Make no mistake, the American copyright system is broken. However, PETA’s suit is a testament to the brokenness of the American judicial system, not because of the content of their claims, but because these claims have been allowed to proceed so far up the judicial system, steamrollering people who may not have as deep pockets as an organisation that accepts donations from all over the world.

  7. Eric S. Raymond, The slow birth of distributed software collaboration, in Armed and Dangerous, 19 July 2017. [Online]: http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=7628

    ESR talks about the birth of something that all of us developers take for granted – distributed version control. This is a fascinating tale of how people went from sharing entire files, to using patch, to CVS, then to SVN, and finally to Git. (Of course, I’m oversimplifying, there are other version control systems, but who really cares about them? ☺)

    As an aside, someone once remarked about GitHub, ‘It’s amazing how we’ve taken a distributed version control system and made it centralised.’ I thought that it was a funny statement, but I was made aware of the painful truth of this maxim when a friend mentioned that he did not know that pull-requests could be merged in git, he assumed that they were just a GitHub feature. Linus Torvalds would have some words.

  8. Steve Mitchell, How I became a mathematician, September 2002. [Online]: https://sites.math.washington.edu/~mitchell/Misc/bio.pdf

    A fascinating tale from a professor at the University of Washington who dropped out of college three times, spent time rock climbing, hitch-hiking, riding the rails, and joining graduate school without a college degree. This makes it to my list just because of the sheer impossibility of the story.

    As an aside, why do mathematicians have such poor websites? Check out Mitchell’s home page, it is just four links. In fact, searching for most of the people in the list turns up almost no information about them at all. So, I find it interesting when Mitchell writes:

    My heroes then included John Milnor, Michael Atiyah, Jean-Pierre Serre, Raoul Bott, Dennis Sullivan, Frank Adams and Dan Quillen; no one outside of mathematics will have heard of them, even though by rights they should be household names.

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