Another Reason to Avoid Comments

16. April, 2022

There is this old saying that if you feel you have to write a comment to explain what your code does, you should rather improve your code.

In the talk above, I heard another one:

A common fallacy is to assume authors of incomprehensible code will somehow be able to express themselves lucidly and clearly in comments.
– Kevlin Henney

Dark Forest is a Fairy Tale

16. December, 2021

The Dark Forest, an idea developed by Liu Cixin for his Remembrance of Earth’s Past series (also known for the first book “The Three-Body Problem” is just a fairy tale: Interesting to think about, there is a morale but it’s not based on reality.

Proof: We are still here.

The Dark Forest fairy tale is a solution to the Fermi paradox: If there are billions of planets like earth out there, where is everyone? The Dark Forest claims that every civilization that is foolish enough to expose itself gets gets wiped out.

Fact: We have exposed ourselves for millions of years now. Out planet has sent signals “lots of biological life here” for about 500 million years to anyone who cares.

Assuming that the Milky Way has a size of 100’000 light years, this means every civilization out there know about Earth for at least 499.9 million years. If they were out to kill us, we would be long gone by now. Why wait until we can send rockets to space if they are so afraid of any competition?

How would they know about us? We can already detect planets in other star systems (the current count at the writing of this article is 4604, see In a few years, we’ll be able to tell all the planets close to us which can carry life, for values of close around 100 light years. A decade later, I expect that to work for any star system 1’000 light years around us. In a 100 years, I’ll expect scientists to come up with a trick to scan every star in our galaxy. An easy (if slow) way would be to send probes up and down out of the disk to get a better overview. Conclusion: We know a way to see every star system in the galaxy today. It’s only going to get better.

Some people worry that the technical signals we send could trigger an attack but those signals get lost in the background noise fairly quickly (much less that 100 light years). This is not the case for the most prominent signal: The amount of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere. If you’re close to the plane of the ecliptic (i.e. when you look at the sun, the Earth will pass between you and the sun), you can see the Oxygen line in the star’s spectrum for thousands of light years. Everyone else has to wait until Earth moves in front of some background object.

There is no useful way to hide this signal. We could burn the oxygen, making Earth inhospitable. Or we could cover the planet with a rock layer; also not great unless you can live from a rock and salt water diet.

For an economical argument: When Ruanda invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo to get control of Coltan mining, they made roughtly $240 million/yr from selling the ore. China makes that much money by selling smart phones and electronics to other states every day (source: Home Deus by Yuval Harari). My take: killing other civilizations is a form of economical suicide.

Conclusion: The Dark Forest is an interesting thought experiment. As a solution for the Fermi paradox, I find it implausible.

EU Copyright Reform Art 11&13

22. March, 2019

The reform in the current form was designed to increase profits of the big players in the game: the few big music labels, movie companies and news agencies.

Since they want those additional billions, I think it’s moot to argue against the reform. If we stop them this time, they’ll be back next week.

Instead, I suggest to change the reform to force them to provide online services to license their content.

A few clicks and you’re allowed to use a piece of music or video or text for your own work. Yes, it will cost money but videos don’t grow on trees, either.

That way, the poor mega companies on this planet look good in front of their shareholders and the people creating art don’t have to waste money on fending off lawsuits.

Oh, and maybe add a clause in the law that the companies have to pass a real amount of money on to the artist. Right now, they are actively being starved by the companies (except for a few topstars who could afford the lawyers to get their share).

I’m Not a Robot (Rant)

31. December, 2017

Google’s “I’m not a robot” CAPTCHA is freaking me out.

I often spend minutes clicking stupid images only to be presented with more fucking images. It feels like it takes half an hour or more to just get the stupid thing to get out of the way so I can do whatever I came to do.

My main complaints:

  1. Is the frame of a street sign part of a street sign?
  2. Why do I get another page of images when I complete a task? Is the thing playing Sisyphus with me?
  3. Why does the thing suddenly change the game? First, I have to select pieces and click “Continue” and suddenly, it replaces pieces as I click and the button at the bottom behaves differently.
  4. Why can’t the thing remember me? Google and his friends know that it’s me! That’s their fucking business model! They make billions by tracking our movements on the web.
  5. The Google site boasts “Low friction, effortless interaction for your users.” There is no “File complaint” or support link anywhere. If it’s broken, guess who doesn’t care because they never hear about it? It’s one of these “it’s perfect – no one ever complained” situations.
  6. It puts me in an unbearable helpless situation where everything becomes a problem.

Just seeing the box turns me off by now. I’m starting to avoid web sites that use this. Patreon is about the last one where I force myself to endure the pain so I can help people. The support guys were nice and supportive, but there is little that they can do.

Climate Change Visible

7. December, 2017

In the early days of by blog, almost 10 years ago, I posted “Why You Should Bother About 2°“. In the mean time, I’ve found another graphic that helps to understand that something is more broken than usual. Leisurely scroll down for a nice reminder of our history and how long things take to change.

xkcd: Earth Temperature Timeline

xkcd: Earth Temperature Timeline

Artificial Ethics

24. October, 2017

While watching this video, I wondered: We’re using machine learning to earn money on the stock market and to make computers understand speech. Why not ethics?

Around @26:00 , Isaac talks about ways to develop AIs to control androids. He would like to use the safe approach of manual programming all the specific details to create an AI.

The “manual programming” path has been tried since 1960 and it’s now deemed a failure. The task is simply too complex. It’s like manually writing down all possible chess positions: Even if you tried, you’d run out of time. Machine learning is the way to go.

Which means we have to solve a “simple” problem: Encode the rules of ethics. That is, a machine learning algorithm must check itself (or be checked by another algorithm) against a basic set of ethical rules to determine whether “a solution” to “a problem” is “ethical” (quotes mean: “We still have to figure out exactly what that means and how to put it into code”).

Just like intelligence, ethics is somewhat of a soft and moving target. Fortunately, we have a huge body of texts (religious, laws, philosophy, polls) which a machine learning algorithm could be trained on. To test this machine, we could present it with artificial and real life incidents and see how it rules. Note: The output of this algorithm would be a number between 0 (very unethical) and 1 (very ethical). It would not spit out solutions on how to solve an ethical dilemma. It could just judge an existing solution.

It’s important that the output (judgement) is checked and the result (how good the output was) is fed back into the algorithm so it can tune itself. Both output and feedback needs to be checked for the usual problems (racism, prejudice, etc.).

Based on that, another machine learning algorithm (MLA) could then try many different solutions, present those to the ethics one, and pick the best ones. At the beginning, humans would supervise this process as well (feedback as above). Eventually, the MLA would figure out the hidden rules of good solutions.

That would eventually lead to ethical machines. Which would cause new problems: There will eventually be a machine, very impartial, that “is” more ethical than almost all humans. Whatever “is” might mean, then.

Related articles:

How Houston Sends a Humbling Message About Climate Change

2. September, 2017

People in Houston have been drowning the past few days. Do they care about climate change right now?


They are currently returning to houses that have been massively damaged. Are they caring about climate change now?


These people have real problems at the moment. They don’t have the time, nerve or energy to waste on climate change. In the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that climate change isn’t a “problem”. Talking about it is a waste of time. People need jobs, they need money to pay rent, food, education, Netflix. Climate change is a nice but somewhat irrelevant topic to fill the gaps of boredom between.

So how to prevent climate change when talking about it is a waste of time? We need a new story. People love stories. Compare these two:

  1. If you smoke, your live will be 10 years shorter on average.
  2. My grandmother smoked all her life and she died with 95 in good health.

Both are “true” in the sense that they are facts which have been verified as well as could be. Which one do you like to hear?

So here is my story about climate change:

Climate changes. It changes all the time. Sometimes it’s hotter, sometimes it’s colder. Who cares. People have real problems. People need jobs. How do you create jobs? By doing new stuff.

When everyone has a car, you can’t sell more cars. You simply can’t get most people to buy two cars. You can replace the few that die every year but that’s not growth. That’s simply keeping the level. Today’s cars produce a lot of poisons. That’s bad for everyone. They need gasoline of which the US has only so much. We need to send soldiers to die in far away countries to make sure we get all the oil we need.

That’s a tragedy for the families involved and that’s a lot of our money wasted. This money doesn’t come from some magic place, it’s the money which every American pays in form of taxes.

If we replace all the bad cars with new cars, we will create a lot of jobs. New technologies need to be invented. Better batteries. More efficient and reliable power grids. When was your last power outage?

No more soldiers dying for oil. Cars which refuel themselves over night. No need to stop at dark fuel stations. Yeah, the fuel stations will go away. But a lot of people lost their jobs when we did away with horse carriages. Those were unhappy but overall, it was a change for the better.

Cleaner air. More jobs. Better health. Less power outages. Less traffic noise. Having a job will mean you can afford the new car and get rid of the old junk. With all those new cars, people will ask for better roads. With the new jobs, we can afford that as well. We can then invent technology to recycle millions of cars efficiently and sell that.

Here is how the story works: People have problems that are important for them. We can ignore that (and be ignored) or acknowledge it. Telling them “hey, here are even more problems and who knows how to solve them” isn’t going to work. So we need to paint a picture. One where they can find themselves in. One where they can see some actual problems of themselves solved.

That’s how you prevent climate change.

7 Ways To Ruin A Technological Revolution

24. July, 2011

7 Ways To Ruin A Technological Revolution” is a Google Tech Talk by James Boyle in which he shows honest and sincere ways to stifle technological progress. And unlike him, I’m not ironic. A lot of stifling happens because we deem some things too dangerous. His 7 ways are:

  1. Ignore all empirical evidence and build our view of the world on hearsay
  2. Have a one-sided view of things. Always look at the costs and ignore the benefits. Be afraid of openness and prefer control.
  3. Focus more in outputs than on inputs. So protect the new book but ignore that most of the knowledge in any new book actually comes from existing books.
  4. Ridicule or ignore types of creativity that don’t fit the bill.
  5. Ditch all the technologies and openness we have because they kind of contradict points 1-4. It’s kind of silly saying openness just doesn’t work or that no one is ever going to publish anything without strict IP laws to keep people out when you have, say, Wikipedia. This means getting rid of the general purpose computer and network neutrality.
  6. Go international to keep small fry (like watch groups and NGOs) out of the game. Always harmonize “up”, that is towards tighter control. If one country has 25 years and another 75 years IP protection, the result is always 75 years for both (taking 50 years “away” from one country but that’s not a loss since that wasn’t a “right” before). Rights in such treaties are almost always mandatory, exceptions are optional (because more control is better, see #2).
  7. Make sure “critics fail to engage with the political process”. “It’s as if we have sought to turn self-marginalization to the level of an Olympic sport.” (0:26:14) Apathy also helps.

Some thoughts on #4 (after 0:18:00): Our society is built on sharing. Or did you pay back the $200’000 which your parents invested in raising you? Countless hours wasted playing with you as toddler which they could have spent at work instead. All the money spent on clothes that you didn’t want to wear anyway. The water polluted washing them which could have been used to grow food for more money.

“It’s commercial use if you get for free what you otherwise would have to pay for.” (0:20:16) If companies and IP policy makers had their say, you’d have to pay your girlfriend for a date just like for a prostitute. What else is date than a perfect business opportunity wasted because of “anti-capitalistic” hormones – or so some people seem to think. While we’re at it, let’s ask money for Christmas presents, too! Talk to a friend? It’s Cheap Friday, so it’s only $25 instead of $50/hr.

Such a view of the world ignores the benefits of these actions. When an author writes a new book, how much money goes back to the people who invented the written word? The printing press or the Internet? Who taught the author to write? Who sparked new ideas in his mind? So we have to be unjust somewhere but are we unjust in the right place?

Or maybe I’m wrong. At the end of his speech around 0:35:50 he says something interesting: “It is scary to me that the technologies that would enable the Google equivalent in the next technological cycle are being developed under the conditions that I have described. Because you would have to be an insane optimist to think that none of that is going to get screwed up by the processes that I described and I’m far from being an optimist.”

It’s interesting because we don’t know what will work and what will fail. Maybe this kind of resistance is necessary to separate good ideas from bad ones: Only a really good idea can overcome these obstacles. It has to be overwhelming enough to change the world. Since we can’t tell which idea should win, this might be the only way to weed the bad ones out.

Scary thought: Maybe superior technology like the Amiga didn’t change the world because it didn’t have what it takes – whatever that might be. All I can say from this point in time: We don’t have an Amiga on every desk, we have a PC on every desk. Steve Jobs knows his stuff but there is no Apple computer on every desk either. But there is an iPhone on (almost) every desk. Not a Windows phone. So the formula is Windows + PC == success, not Microsoft == success.

That said, not all is lost. I haven’t put my hands on an Amiga computer for more than a decade but I use the skills every day that I acquired with its beautiful OS. Amiga is dead, today’s hackers have Linux.

I think the good news is that the bad guys eventually fail because there is no limit to their greed. Eventually, they manage to upset even their most die hard supporters. Sony harassed Georg Hotz. Nothing happened. Sony lost 300 million customer records. The US government shows up to ask some serious questions. And the Zurich insurance refuses to cover the damages. Hm…

Interesting links:

Jazoon 2011, Day 2 – Java Concurrent Animated – Victor Grazi

26. June, 2011

Java Concurrent Animated – Victor Grazi

One picture says more than a thousand words. Now imagine what an animation can say. Victor did several for us to better understand the classes in java.util.concurrent. You can find the software on sourceforge: javaconcurrenta

Here is an example:

Very nice. I know a lot about threads and concurrency (the Amiga had preemptive multitasking back in 1986) but even I was surprised by the ReentrantReadWriteLock example: If you have a writer waiting for the lock and another reader comes along, should it get the lock immediately or should it wait for the writer to complete?

My first instinct was to get all the (quick) readers out of the way but chances are that, when all readers have been processed, another one might have come along, effectively starving the writer.


Das Märchen von der Vollbeschäftigung

6. June, 2011

Mal wieder ein Post auf Deutsch. Sorry for my English reads 🙂

Alle Welt redet von Vollbeschäftigung, sicherer Rente und stabilen sozialen Netzen. Oder besser: Die Politiker (links bis rechts) erzählen Märchen, während dem Rest der Bevölkerung langsam dämmert: Da stimmt irgendwas nicht.

Firmen wollen jedes Jahr um 7% “wachsen.” Was heisst dieses “wachsen”? Naja, da gibt es verschiedene Möglichkeiten:

  1. 7% weniger Kosten. Also z.B. den Angestellten den Lohn um 10% kürzen (die Firma hat ja noch andere Kosten als nur Löhne). Geht aber nicht, da rebellieren die Angestellten. Also wirft man eben 10% raus. Das hat den gleichen Effekt und sorgt gleich noch für (angespannte) Ruhe bei denen, die hoffen “mich trifft es nicht.”
  2. Man macht die Produktion 7% effizienter. Das geht durch neue Maschinen (für die man weniger Leute braucht) oder indem man die Produktion gleich ins billigere Ausland auslagert. Da ist zwar die Qualität schlechter, aber dafür ist es 30% billiger und so kann man das wieder hinbiegen.
  3. Eine Mischung aus beidem.

Am Ende ist es halt so, dass die (verbleibenden) Angestellten weniger in der Tasche haben. Natürlich kränkelt dann die Konjunktur: Wenn wenn man weniger Geld hat, kann man auch nicht so viel konsumieren. Aber das ist nicht das Problem der Unternehmen, da soll sich schön der Staat drum kümmern.

Man sieht: Das klappt irgendwie nicht.

Gebhard Borck hat sich hingesetzt und alle Gründe und Faktoren gesammelt, wo es in der modernen Arbeitswelt kneift und hakt. Stück für Stück werden sie jetzt in seinem Blog veröffentlicht: “Affenmärchen – Arbeit frei von Lack & Leder.” Hier geht’s los.

Ein paar Zitate (hier):

Die industrielle Epoche hat die Maschine vor den Menschen gestellt, Effizienz vor Effektivität, Stückzahl vor den Sinn des Produktes und Fehlerfreiheit vor Qualität – ja, Sie lesen richtig, mehr dazu erfahren Sie später, versprochen.

“Stückzahl vor Sinn.” Sehr schön. Milchsee, Butterberg. Wo hatten wir das noch? Ach ja, in der DDR. Oder hier:

Ein Marketingleiter eines Industriebetriebes, nehmen wir einmal einen Schokoladenhersteller, verdient zwischen fünfzigtausend und mehreren hunderttausend britischen Pfund. Er reizt Menschen dazu an, unvernünftig viel Schokolade zu kaufen und zu konsumieren. Er erzeugt Stress, wenn man die gewünschte Schokolade nicht bekommt, spielt die negativen gesundheitlichen Auswirkungen herunter und überhöht die empfundenen Glücksgefühle. […] die gesundheitlichen Auswirkungen finden sich in den bereits erwähnten externen Effekten, für die seine Firma nicht verantwortlich gemacht wird. Die Studie „a bit rich“ hat diese externen volkswirtschaftlichen Effekte […] untersucht. Das Ergebnis: Für ihr Einkommen von fünfzigtausend bis zu mehreren hunderttausend Pfund zerstören sie elf Pfund für jedes Pfund, das sie als Wert generieren.

(meine Betonung) Profit ist wichtiger als der Schaden, den ein Unternehmen an der Gesellschaft anrichtet.

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