I recently got a new data dump for my ADA project. To my slight annoyance the data came in a new file format .pl2. Things didn't get much better from then on.

Attention Conservation Notice: Mostly a rant; perhaps some cogent points, but predominately just venting

Incident Report

Closed proprietary data formats are terrible

I knew immediately how to open this file: ask Google. It turns out it's a proprietary data format. I'll save you a surprisingly long session of searching and tell you that it can only be opened by (1) their proprietary software (big surprise) and (2) (thankfully) a provided SDK (for free even).

I just want to read this data and move onto real work. So I download the Matlab SDK.

But closed proprietary programs are even worse

Ok, so I needed to use Matlab to open the files; at least I can rely upon Matlab being reliable, right? After all, people pay (an extortionate amount of) money for it.

Turns out I broke Matlab. Not me personally, but a new release of ncurses. The newest version ncurses 6.0 was released a few weeks ago so I get the following error message when firing up Matlab

error while loading shared libraries: libncurses.so.5: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory

Not a great start. It was still looking for the old version. I try downgrading my ncurses version; no go since everything else depends upon the new version. Back to Google.

I found a very helpful1 thread about the problem. I download a package from the AUR and everything's good.

Now that Matlab's fixed I actually have to code something in Matlab. This deserves a post by itself, but let's just mention the infuriating use of parentheses for indexing, insistence on single quotes, and the compulsion to print everything not ended with a semi-colon.

But I finally got everything running. Time from start to finish, about 2 hours.

Assignment of Blame

File Format: mostly harmless

The file format being closed actually doesn't bother me too much. Firstly they provide an SDK. There's even an option: C++ or Matlab.

If I had the time I'd just use the C++ code. In the midst of my Googling I came across a press release that claimed the new format was orders of magnitude faster than the old. If they're doing something clever I'd rather they just give me the tools to read the data than have to figure it out myself. I can even write packages2 to read this data into all sorts of languages just using the FFI. So they get passing marks here.

There are potential problems however. If the company ever goes out of business your files are probably unreadable as the software which reads the format will vanish. This is actually an interesting problem that's not limited to closed proprietary data; it's just that open-source software has a very long half-life: as long as somebody has the source code it's just a visit to GitHub away. Anyways, there's some interesting stuff about Docker images being used to fix this problem.

So in the end this is an inconvenience, but falls pretty far down the list of things that irk me.

Matlab: bane of my existence

In contrast, I currently am wishing I could go "Office Space" on the portion of my hard drive that contains Matlab.

In a way, it's not their fault. Software updates are released all of the time and they can't be bothered to fix all of these issues. Besides, most people aren't on a rolling release distro, so they haven't updated ncurses yet.

On the other hand, if the source code was available I'd be able to just rebuild against the new ncurses. I probably wouldn't even need to do it myself, the packagers for my distribution would do it for me. All I have to do is run pacman -Syu and everything works great, just like it did for every3 other program that depends upon ncurses.

Before you conclude I'm over-reacting, I should also provide some context: Matlab has been a thorn in my side for a while now. Prior to this year the closest I had gotten to Matlab had been its open-source clone Octave4 which I was required to use for a machine learning course.

Then we started needing a method which is only implemented in Matlab; it can't even run in Octave. So I dutifully installed Matlab on my server (and it can't fit on my Chromebook which cramps my style).

It turns out that you have to connected to the campus network to validate the license (because $$$). Thus I have to make sure the VPN is connected each time. This interferes with my ssh connection such that I cannot ssh into my server from campus (and only campus) when I'm on the VPN. I could probably fix this, but it's low on the list of tasks.

Add on the fact that Matlab is a terrible language to read and write. See previous on my thoughts about punctuation, esp ", (, and ;.

But by far the most insidious part of Matlab is that it's contagious. Recall that my decision to use Matlab wasn't my idea; I was forced to use it because others used it. If I hadn't decided to use Matlab only to convert the data into an open format (HDF5), then anyone wishing to use my code would be forced to use Matlab too. I can cope, but those who aren't academics or whose institution doesn't shell out for a site license are effectively barred from using this method.


So how do you fix this problem. One solution is to just use open source software. At the very least this makes your life easier and refrains from making the problem worse. However, there also needs to be some effort to fix others' behavior.

Unfortunately this seems to be a quixotic effort. Richard Stallman has been railing against Microsoft Word for years and last time I checked I still get .docx5 files in my inbox. However, open source has come a long way; with workable alternatives (ahem, Julia) things could be different this time. At the very least it's worth a shot.

Now let me find some more windmills to tilt at.



This is what I love about my distro ArchLinux. There's a wealth of knowledge in the wiki and bbs that most problems are resolved with a quick search.


Not sure if I could legally distribute it.


Technically it doesn't work for AUR packges, but if Matlab was open it probably wouldn't be in the AUR. Octave isn't.


By the way, I hate open source software too: Octave is my favorite example here.


This isn't much of problem with technical folks. I do get .xlsx files all of the time though, which is annoying.