November 30, 2007

Re: The end of America

Having listened to Naomi Wolf as she speaks about "10 steps to fascism" here:

and here is a supporting story in Guardian:,,2064157,00.html

I was applying the principles she suggests to current situation in Russia one by one, and surprisingly, they hardly applied:

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy.

Pass. None of those exist in modern Russia. Chechnen terrorists looked like a mixed ex/internal threat once, but then quickly diminished. No external power is considered a threat. There are "me too" kind of reactions to the America-declared global war of terrorism, such as the absurd requirement to take off one's shoes in the airports, but that looks like a totally random acts of power rather than a iron fist lead.

2. Create a gulag.

Well, I wouldn't know. In a country whose leader has invented gulag, I'm sure as hell there are secret prisons, but then they don't have to be secret, any would do. So, I'd say no, there is no gulag in modern Russia in the meaning of the word Naomi Wolf puts in it.

3. Develop a thug caste.

No such thing. Or, multiple such things, depending on what you mean. There is no single dedicated paramilitary force and none are emerging. There is army, state police, corporate security guards, and all sorts of criminal organisations, I'd presume. They all may apply force pursuing their arbitrary goals, but I don't think they orchestrate. This is not to obscure the fact that the police or army could at any point be given any orders.

4. Set up an internal surveillance system.

There easily could be files on anyone, just as with the mentioned Stasi, but I don't think there is a global network of surveillance and the percentage of informants has hopefully decreased since KGB time.

5. Harass citizens' groups.

Citizen groups ? What citizen groups ? None of active opposition to the power, that's for sure. Groups of political hobbyists and minorities of all sorts may be present, but noone worth mentioning with real power or a threat to power. Therefore there is no reason to persuasively harrass anyone. At any rate, they don't make a show out of it.

6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release.

It's not comforting, but I'd guess, yes, it's just like that. The stories of people being detained, kept in prisons, beaten and tortured appear every now and then. And the purpose could very well be the same - to terrorize and intimidate the entire population, even if in subtle way.

7. Target key individuals.

Check. Except, there is no key individuals. There are occassional public executions of someone who is sort of in opposition, but the truth is - there is no opposition. Oh, and nevermind the reporters murders.

8. Control the press.

Check. I mean, absolutely.

9. Dissent equals treason.

I'd answer this question if anyone could tell me what the today's Russia consent is ? Anything sacred ? Take Americans, they worship their democracy and freedom (ahem, given the steps to fascism title, this sounds awkward), but in Russia - what is the true way ? The way I see it, right now Russia is happily doing nothing, basically selling oil for food.

Actually, it's funny how I can't come up with anything that would sound plausible and treasonous at the same time. Brainwashed with no access to the facts - the most likely cause.

10. Suspend the rule of law.

Well, there is no martial law in Russia right now and I hope not to ever see it. We have laws and justice, right ? Although Russians are traditionally very sceptical to the laws and justice, but you can't argue that codices exist and trials work.

So, it sounded not so bad, right ? But wait until it comes to about minute 41 of the speech, and the answer should have been obvious in the context - the closed society doesn't look like one.

To quote Naomi Wolf:

We have this, like, wrong notion of what a closed society looks like. ... A closed society, even a violent military dictatorship, [looks a lot like] civil society, there are still elections, they are just corrupted. ... There is still a judiciary in a closed society, they are just not free to adjudicate freely. ... There's still academics, they're just watching what they're saying. There is still newspapers, you just know how far to push the enquiry.

Duh ! What can I say, welcome to the closed society. We'll have to see how it works out in America. Anyway, the speech was very thought-provocative.

November 19, 2007

On software reliability

Despite the common prejudice and the name, for a system to be reliable is not the same as to have no errors or never crash (noone should ever be promising that). The way I see it, reliabilty is more of a predictability. A system is reliable if it behaves in a predictable fashion - so much that you can rely on that. Even if all it does reliably is crashing.

The systems we build, they don't exist in isolation. Again, despite a popular myth, programmers don't pull things out of a thin air. We base our work on the work of others - hardware, operating systems, servers, frameworks, libraries, compilers, you name it. Reuse is the boon and the bane of the industry. Client-server pairs, interfaces and contracts are not just about OOP, they are everywhere. Any interaction between software components is about grabbing something somebody else has.

I therefore take it for granted, that there are parts of the system not written by us or not belonging to us. This implies that they cannot be controlled in any way (actually, I mostly work on integration middleware, which makes my experience worse). Then this inability to control leads to inability to fix. More often than not, you cannot fix problems in systems you have to depend on.

What do you do when you encounter an unexpected behaviour from somebody else's system you have to depend on ? I do this: first - fetch a cookie for being lucky, second - understand the cause, third - find a workaround.

The point here is - a problem known is not a problem. Because if you know the exact circumstances under which it hits, you can work around. Figuratively, you have to walk the minefield, but every previously found mine can be sidestepped. Therefore,

For a component to be reliable, you must be able to work around any problem encountered, and for a system to be reliable, you need to know all the problems it can cause.

To conclude, here is a few examples of something which is broken and reliable at the same time, because there is a workaround:
  • Reliable is a broken CPU which always fails upon certain floating point division. The numeric libraries fall back to software emulation when encountering this particular kind of chip.
  • Reliable is the XML parsing library which crashes when you attempt to set attribute value to something with letter "Ё" in it. I replace "Ё" with "Е", which is a good enough if slightly ambiguous substitute.
  • Reliable is the compiler which chokes and dies upon too complex a template. I rearrange the angle brackets and it goes on fine.
  • Reliable is the provider's server which crashes every other Friday at 13:00. I schedule an offline gap at that time and noone complains.
  • Moreover, reliable is the provider's server which crashes sporadically, but will gracefully handle repeated access attempts. As you might guess, this last example is the warmest to my heart and is one of the bases for Pythomnic - the platform for developing network services I'm developing and using.

November 16, 2007

November 07, 2007

The only way to get something done

... is to start and then don't stop.