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Brilliant articles by the funniest guy at Microsoft

Published by marco on

I recently stumbled upon some Essays from the funniest man in Microsoft Research by Raymond (Old New Thing). He is such a funny writer that this article, against convention, will consist mostly of citations rather than an even mix of citations and paraphrasing that I naturally consider to be much more lucid and pithy. I quote at length to do the material justice, for documentation and to ensure that you all download the PDFs to see if there is more where that came from (there is). All emphases have been added.

Mobile Computing Research Is a Hornet’s Nest of Deception and Chicanery by James Mickens (Microsoft Research) (PDF)

On the delusions of the mobile-computing world:

“Mobile computing researchers are a special kind of menace. They don’t smuggle rockets to Hezbollah, or clone baby seals and then make them work in sweatshops for pennies a day. That’s not the problem with mobile computing people. The problem with mobile computing people is that they have no shame. They write research papers with titles like “Crowdsourced Geolocation-based Energy Profiling for Mobile Devices,” as if the most urgent deficiency of smartphones is an insufficient composition of buzzwords.

On browsing web pages:

“When I use a mobile browser to load a web page, I literally have no expectation that anything will ever happen. A successful page load is so unlikely, so unimaginable, that mobile browsers effectively exist outside of causality—the browser is completely divorced from all action verbs, and can only be associated with sad, falling-tone sentences like “I had to give up after twenty seconds.” ”

On the fragility of touchscreens:

“Note that, when I say that you will “drop” your touchscreen, I do not mean “drop” in the layperson sense of “to release from a non-trivial height onto a hard surface.” I mean “drop” in the sense of “to place your touchscreen on any surface that isn’t composed of angel feathers and the dreams of earnest schoolchildren.” Phones and tablets apparently require Planck-scale mechanical alignments, such that merely looking at the touchscreen introduces fundamental, quantum dynamical changes in the touchscreen’s dilithium crystals. Thus, if you place your touchscreen on anything, ever, you have made a severe and irreversible life mistake.

On the sheer touchiness of touchscreens:

“On your touchscreen, your swipes will become pinches, and your pinches will become scrolls, and each one of your scrolls will become a complex thing never before seen on this earth, a leviathan meta-touch event of such breadth and complexity that your phone can only respond like Carrie White at the prom. So, your phone just starts doing stuff, all the stuff that it knows how to do, and it’s just going nuts, and your apps are closing and opening and talking to the cloud and configuring themselves in unnatural ways, and your phone starts vibrating and rumbling with its little rumble pack, and it will gently sing like a tiny hummingbird of hate, and you’ll look at the touchscreen, and you’ll see that things are happening, my god, there are so many happenings, and you’ll try to flip the phone over and take out the battery, because now you just want to kill it and move to Kansas and start over, […]”

On the uselessness of most mobile computing:

“When you purchase a mobile device, you are basically saying, “I endorse the operational inefficiency of the modern bourgeoisie lifestyle, even though I could find a rock and tie a coat hanger around it and have a better chance of having a phone conversation that doesn’t sound like two monsters arguing about German poetry.””
The Slow Winter by James Mickens (Microsoft Research) (PDF)

On flying in the early 21st century:

“The point is that flying in airplanes used to be fun, but now it resembles a dystopian bin-packing problem in which humans, carry-on luggage, and five dollar peanut bags compete for real estate while crying children materialize from the ether and make obscure demands in unintelligible, Wookie-like languages while you fantasize about who you won’t be helping when the oxygen masks descend.

On how awesome it was being a hardware architect before things got all quantum and messy:

“Of course, pride precedes the fall, and at some point, you realize that to implement aggressive out-of-order execution, you need to fit more transistors into the same die size, but then a material science guy pops out of a birthday cake and says YEAH WE CAN DO THAT, and by now, you’re touring with Aerosmith and throwing Matisse paintings from hotel room windows, because when you order two Matisse paintings from room service and you get three, that equation is going to be balanced. It all goes so well, and the party keeps getting better. When you retire in 2003, your face is wrinkled from all of the smiles, and even though you’ve been sued by several pedestrians who suddenly acquired rare paintings as hats, you go out on top, the master of your domain. ”

On quantum-level effects in modern processors:

“They randomly switched states; they leaked voltage; they fell prey to the seductive whims of cosmic rays that, unlike the cosmic rays in comic books, did not turn you into a superhero, but instead made your transistors unreliable and shiftless, like a surly teenager who is told to clean his room and who will occasionally just spray his bed with Lysol and declare victory.”

On scaling in cores when processor speed and more transistors became too messy:

“John did what any reasonable person would do: he cloaked himself in a wall of denial and acted like nothing had happened. “Making processors faster is increasingly difficult,” John thought, “but maybe people won’t notice if I give them more processors.” This, of course, was a variant of the notorious Zubotov Gambit, named after the Soviet-era car manufacturer who abandoned its attempts to make its cars not explode, and instead offered customers two Zubotovs for the price of one […]”

On the main purpose that people have for their computers:

“Lay people use their computers for precisely ten things, none of which involve massive computational parallelism, and seven of which involve procuring a vast menagerie of pornographic data and then curating that data using a variety of fairly obvious management techniques, like the creation of a folder called “Work Stuff,” which contains an inner folder called “More Work Stuff,” where “More Work Stuff” contains a series of ostensible documentaries that describe the economic interactions between people who don’t have enough money to pay for pizza and people who aren’t too bothered by that fact. ”

A summary of the state of the world of hardware design and development:

“[…] you brought the fire down from Olympus, and the mortals do with it what they will. But now, all the easy giants were dead, and John was left to fight the ghosts that Schrödinger had left behind.
The Night Watch by James Mickens (Microsoft Research) (PDF)

What it’s like to be a systems (low-level) programmer:

“A systems programmer will know what to do when society breaks down, because the systems programmer already lives in a world without law.

On why people still use C++ (or a response to the snotty question of: “why don’t you just use high-level language X instead?”)

“Why not use a modern language with garbage collection and functional programming and free massages after lunch? Here’s the answer: Pointers are real. They’re what the hardware understands. Somebody has to deal with them. You can’t just place a LISP book on top of an x86 chip and hope that the hardware learns about lambda calculus by osmosis. […] Pointers are like […] real, living things that must be dealt with so that polite society can exist. Make no mistake, I don’t want to write systems software in a language like C++. […] When it’s 3 A.M., and you’ve been debugging for 12 hours, and you encounter a virtual static friend protected volatile templated function pointer, you want to […] find the people who wrote the C++ standard and bring ruin to the things that they love.

On being thankful for systems programmers:

“That being said, if you find yourself drinking a martini and writing programs in garbage-collected, object-oriented Esperanto, be aware that the only reason that the Esperanto runtime works is because there are systems people who have exchanged any hope of losing their virginity for the exciting opportunity to think about hex numbers and their relationships with the operating system, the hardware, and ancient blood rituals that Bjarne Stroustrup performed at Stonehenge.”

On how difficult it is to work in extremely fragile territory (rather than a safe runtime):

“Indeed, I would [have…checked the log files for errors] if I hadn’t broken every component that a logging system needs to log data. I have a network file system, and I have broken the network, and I have broken the file system, and my machines crash when I make eye contact with them. I HAVE NO TOOLS BECAUSE I’VE DESTROYED MY TOOLS WITH MY TOOLS.”

A backhanded swipe at the utter uselessness of many UI concerns:

“I’m glad that people are working on new kinds of bouncing icons because they believe that humanity has solved cancer and homelessness and now lives in a consequence-free world of immersive sprites.”