October 2011

Dennis Ritchie Day on the couch

Happy Dennis Ritchie Day! (It’s the day before Halloween, so we decided to leave the spooky dog in the picture.) Here’s the close up:

Dennis Ritchie Day, sign of appreciation

If you don’t know who Dennis Ritchie was, or why he has a day, this post by Tim O’Reilly is a good place to start.

Ritchie, who died this October 12th, was a pioneering computer programmer who had an exceptionally good sense of taste and an instinct for where to invest it. Collaborating with colleagues (something his career was notable for), he designed long-lasting systems that programmers could get things done in. He helped create both the Unix operating system — which, depending on how you look at it, either is or is inside today’s GNU/Linux, FreeBSD, Macintosh OS X, and many other environments that you probably interact with all the time — and the C programming language, which is still the lingua franca for systems programming more than thirty years after its first release.

Some other appreciations:

There are many, many other such tributes to be found on the Net today. Some of us are using the hashtag #DennisRitchieDay on identi.ca and Twitter to mark the occasion.

Unix was the first operating system I really learned, and it’s what I’ve been using ever since (Debian GNU/Linux now, after various other Linux distributions starting from 1992). C was my first programming language. My copy of Kernighan and Ritchie’s “The C Programming Language” (always called simply “K&R” among programmers) is probably the most well-thumbed book I own, and looks it. I can’t really imagine what the computing universe would be like without Ritchie.

Maybe this is something Ritchie wouldn’t have celebrated. After all, whatever computing environments he first learned in, he clearly was able to imagine something else. Perhaps the best way to honor his contributions is to retain the ability to imagine something else, and to act on it when the time feels right, as he did.

Rest in peace, Dennis Ritchie.

Now that I have your attention… 🙂

Recently a friend posted to a mailing list about Yet Another Cold Fusion Experiment whose results will soon be in. Unlike most people, my worry is not that these experiments will all fail, but rather that one will succeed.

As the amount of energy available per dollar goes up, the amount of destructive power available per dollar goes up too. When the amount of destructive power required to destroy the world is available for an amount of money obtainable by an insane person, then we have a problem.

That line surely exists; the only question is how close we are to it. My thesis is that, wherever we are now in relation to that line, the development of cheap cold fusion brings us dramatically closer to it.

One of the nice properties of expensive energy is that you know who to watch. Only states and other really big actors can afford, say, nuclear weapons, so all the other states and big actors can watch each other and make a move if someone starts going over the edge.

(Note you rarely see someone get very close to the edge, because they know what would happen if they did.)

But if energy is cheap, there are too many people to watch. Thus I think it’s possible that cheap energy implies a surveillance society.

Sorry to be so grim. If I’m missing a way out, please comment. But right now, the risks of cheap energy look to me much greater than the benefits. (Perhaps it’s important to distinguish between energy that can be “surged” and energy that is cheap but can only come in at a certain maximum rate? That might help; I don’t know.)