/etc: Please stop enabling

One of the most painful legacies of UNIX’s long gestation is the mess of scripts, configuration files, and databases we affectionately call “/etc”. Binaries go in “/bin”, libraries belong in “/lib”, user directories expand out under “/home”, and if something doesn’t fit? Where does it go? “/etc”.

Of course, “/etc” isn’t really the overflow directory that its name would imply. “/config” would be a far better choice, more accurately reflecting the nature of its contents, but like so much of the data contained within it, its name suggests a lack of organization rather a coherent collection of configuration settings. While the rest of the filesystem has moved on to SQL, the user account database is still stored in colon-separated fields. Cisco routers can snapshot a running network configuration to be restored on reboot, but the best we can do is fiddle the interfaces file, then reboot to take the changes live. Or adjust the interface settings by hand and wait for the next reboot to see if the network comes up right. Our name service is configured in /etc/hosts, or /etc/resolv.conf, or /etc/network, or /etc/dnsmasq.d, or /etc/systemd, or wherever the next package maintainer decides to put it. Nor can you simply save a system’s configuration by making a copy of /etc, because there’s plenty of non-configuration information there, mostly system scripts.

What a mess.

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iDictionary

Apple’s recent announcement of the iPhone has inspired me to reconsider how IT can be used to support foreign language studies. According to Apple, the iPhone will have a microphone (it’s a phone, after all), run OS X, and have 4 to 8 GB of memory. That should be a sufficient platform to load a voice activated dictionary. After training a voice recognizer, you could speak a word into the device which it would then lookup in a dictionary and display the dictionary entry on the screen, providing language students with the detail of a full sized dictionary in something that could fit in their pocket.

Could pocket Spanish-English dictionaries be a thing of the past?

Dynamic DVD

As streaming video has become more commonly available, it is now plausible to discuss offering a video interface to a website. A user could connect to a site using a video client and “navigate” on-line video content using a DVD-style user interface – video menus, highlighted on-screen buttons, fast-forward, subtitles. Alternately, such an interface could augment conventional TV broadcasts, offering a nightly news program with video hyperlinks to hours of detailed coverage of events we currently see only in sound bites.

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Building chess tablebases over the Internet

I’ve read some stuff on the Internet about using pre-computed tablebases to solve complex endgames. Apparently you can load a five- or six- piece tablebase into a program like Fritz and it will then know how to mechanically solve any endgame with five (or six) pieces on the board.

I starting thinking about this, but more along the lines of building the tables dynamically, using a pool of cooperating computers on the Internet. The idea would be to direct your search towards certain game positions that you wanted to analyze. This would work well in static analysis and also in relatively slow correspondence time controls (like Gary Kasparov vs The World, or the upcoming The World vs Arno Nickel).

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