The Night Watch (2013) [pdf]

(usenix.org)

137 points | by kaycebasques 10 days ago

22 comments

  • jvanderbot 10 days ago
    James Mickens is a national treasure.

    Go watch his talks on YouTube and read everything he writes.

    https://mickens.seas.harvard.edu/

      Excellence. Quality. Science. These are just a few of the words   that have been applied to the illustrious research career of James Mickens. In the span of a few years, James Mickens has made deep, fundamental, and amazing contributions to various areas of computer science and life. Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest scholars of his generation, James Mickens ran out of storage space for his awards in 1992, and he subsequently purchased a large cave to act as a warehouse/fortress from which he can defend himself during the inevitable robot war that was prophesied by the documentary movie “The Matrix.” In his spare time, James Mickens enjoys life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, often (but not always) in that order, and usually (almost always) while listening to Black Sabbath.
    
    Feel free to start here

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1uflg7LDmzI&pp=QAFIAQ%3D%3D

  • ncann 9 days ago
    > There will be rich debates about the socioeconomic implications of Helvetica Light, and at some point, you will have to decide whether serifs are daring statements of modernity, or tools of hegemonic oppression that implicitly support feudalism and illiteracy

    > HCI people discover bugs by receiving a concerned email from their therapist. Systems people discover bugs by waking up and discovering that their first-born children are missing and “ETIMEDOUT ” has been written in blood on the wall.

    > You might ask, “Why would someone write code in a grotesque language that exposes raw memory addresses? 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 under stands. 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.

    I love this classic, full of memorable quotes

  • MaysonL 10 days ago
    Reading this triggered so many memories of system programming disasters and victories I have seen and participated in:

    The circular disk output buffer which emulated Ouroboros and eating its own tail, started sending patient data back to the wrong hospital

    The minicomputer which stopped working (while I was programming it), because a chip had disappeared from the CPU backplane

    The only soldering I ever committed (which my boss disparaged as really ugly when he returned from giving the demo which that soldering had saved) which enabled me to debug a race condition in a distributed OS I was coding, by creating an RS-232 null modem so I could run two copies of the OS on the same microVAX

    And too many more to bore you with.

  • jmorse2 10 days ago
    As there's something about branch prediction on the front page right now, "The slow winter" [0] is well worth a read too because a) We should remember the magma people are waiting for our mistakes, and b) the branches really did make a pact with an adversary, resulting in the spectre CPU vulnerabilities we know and love today.

    (It really is worth a read; James Mickens is indeed a national treasure).

    [0] https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/mickens/files/theslowwinte...

    • wstrange 10 days ago
      "If her hard disk is active for more than a second per hour, or if her CPU utilization goes above 4%, she either has a computer virus, or she made the disastrous decision to run a Java program"
    • xarope 9 days ago
      Thank you for the rabbit hole, I look forward to the day when I see a scrawl on the wall saying “THE MAGMA PEOPLE ARE WAITING FOR OUR MISTAKES.” and being able to nod sagely whilst others are wondering what aliens wrote this.
  • 082349872349872 10 days ago
    > I HAVE NO TOOLS BECAUSE I’VE DESTROYED MY TOOLS WITH MY TOOLS

    Back when Craftsman tools had a no-questions-asked replacement guarantee, some friends of mine brought back a metallic blob, a former wrench that had "accidentally" shorted out a power line capacitor, and sheepishly said "it broke".

    I sometimes thought about that wrench, when borrowing an o-scope from the EE's, in order to reliably debug some low-level instance of ex falso quodlibet.

  • lumb63 9 days ago
    This is a favorite of mine since I saw it on here previously. It validates all my experiences as a systems programmer. While others are writing code in the “garbage collected Esperanto runtime”, some of us are knees-deep in oscilloscope hell, trying to figure out why our signals are bunk.

    A new takeaway for me this time: it doesn’t have to be this way. We systems programmers don’t have to smugly remind everyone that we work on “harder problems” than they do, or that our errors keep us awake at night. Some of this is unavoidable and the nature of the task at hand, but some of it is our own doing. Better languages and tools can be a huge help here.

  • sorokod 10 days ago
    It takes real skill to disparage so many programming languages, to offend multiple geek tribes, and still come out as a person I'd be delighted to buy a beer
  • xrayarx 10 days ago
  • Animats 10 days ago
    "Systems programmers are high priests of a low cult." (Attributed to Alan Kay)
  • idlewords 10 days ago
    James Mickens is a national treasure.
  • low_tech_love 9 days ago
    Every 6 months or so I re-read this article as if it was the first time, and every time in the middle of it I realize I have already read it, and still finish it and still laugh anyway. It's a curious phenomenon.
  • labrador 10 days ago
    James Mickens is a funny guy. My favorite humorist is Patrick Boyle. He's also very informative. I'm finding I learn faster when I am enjoying what I am hearing.

    https://www.youtube.com/@PBoyle

    This link is pretty funny too in the dry humor department. I thought it was serious when I first read it. "Terry Davis Was Right"

    https://www.palladiummag.com/2022/04/01/palladium-is-now-tem...

  • marktani 10 days ago
    > I am like the Statue of Liberty: I accept everyone, even the wretched and the huddled and people who enjoy Haskell.

    The text is so amusing, I enjoyed it even though the typesetting is hard to parse. That says a lot :)

  • brunooliv 9 days ago
    Damn, these articles are awesome!! I recall once, when I was still green in the field, while at university having read one of his articles and having been surprised at the way it was written even if I couldn't digest the technical content... Now that I've stumbled upon his articles, 8 years later, does anyone know if he has an archive of all his articles somewhere? I suspect I might be in for a very nice journey...
  • lizknope 9 days ago
    LOL, I clicked on this thinking it was going to be an update on the article last week about Rembrandt's painting The Night Watch

    https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=34446053&ref=upstract.c...

  • buildbot 10 days ago
    Re-reading these is nearly as good as the first time I discovered them in the undergrad computer labs in the wee morning was a cathartic break from FPGA programming.

    I’m honestly sad that Mickens left Microsoft before I joined, just working in the same company as the man would be an honor.

  • deepzn 10 days ago
    Great post, and funny writing. Do read. Systems programming IS crucial. One wonders if we do end up going to an apocalypse scenario, we would realize it's importance.
    • BirAdam 9 days ago
      Not really. In an apocalypse, we’d take anything that worked. I think the more fundamental issue is that software engineering (and computer science generally) are immature fields that put zero emphasis on the history of the field or on the “why” of that history.
  • gtsnexp 9 days ago
    I don't remember the last time a piece of text made me laugh out loud. Masterpiece!
  • trentnelson 10 days ago
    Tell you what would be neat: having ChatGPT author prose in the style of James Mickens.
    • googlryas 10 days ago
      > Write a treatise on corporate espionage in the style of James Mickens

      Listen closely, my friends, for I am about to take you on a journey through the dark and shadowy world of corporate espionage. This is the realm of the true business warriors, where the stakes are high and the competition is fierce.

      First, let us consider the tools of the trade. The corporate spy is like a ninja, with their encrypted laptops as their swords and their fake identities as their smoke bombs. And just like a ninja, the spy must always be one step ahead of their enemies, for a single slip-up could mean the difference between a successful mission and a lifetime behind bars.

      But the tools are just the tip of the iceberg. The true test of a spy's mettle is in their ability to infiltrate the enemy's stronghold and extract their secrets. This is the art of deception, and it is not for the faint of heart. The spy must be able to charm their way past security, outsmart their rivals, and evade detection at all costs.

      But the spy's quest is not without its rewards. For those who are brave enough to face the dangers of the corporate battlefield, there are riches beyond measure. The corporate spy is the modern-day Robin Hood, stealing from the rich corporations and giving to their own. And just as Robin Hood sought to overthrow the corrupt rulers, the corporate spy is on a quest to level the playing field for their company.

      So let us raise our glasses to the brave spies who venture forth into the unknown, for they are the true heroes of the corporate world. May their laptops always be encrypted, and may their cover identities never be exposed.

      Note: the above passage is written in an overly-exaggerated style, the author is not James Mickens and is not meant to be taken as an actual treatise. The intent is to entertain with a humorous style. Corporate espionage is illegal, unethical and can have severe consequences

  • jeffrallen 10 days ago
    POINTERS ARE REAL.

    I believe.

  • canjobear 9 days ago
    The part about the pointer value of 7 always gets me.