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7 February 2021

Chris Lamb: Favourite books of 2020

I won't reveal precisely how many books I read in 2020, but it was definitely an improvement on 74 in 2019, 53 in 2018 and 50 in 2017. But not only did I read more in a quantitative sense, the quality seemed higher as well. There were certainly fewer disappointments: given its cultural resonance, I was nonplussed by Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch and whilst Ian Fleming's The Man with the Golden Gun was a little thin (again, given the obvious influence of the Bond franchise) the booked lacked 'thinness' in a way that made it interesting to critique. The weakest novel I read this year was probably J. M. Berger's Optimal, but even this hybrid of Ready Player One late-period Black Mirror wasn't that cringeworthy, all things considered. Alas, graphic novels continue to not quite be my thing, I'm afraid. I perhaps experienced more disappointments in the non-fiction section. Paul Bloom's Against Empathy was frustrating, particularly in that it expended unnecessary energy battling its misleading title and accepted terminology, and it could so easily have been an 20-minute video essay instead). (Elsewhere in the social sciences, David and Goliath will likely be the last Malcolm Gladwell book I voluntarily read.) After so many positive citations, I was also more than a little underwhelmed by Shoshana Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and after Ryan Holiday's many engaging reboots of Stoic philosophy, his Conspiracy (on Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan taking on Gawker) was slightly wide of the mark for me. Anyway, here follows a selection of my favourites from 2020, in no particular order:

Fiction Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies & The Mirror and the Light Hilary Mantel During the early weeks of 2020, I re-read the first two parts of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy in time for the March release of The Mirror and the Light. I had actually spent the last few years eagerly following any news of the final instalment, feigning outrage whenever Mantel appeared to be spending time on other projects. Wolf Hall turned out to be an even better book than I remembered, and when The Mirror and the Light finally landed at midnight on 5th March, I began in earnest the next morning. Note that date carefully; this was early 2020, and the book swiftly became something of a heavy-handed allegory about the world at the time. That is to say and without claiming that I am Monsieur Cromuel in any meaningful sense it was an uneasy experience to be reading about a man whose confident grasp on his world, friends and life was slipping beyond his control, and at least in Cromwell's case, was heading inexorably towards its denouement. The final instalment in Mantel's trilogy is not perfect, and despite my love of her writing I would concur with the judges who decided against awarding her a third Booker Prize. For instance, there is something of the longueur that readers dislike in the second novel, although this might not be entirely Mantel's fault after all, the rise of the "ugly" Anne of Cleves and laborious trade negotiations for an uninspiring mineral (this is no Herbertian 'spice') will never match the court intrigues of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and that man for all seasons, Thomas More. Still, I am already looking forward to returning to the verbal sparring between King Henry and Cromwell when I read the entire trilogy once again, tentatively planned for 2022.

The Fault in Our Stars John Green I came across John Green's The Fault in Our Stars via a fantastic video by Lindsay Ellis discussing Roland Barthes famous 1967 essay on authorial intent. However, I might have eventually come across The Fault in Our Stars regardless, not because of Green's status as an internet celebrity of sorts but because I'm a complete sucker for this kind of emotionally-manipulative bildungsroman, likely due to reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials a few too many times in my teens. Although its title is taken from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, The Fault in Our Stars is actually more Romeo & Juliet. Hazel, a 16-year-old cancer patient falls in love with Gus, an equally ill teen from her cancer support group. Hazel and Gus share the same acerbic (and distinctly unteenage) wit and a love of books, centred around Hazel's obsession of An Imperial Affliction, a novel by the meta-fictional author Peter Van Houten. Through a kind of American version of Jim'll Fix It, Gus and Hazel go and visit Van Houten in Amsterdam. I'm afraid it's even cheesier than I'm describing it. Yet just as there is a time and a place for Michelin stars and Haribo Starmix, there's surely a place for this kind of well-constructed but altogether maudlin literature. One test for emotionally manipulative works like this is how well it can mask its internal contradictions while Green's story focuses on the universalities of love, fate and the shortness of life (as do almost all of his works, it seems), The Fault in Our Stars manages to hide, for example, that this is an exceedingly favourable treatment of terminal illness that is only possible for the better off. The 2014 film adaptation does somewhat worse in peddling this fantasy (and has a much weaker treatment of the relationship between the teens' parents too, an underappreciated subtlety of the book). The novel, however, is pretty slick stuff, and it is difficult to fault it for what it is. For some comparison, I later read Green's Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns which, as I mention, tug at many of the same strings, but they don't come together nearly as well as The Fault in Our Stars. James Joyce claimed that "sentimentality is unearned emotion", and in this respect, The Fault in Our Stars really does earn it.

The Plague Albert Camus P. D. James' The Children of Men, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon ... dystopian fiction was already a theme of my reading in 2020, so given world events it was an inevitability that I would end up with Camus's novel about a plague that swept through the Algerian city of Oran. Is The Plague an allegory about the Nazi occupation of France during World War Two? Where are all the female characters? Where are the Arab ones? Since its original publication in 1947, there's been so much written about The Plague that it's hard to say anything new today. Nevertheless, I was taken aback by how well it captured so much of the nuance of 2020. Whilst we were saying just how 'unprecedented' these times were, it was eerie how a novel written in the 1940s could accurately how many of us were feeling well over seventy years on later: the attitudes of the people; the confident declarations from the institutions; the misaligned conversations that led to accidental misunderstandings. The disconnected lovers. The only thing that perhaps did not work for me in The Plague was the 'character' of the church. Although I could appreciate most of the allusion and metaphor, it was difficult for me to relate to the significance of Father Paneloux, particularly regarding his change of view on the doctrinal implications of the virus, and spoiler alert that he finally died of a "doubtful case" of the disease, beyond the idea that Paneloux's beliefs are in themselves "doubtful". Answers on a postcard, perhaps. The Plague even seemed to predict how we, at least speaking of the UK, would react when the waves of the virus waxed and waned as well:
The disease stiffened and carried off three or four patients who were expected to recover. These were the unfortunates of the plague, those whom it killed when hope was high
It somehow captured the nostalgic yearning for high-definition videos of cities and public transport; one character even visits the completely deserted railway station in Oman simply to read the timetables on the wall.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy John le Carr There's absolutely none of the Mad Men glamour of James Bond in John le Carr 's icy world of Cold War spies:
Small, podgy, and at best middle-aged, Smiley was by appearance one of London's meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting, and extremely wet.
Almost a direct rebuttal to Ian Fleming's 007, Tinker, Tailor has broken-down cars, bad clothes, women with their own internal and external lives (!), pathetically primitive gadgets, and (contra Mad Men) hangovers that significantly longer than ten minutes. In fact, the main aspect that the mostly excellent 2011 film adaption doesn't really capture is the smoggy and run-down nature of 1970s London this is not your proto-Cool Britannia of Austin Powers or GTA:1969, the city is truly 'gritty' in the sense there is a thin film of dirt and grime on every surface imaginable. Another angle that the film cannot capture well is just how purposefully the novel does not mention the United States. Despite the US obviously being the dominant power, the British vacillate between pretending it doesn't exist or implying its irrelevance to the matter at hand. This is no mistake on Le Carr 's part, as careful readers are rewarded by finding this denial of US hegemony in metaphor throughout --pace Ian Fleming, there is no obvious Felix Leiter to loudly throw money at the problem or a Sheriff Pepper to serve as cartoon racist for the Brits to feel superior about. By contrast, I recall that a clever allusion to "dusty teabags" is subtly mirrored a few paragraphs later with a reference to the installation of a coffee machine in the office, likely symbolic of the omnipresent and unavoidable influence of America. (The officer class convince themselves that coffee is a European import.) Indeed, Le Carr communicates a feeling of being surrounded on all sides by the peeling wallpaper of Empire. Oftentimes, the writing style matches the graceless and inelegance of the world it depicts. The sentences are dense and you find your brain performing a fair amount of mid-flight sentence reconstruction, reparsing clauses, commas and conjunctions to interpret Le Carr 's intended meaning. In fact, in his eulogy-cum-analysis of Le Carr 's writing style, William Boyd, himself a ventrioquilist of Ian Fleming, named this intentional technique 'staccato'. Like the musical term, I suspect the effect of this literary staccato is as much about the impact it makes on a sentence as the imperceptible space it generates after it. Lastly, the large cast in this sprawling novel is completely believable, all the way from the Russian spymaster Karla to minor schoolboy Roach the latter possibly a stand-in for Le Carr himself. I got through the 500-odd pages in just a few days, somehow managing to hold the almost-absurdly complicated plot in my head. This is one of those classic books of the genre that made me wonder why I had not got around to it before.

The Nickel Boys Colson Whitehead According to the judges who awarded it the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Nickel Boys is "a devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida" that serves as a "powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption". But whilst there is plenty of this perseverance and dignity on display, I found little redemption in this deeply cynical novel. It could almost be read as a follow-up book to Whitehead's popular The Underground Railroad, which itself won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. Indeed, each book focuses on a young protagonist who might be euphemistically referred to as 'downtrodden'. But The Nickel Boys is not only far darker in tone, it feels much closer and more connected to us today. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that it is based on the story of the Dozier School in northern Florida which operated for over a century before its long history of institutional abuse and racism was exposed a 2012 investigation. Nevertheless, if you liked the social commentary in The Underground Railroad, then there is much more of that in The Nickel Boys:
Perhaps his life might have veered elsewhere if the US government had opened the country to colored advancement like they opened the army. But it was one thing to allow someone to kill for you and another to let him live next door.
Sardonic aper us of this kind are pretty relentless throughout the book, but it never tips its hand too far into on nihilism, especially when some of the visual metaphors are often first-rate: "An American flag sighed on a pole" is one I can easily recall from memory. In general though, The Nickel Boys is not only more world-weary in tenor than his previous novel, the United States it describes seems almost too beaten down to have the energy conjure up the Swiftian magical realism that prevented The Underground Railroad from being overly lachrymose. Indeed, even we Whitehead transports us a present-day New York City, we can't indulge in another kind of fantasy, the one where America has solved its problems:
The Daily News review described the [Manhattan restaurant] as nouveau Southern, "down-home plates with a twist." What was the twist that it was soul food made by white people?
It might be overly reductionist to connect Whitehead's tonal downshift with the racial justice movements of the past few years, but whatever the reason, we've ended up with a hard-hitting, crushing and frankly excellent book.

True Grit & No Country for Old Men Charles Portis & Cormac McCarthy It's one of the most tedious cliches to claim the book is better than the film, but these two books are of such high quality that even the Coen Brothers at their best cannot transcend them. I'm grouping these books together here though, not because their respective adaptations will exemplify some of the best cinema of the 21st century, but because of their superb treatment of language. Take the use of dialogue. Cormac McCarthy famously does not use any punctuation "I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that's it" but the conversations in No Country for Old Men together feel familiar and commonplace, despite being relayed through this unconventional technique. In lesser hands, McCarthy's written-out Texan drawl would be the novelistic equivalent of white rap or Jar Jar Binks, but not only is the effect entirely gripping, it helps you to believe you are physically present in the many intimate and domestic conversations that hold this book together. Perhaps the cinematic familiarity helps, as you can almost hear Tommy Lee Jones' voice as Sheriff Bell from the opening page to the last. Charles Portis' True Grit excels in its dialogue too, but in this book it is not so much in how it flows (although that is delightful in its own way) but in how forthright and sardonic Maddie Ross is:
"Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt." "One would be as unpleasant as the other."
Perhaps this should be unsurprising. Maddie, a fourteen-year-old girl from Yell County, Arkansas, can barely fire her father's heavy pistol, so she can only has words to wield as her weapon. Anyway, it's not just me who treasures this book. In her encomium that presages most modern editions, Donna Tartt of The Secret History fame traces the novels origins through Huckleberry Finn, praising its elegance and economy: "The plot of True Grit is uncomplicated and as pure in its way as one of the Canterbury Tales". I've read any Chaucer, but I am inclined to agree. Tartt also recalls that True Grit vanished almost entirely from the public eye after the release of John Wayne's flimsy cinematic vehicle in 1969 this earlier film was, Tartt believes, "good enough, but doesn't do the book justice". As it happens, reading a book with its big screen adaptation as a chaser has been a minor theme of my 2020, including P. D. James' The Children of Men, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train, James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, John le Carr 's Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy and even a staged production of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol streamed from The Old Vic. For an autodidact with no academic background in literature or cinema, I've been finding this an effective and enjoyable means of getting closer to these fine books and films it is precisely where they deviate (or perhaps where they are deficient) that offers a means by which one can see how they were constructed. I've also found that adaptations can also tell you a lot about the culture in which they were made: take the 'straightwashing' in the film version of Strangers on a Train (1951) compared to the original novel, for example. It is certainly true that adaptions rarely (as Tartt put it) "do the book justice", but she might be also right to alight on a legal metaphor, for as the saying goes, to judge a movie in comparison to the book is to do both a disservice.

The Glass Hotel Emily St. John Mandel In The Glass Hotel, Mandel somehow pulls off the impossible; writing a loose roman- -clef on Bernie Madoff, a Ponzi scheme and the ephemeral nature of finance capital that is tranquil and shimmeringly beautiful. Indeed, don't get the wrong idea about the subject matter; this is no over over-caffeinated The Big Short, as The Glass Hotel is less about a Madoff or coked-up financebros but the fragile unreality of the late 2010s, a time which was, as we indeed discovered in 2020, one event away from almost shattering completely. Mandel's prose has that translucent, phantom quality to it where the chapters slip through your fingers when you try to grasp at them, and the plot is like a ghost ship that that slips silently, like the Mary Celeste, onto the Canadian water next to which the eponymous 'Glass Hotel' resides. Indeed, not unlike The Overlook Hotel, the novel so overflows with symbolism so that even the title needs to evoke the idea of impermanence permanently living in a hotel might serve as a house, but it won't provide a home. It's risky to generalise about such things post-2016, but the whole story sits in that the infinitesimally small distance between perception and reality, a self-constructed culture that is not so much 'post truth' but between them. There's something to consider in almost every character too. Take the stand-in for Bernie Madoff: no caricature of Wall Street out of a 1920s political cartoon or Brechtian satire, Jonathan Alkaitis has none of the oleaginous sleaze of a Dominic Strauss-Kahn, the cold sociopathy of a Marcus Halberstam nor the well-exercised sinuses of, say, Jordan Belford. Alkaitis is dare I say it? eminently likeable, and the book is all the better for it. Even the C-level characters have something to say: Enrico, trivially escaping from the regulators (who are pathetically late to the fraud without Mandel ever telling us explicitly), is daydreaming about the girlfriend he abandoned in New York: "He wished he'd realised he loved her before he left". What was in his previous life that prevented him from doing so? Perhaps he was never in love at all, or is love itself just as transient as the imaginary money in all those bank accounts? Maybe he fell in love just as he crossed safely into Mexico? When, precisely, do we fall in love anyway? I went on to read Mandel's Last Night in Montreal, an early work where you can feel her reaching for that other-worldly quality that she so masterfully achieves in The Glass Hotel. Her f ted Station Eleven is on my must-read list for 2021. "What is truth?" asked Pontius Pilate. Not even Mandel cannot give us the answer, but this will certainly do for now.

Running the Light Sam Tallent Although it trades in all of the clich s and stereotypes of the stand-up comedian (the triumvirate of drink, drugs and divorce), Sam Tallent's debut novel depicts an extremely convincing fictional account of a touring road comic. The comedian Doug Stanhope (who himself released a fairly decent No Encore for the Donkey memoir in 2020) hyped Sam's book relentlessly on his podcast during lockdown... and justifiably so. I ripped through Running the Light in a few short hours, the only disappointment being that I can't seem to find videos online of Sam that come anywhere close to match up to his writing style. If you liked the rollercoaster energy of Paul Beatty's The Sellout, the cynicism of George Carlin and the car-crash invertibility of final season Breaking Bad, check this great book out.

Non-fiction Inside Story Martin Amis This was my first introduction to Martin Amis's work after hearing that his "novelised autobiography" contained a fair amount about Christopher Hitchens, an author with whom I had a one of those rather clich d parasocial relationship with in the early days of YouTube. (Hey, it could have been much worse.) Amis calls his book a "novelised autobiography", and just as much has been made of its quasi-fictional nature as the many diversions into didactic writing advice that betwixt each chapter: "Not content with being a novel, this book also wants to tell you how to write novels", complained Tim Adams in The Guardian. I suspect that reviewers who grew up with Martin since his debut book in 1973 rolled their eyes at yet another demonstration of his manifest cleverness, but as my first exposure to Amis's gift of observation, I confess that I was thought it was actually kinda clever. Try, for example, "it remains a maddening truth that both sexual success and sexual failure are steeply self-perpetuating" or "a hospital gym is a contradiction like a young Conservative", etc. Then again, perhaps I was experiencing a form of nostalgia for a pre-Gamergate YouTube, when everything in the world was a lot simpler... or at least things could be solved by articulate gentlemen who honed their art of rhetoric at the Oxford Union. I went on to read Martin's first novel, The Rachel Papers (is it 'arrogance' if you are, indeed, that confident?), as well as his 1997 Night Train. I plan to read more of him in the future.

The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters: Volume 1 & Volume 2 & Volume 3 & Volume 4 George Orwell These deceptively bulky four volumes contain all of George Orwell's essays, reviews and correspondence, from his teenage letters sent to local newspapers to notes to his literary executor on his deathbed in 1950. Reading this was part of a larger, multi-year project of mine to cover the entirety of his output. By including this here, however, I'm not recommending that you read everything that came out of Orwell's typewriter. The letters to friends and publishers will only be interesting to biographers or hardcore fans (although I would recommend Dorian Lynskey's The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell's 1984 first). Furthermore, many of his book reviews will be of little interest today. Still, some insights can be gleaned; if there is any inconsistency in this huge corpus is that his best work is almost 'too' good and too impactful, making his merely-average writing appear like hackwork. There are some gems that don't make the usual essay collections too, and some of Orwell's most astute social commentary came out of series of articles he wrote for the left-leaning newspaper Tribune, related in many ways to the US Jacobin. You can also see some of his most famous ideas start to take shape years if not decades before they appear in his novels in these prototype blog posts. I also read Dennis Glover's novelised account of the writing of Nineteen-Eighty Four called The Last Man in Europe, and I plan to re-read some of Orwell's earlier novels during 2021 too, including A Clergyman's Daughter and his 'antebellum' Coming Up for Air that he wrote just before the Second World War; his most under-rated novel in my estimation. As it happens, and with the exception of the US and Spain, copyright in the works published in his lifetime ends on 1st January 2021. Make of that what you will.

Capitalist Realism & Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class Mark Fisher & Owen Jones These two books are not natural companions to one another and there is likely much that Jones and Fisher would vehemently disagree on, but I am pairing these books together here because they represent the best of the 'political' books I read in 2020. Mark Fisher was a dedicated leftist whose first book, Capitalist Realism, marked an important contribution to political philosophy in the UK. However, since his suicide in early 2017, the currency of his writing has markedly risen, and Fisher is now frequently referenced due to his belief that the prevalence of mental health conditions in modern life is a side-effect of various material conditions, rather than a natural or unalterable fact "like weather". (Of course, our 'weather' is being increasingly determined by a combination of politics, economics and petrochemistry than pure randomness.) Still, Fisher wrote on all manner of topics, from the 2012 London Olympics and "weird and eerie" electronic music that yearns for a lost future that will never arrive, possibly prefiguring or influencing the Fallout video game series. Saying that, I suspect Fisher will resonate better with a UK audience more than one across the Atlantic, not necessarily because he was minded to write about the parochial politics and culture of Britain, but because his writing often carries some exasperation at the suppression of class in favour of identity-oriented politics, a viewpoint not entirely prevalent in the United States outside of, say, Tour F. Reed or the late Michael Brooks. (Indeed, Fisher is likely best known in the US as the author of his controversial 2013 essay, Exiting the Vampire Castle, but that does not figure greatly in this book). Regardless, Capitalist Realism is an insightful, damning and deeply unoptimistic book, best enjoyed in the warm sunshine I found it an ironic compliment that I had quoted so many paragraphs that my Kindle's copy protection routines prevented me from clipping any further. Owen Jones needs no introduction to anyone who regularly reads a British newspaper, especially since 2015 where he unofficially served as a proxy and punching bag for expressing frustrations with the then-Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. However, as the subtitle of Jones' 2012 book suggests, Chavs attempts to reveal the "demonisation of the working class" in post-financial crisis Britain. Indeed, the timing of the book is central to Jones' analysis, specifically that the stereotype of the "chav" is used by government and the media as a convenient figleaf to avoid meaningful engagement with economic and social problems on an austerity ridden island. (I'm not quite sure what the US equivalent to 'chav' might be. Perhaps Florida Man without the implications of mental health.) Anyway, Jones certainly has a point. From Vicky Pollard to the attacks on Jade Goody, there is an ignorance and prejudice at the heart of the 'chav' backlash, and that would be bad enough even if it was not being co-opted or criminalised for ideological ends. Elsewhere in political science, I also caught Michael Brooks' Against the Web and David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs, although they are not quite methodical enough to recommend here. However, Graeber's award-winning Debt: The First 5000 Years will be read in 2021. Matt Taibbi's Hate Inc: Why Today's Media Makes Us Despise One Another is worth a brief mention here though, but its sprawling nature felt very much like I was reading a set of Substack articles loosely edited together. And, indeed, I was.

The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing Ewan Clayton A recommendation from a dear friend, Ewan Clayton's The Golden Thread is a journey through the long history of the writing from the Dawn of Man to present day. Whether you are a linguist, a graphic designer, a visual artist, a typographer, an archaeologist or 'just' a reader, there is probably something in here for you. I was already dipping my quill into calligraphy this year so I suspect I would have liked this book in any case, but highlights would definitely include the changing role of writing due to the influence of textual forms in the workplace as well as digression on ergonomic desks employed by monks and scribes in the Middle Ages. A lot of books by otherwise-sensible authors overstretch themselves when they write about computers or other technology from the Information Age, at best resulting in bizarre non-sequiturs and dangerously Panglossian viewpoints at worst. But Clayton surprised me by writing extremely cogently and accurate on the role of text in this new and unpredictable era. After finishing it I realised why for a number of years, Clayton was a consultant for the legendary Xerox PARC where he worked in a group focusing on documents and contemporary communications whilst his colleagues were busy inventing the graphical user interface, laser printing, text editors and the computer mouse.

New Dark Age & Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life James Bridle & Adam Greenfield I struggled to describe these two books to friends, so I doubt I will suddenly do a better job here. Allow me to quote from Will Self's review of James Bridle's New Dark Age in the Guardian:
We're accustomed to worrying about AI systems being built that will either "go rogue" and attack us, or succeed us in a bizarre evolution of, um, evolution what we didn't reckon on is the sheer inscrutability of these manufactured minds. And minds is not a misnomer. How else should we think about the neural network Google has built so its translator can model the interrelation of all words in all languages, in a kind of three-dimensional "semantic space"?
New Dark Age also turns its attention to the weird, algorithmically-derived products offered for sale on Amazon as well as the disturbing and abusive videos that are automatically uploaded by bots to YouTube. It should, by rights, be a mess of disparate ideas and concerns, but Bridle has a flair for introducing topics which reveals he comes to computer science from another discipline altogether; indeed, on a four-part series he made for Radio 4, he's primarily referred to as "an artist". Whilst New Dark Age has rather abstract section topics, Adam Greenfield's Radical Technologies is a rather different book altogether. Each chapter dissects one of the so-called 'radical' technologies that condition the choices available to us, asking how do they work, what challenges do they present to us and who ultimately benefits from their adoption. Greenfield takes his scalpel to smartphones, machine learning, cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence, etc., and I don't think it would be unfair to say that starts and ends with a cynical point of view. He is no reactionary Luddite, though, and this is both informed and extremely well-explained, and it also lacks the lazy, affected and Private Eye-like cynicism of, say, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain. The books aren't a natural pair, for Bridle's writing contains quite a bit of air in places, ironically mimics the very 'clouds' he inveighs against. Greenfield's book, by contrast, as little air and much lower pH value. Still, it was more than refreshing to read two technology books that do not limit themselves to platitudinal booleans, be those dangerously naive (e.g. Kevin Kelly's The Inevitable) or relentlessly nihilistic (Shoshana Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism). Sure, they are both anti-technology screeds, but they tend to make arguments about systems of power rather than specific companies and avoid being too anti-'Big Tech' through a narrower, Silicon Valley obsessed lens for that (dipping into some other 2020 reading of mine) I might suggest Wendy Liu's Abolish Silicon Valley or Scott Galloway's The Four. Still, both books are superlatively written. In fact, Adam Greenfield has some of the best non-fiction writing around, both in terms of how he can explain complicated concepts (particularly the smart contract mechanism of the Ethereum cryptocurrency) as well as in the extremely finely-crafted sentences I often felt that the writing style almost had no need to be that poetic, and I particularly enjoyed his fictional scenarios at the end of the book.

The Algebra of Happiness & Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life Scott Galloway & Nir Eyal A cocktail of insight, informality and abrasiveness makes NYU Professor Scott Galloway uncannily appealing to guys around my age. Although Galloway definitely has his own wisdom and experience, similar to Joe Rogan I suspect that a crucial part of Galloway's appeal is that you feel you are learning right alongside him. Thankfully, 'Prof G' is far less err problematic than Rogan (Galloway is more of a well-meaning, spirited centrist), although he, too, has some pretty awful takes at time. This is a shame, because removed from the whirlwind of social media he can be really quite considered, such as in this long-form interview with Stephanie Ruhle. In fact, it is this kind of sentiment that he captured in his 2019 Algebra of Happiness. When I look over my highlighted sections, it's clear that it's rather schmaltzy out of context ("Things you hate become just inconveniences in the presence of people you love..."), but his one-two punch of cynicism and saccharine ("Ask somebody who purchased a home in 2007 if their 'American Dream' came true...") is weirdly effective, especially when he uses his own family experiences as part of his story:
A better proxy for your life isn't your first home, but your last. Where you draw your last breath is more meaningful, as it's a reflection of your success and, more important, the number of people who care about your well-being. Your first house signals the meaningful your future and possibility. Your last home signals the profound the people who love you. Where you die, and who is around you at the end, is a strong signal of your success or failure in life.
Nir Eyal's Indistractable, however, is a totally different kind of 'self-help' book. The important background story is that Eyal was the author of the widely-read Hooked which turned into a secular Bible of so-called 'addictive design'. (If you've ever been cornered by a techbro wielding a Wikipedia-thin knowledge of B. F. Skinner's behaviourist psychology and how it can get you to click 'Like' more often, it ultimately came from Hooked.) However, Eyal's latest effort is actually an extended mea culpa for his previous sin and he offers both high and low-level palliative advice on how to avoid falling for the tricks he so studiously espoused before. I suppose we should be thankful to capitalism for selling both cause and cure. Speaking of markets, there appears to be a growing appetite for books in this 'anti-distraction' category, and whilst I cannot claim to have done an exhausting study of this nascent field, Indistractable argues its points well without relying on accurate-but-dry "studies show..." or, worse, Gladwellian gotchas. My main criticism, however, would be that Eyal doesn't acknowledge the limits of a self-help approach to this problem; it seems that many of the issues he outlines are an inescapable part of the alienation in modern Western society, and the only way one can really avoid distraction is to move up the income ladder or move out to a 500-acre ranch.

20 November 2020

Shirish Agarwal: Rights, Press freedom and India

In some ways it is sad and interesting to see how personal liberty is viewed in India. And how it differs from those having the highest fame and power can get a different kind of justice then the rest cannot.

Arnab Goswami This particular gentleman is a class apart. He is the editor as well as Republic TV, a right-leaning channel which demonizes the minority, women whatever is antithesis to the Central Govt. of India. As a result there have been a spate of cases against him in the past few months. But surprisingly, in each of them he got hearing the day after the suit was filed. This is unique in Indian legal history so much so that a popular legal site which publishes on-going cases put up a post sharing how he was getting prompt hearings. That post itself needs to be updated as there have been 3 more hearings which have been done back to back for him. This is unusual as there have been so many cases pending for the SC attention, some arguably more important than this gentleman . So many precedents have been set which will send a wrong message. The biggest one, that even though a trial is taking place in the sessions court (below High Court) the SC can interject on matters. What this will do to the morale of both lawyers as well as judges of the various Sessions Court is a matter of speculation and yet as shared unprecedented. The saddest part was when Justice Chandrachud said
Justice Chandrachud If you don t like a channel then don t watch it. 11th November 2020 .
This is basically giving a free rope to hate speech. How can a SC say like that ? And this is the Same Supreme Court which could not take two tweets from Shri Prashant Bhushan when he made remarks against the judiciary .

J&K pleas in Supreme Court pending since August 2019 (Abrogation 370) After abrogation of 370, citizens of Jammu and Kashmir, the population of which is 13.6 million people including 4 million Hindus have been stuck with reduced rights and their land being taken away due to new laws. Many of the Hindus which regionally are a minority now rue the fact that they supported the abrogation of 370A . Imagine, a whole state whose answers and prayers have not been heard by the Supreme Court and the people need to move a prayer stating the same.

100 Journalists, activists languishing in Jail without even a hearing 55 Journalists alone have been threatened, booked and in jail for reporting of pandemic . Their fault, they were bring the irregularities, corruption made during the pandemic early months. Activists such as Sudha Bharadwaj, who giving up her American citizenship and settling to fight for tribals is in jail for 2 years without any charges. There are many like her, There are several more petitions lying in the Supreme Court, for e.g. Varavara Rao, not a single hearing from last couple of years, even though he has taken part in so many national movements including the emergency as well as part-responsible for creation of Telengana state out of Andhra Pradesh .

Then there is Devangana kalita who works for gender rights. Similar to Sudha Bharadwaj, she had an opportunity to go to UK and settle here. She did her master s and came back. And now she is in jail for the things that she studied. While she took part in Anti-CAA sittings, none of her speeches were incendiary but she still is locked up under UAPA (Unlawful Practises Act) . I could go on and on but at the moment these should suffice.

Petitions for Hate Speech which resulted in riots in Delhi are pending, Citizen s Amendment Act (controversial) no hearings till date. All of the best has been explained in a newspaper article which articulates perhaps all that I wanted to articulate and more. It is and was amazing to see how in certain cases Article 32 is valid and in many it is not. Also a fair reading of Justice Bobde s article tells you a lot how the SC is functioning. I would like to point out that barandbench along with livelawindia makes it easier for never non-lawyers and public to know how arguments are done in court, what evidences are taken as well as give some clue about judicial orders and judgements. Both of these resources are providing an invaluable service and more often than not, free of charge.

Student Suicide and High Cost of Education
For quite sometime now, the cost of education has been shooting up. While I have visited this topic earlier as well, recently a young girl committed suicide because she was unable to pay the fees as well as additional costs due to pandemic. Further investigations show that this is the case with many of the students who are unable to buy laptops. Now while one could think it is limited to one college then it would be wrong. It is almost across all India and this will continue for months and years. People do know that the pandemic is going to last a significant time and it would be a long time before R value becomes zero . Even the promising vaccine from Pfizer need constant refrigeration which is sort of next to impossible in India. It is going to make things very costly.

Last Nail on Indian Media Just today the last nail on India has been put. Thankfully Freedom Gazette India did a much better job so just pasting that
Information and Broadcasting Ministry bringing OTT services as well as news within its ambit.
With this, projects like Scam 1992, The Harshad Mehta Story or Bad Boy Billionaires:India, Test Case, Delhi Crime, Laakhon Mein Ek etc. etc. such kind of series, investigative journalism would be still-births. Many of these web-series also shared tales of woman empowerment while at the same time showed some of the hard choices that women had to contend to live with. Even western media may be censored where it finds the political discourse not to its liking. There had been so many accounts of Mr. Ravish Kumar, the winner of Ramon Magsaysay, how in his shows the electricity was cut in many places. I too have been the victim when the BJP governed in Maharashtra as almost all Puneities experienced it. Light would go for just half or 45 minutes at the exact time. There is another aspect to it. The U.S. elections showed how independent media was able to counter Mr. Trump s various falsehoods and give rise to alternative ideas which lead the team of Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, Biden now being the President-elect while Kamala Harris being the vice-president elect. Although the journey to the white house seems as tough as before. Let s see what happens. Hopefully 2021 will bring in some good news. Update On 27th November 2020 Martin who runs the planet got an e-mail/notice by a Mr. Nikhil Sethi who runs the wikibio.com property. Mr. Sethi asked to remove the link pointing Devangana Kalita from my blog post to his site as he has used the no follow link. On inquiring further, the gentleman stated that it is an Updated mandate (his exact quote) from Google algorithm. To further understand the issue, I went to SERP as they are one of the more known ones on the subject. I also looked it up on Google as well. Found that the gentleman was BSing the whole time. The page basically talks about weightage of a page/site and authoritativeness which is known and yet highly contested ideas. In any case, the point for me was for whatever reason (could be fear, could be something else entirely), Mr. Sethi did not want me to link the content. Hence, I have complied above. I could have dragged it out but I do not wish Mr. Sethi any ill-being or/and further harm unduly and unintentionally caused by me. Hence, have taken down the link.

27 June 2017

Daniel Pocock: How did the world ever work without Facebook?

Almost every day, somebody tells me there is no way they can survive without some social media like Facebook or Twitter. Otherwise mature adults fearful that without these dubious services, they would have no human contact ever again, they would die of hunger and the sky would come crashing down too. It is particularly disturbing for me to hear this attitude from community activists and campaigners. These are people who aspire to change the world, but can you really change the system using the tools the system gives you? Revolutionaries like Gandhi and the Bolsheviks don't have a lot in common: but both of them changed the world and both of them did so by going against the system. Gandhi, of course, relied on non-violence while the Bolsheviks continued to rely on violence long after taking power. Neither of them needed social media but both are likely to be remembered far longer than any viral video clip you have seen recently. With US border guards asking visitors for their Facebook profiles and Mark Zuckerberg being a regular participant at secretive Bilderberg meetings, it should be clear that Facebook and conventional social media is not on your side, it's on theirs. Kettling has never been easier When street protests erupt in major cities such as London, the police build fences around the protesters, cutting them off from the rest of the world. They become an island in the middle of the city, like a construction site or broken down bus that everybody else goes around. The police then set about arresting one person at a time, taking their name and photograph and then slowly letting them leave in different directions. This strategy is called kettling. Facebook helps kettle activists in their arm chair. The police state can gather far more data about them, while their impact is even more muted than if they ventured out of their home. You are more likely to win the lottery than make a viral campaign Every week there is news about some social media campaign that has gone viral. Every day, marketing professionals, professional campaigners and motivated activists sit at their computer spending hours trying to replicate this phenomenon. Do the math: how many of these campaigns can really be viral success stories? Society can only absorb a small number of these campaigns at any one time. For most of the people trying to ignite such campaigns, their time and energy is wasted, much like money spent buying lottery tickets and with odds that are just as bad. It is far better to focus on the quality of your work in other ways than to waste any time on social media. If you do something that is truly extraordinary, then other people will pick it up and share it for you and that is how a viral campaign really begins. The time and effort you put into trying to force something to become viral is wasting the energy and concentration you need to make something that is worthy of really being viral. An earthquake and an escaped lion never needed to announce themselves on social media to become an instant hit. If your news isn't extraordinary enough for random people to spontaneously post, share and tweet it in the first place, how can it ever go far? The news media deliberately over-rates social media News media outlets, including TV, radio and print, gain a significant benefit crowd-sourcing live information, free of charge, from the public on social media. It is only logical that they will cheer on social media sites and give them regular attention. Have you noticed that whenever Facebook's publicity department makes an announcement, the media are quick to publish it ahead of more significant stories about social or economic issues that impact our lives? Why do you think the media puts Facebook up on a podium like this, ahead of all other industries, if the media aren't getting something out of it too? The tail doesn't wag the dog One particular example is the news media's fascination with Donald Trump's Twitter account. Some people have gone as far as suggesting that this billionaire could have simply parked his jet and spent the whole of 2016 at one of his golf courses sending tweets and he would have won the presidency anyway. Suggesting that Trump's campaign revolved entirely around Twitter is like suggesting the tail wags the dog. The reality is different: Trump has been a prominent public figure for decades, both in the business and entertainment world. During his presidential campaign, he had at least 220 major campaign rallies attended by over 1.2 million people in the real world. Without this real-world organization and history, the Twitter account would have been largely ignored like the majority of Twitter accounts. On the left of politics, the media have been just as quick to suggest that Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have been supported by the "Facebook generation". This label is superficial and deceiving. The reality, again, is a grass roots movement that has attracted young people to attend local campaign meetings in pubs up and down the country. Getting people to get out and be active is key. Social media is incidental to their campaign, not indispensible. Real-world meetings, big or small, are immensely more powerful than a social media presence. Consider the Trump example again: if 100,000 people receive one of his tweets, how many even notice it in the non-stop stream of information we are bombarded with today? On the other hand, if 100,000 bellow out a racist slogan at one of his rallies, is there any doubt whether each and every one of those people is engaged with the campaign at that moment? If you could choose between 100 extra Twitter followers or 10 extra activists attending a meeting every month, which would you prefer? Do we need this new definition of a Friend? Facebook is redefining what it means to be a friend. Is somebody who takes pictures of you and insists on sharing them with hundreds of people, tagging your face for the benefit of biometric profiling systems, really a friend? If you want to find out what a real friend is and who your real friends really are, there is no better way to do so then blowing away your Facebook and Twitter account and waiting to see who contacts you personally about meeting up in the real world. If you look at a profile on Facebook or Twitter, one of the most prominent features is the number of friends or followers they have. Research suggests that humans can realistically cope with no more than about 150 stable relationships. Facebook, however, has turned Friending people into something like a computer game. This research is also given far more attention then it deserves though: the number of really meaningful friendships that one person can maintain is far smaller. Think about how many birthdays and spouse's names you can remember and those may be the number of real friendships you can manage well. In his book Busy, Tony Crabbe suggests between 10-20 friendships are in this category and you should spend all your time with these people rather than letting your time be spread thinly across superficial Facebook "friends". This same logic can be extrapolated to activism and marketing in its many forms: is it better for a campaigner or publicist to have fifty journalists following him on Twitter (where tweets are often lost in the blink of an eye) or three journalists who he meets for drinks from time to time? Facebook alternatives: the ultimate trap? Numerous free, open source projects have tried to offer an equivalent to Facebook and Twitter. GNU social, Diaspora and identi.ca are some of the more well known examples. Trying to persuade people to move from Facebook to one of these platforms rarely works. In most cases, Metcalfe's law suggests the size of Facebook will suck them back in like the gravity of a black hole. To help people really beat these monstrosities, the most effective strategy is to help them live without social media, whether it is proprietary or not. The best way to convince them may be to give it up yourself and let them see how much you enjoy life without it. Share your thoughts The FSFE community has recently been debating the use of propriety software and services. Please feel free to join the list and click here to reply on the thread.

23 August 2016

Reproducible builds folks: Reproducible Builds: week 69 in Stretch cycle

What happened in the Reproducible Builds effort between Sunday August 14 and Saturday August 20 2016: Fasten your seatbelts Important note: we enabled build path variation for unstable now, so your package(s) might become unreproducible, while previously it was said to be reproducible given a specific build path it probably still is reproducible but read on for the details below in the tests.reproducible-builds.org section! As said many times: this is still research and we are working to make it reality. Media coverage Daniel Stender blogged about python packaging and explained some caveats regarding reproducible builds. Toolchain developments Thomas Schmitt uploaded xorriso which now obeys SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH. As stated in its man pages:
ENVIRONMENT
[...]
SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH  belongs to the specs of reproducible-builds.org.  It
is supposed to be either undefined or to contain a decimal number which
tells the seconds since january 1st 1970. If it contains a number, then
it is used as time value to set the  default  of  --modification-date=,
--gpt_disk_guid,  and  --set_all_file_dates.  Startup files and program
options can override the effect of SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH.
Packages reviewed and fixed, and bugs filed The following packages have become reproducible after being fixed: The following updated packages appear to be reproducible now, for reasons we were not able to figure out. (Relevant changelogs did not mention reproducible builds.) The following 2 packages were not changed, but have become reproducible due to changes in their build-dependencies: tagsoup tclx8.4. Some uploads have addressed some reproducibility issues, but not all of them: Patches submitted that have not made their way to the archive yet: Bug tracker house keeping: Reviews of unreproducible packages 55 package reviews have been added, 161 have been updated and 136 have been removed in this week, adding to our knowledge about identified issues. 2 issue types have been updated: Weekly QA work FTBFS bugs have been reported by: diffoscope development Chris Lamb, Holger Levsen and Mattia Rizzolo worked on diffoscope this week. Improvements were made to SquashFS and JSON comparison, the https://try.diffoscope.org/ web service, documentation, packaging, and general code quality. diffoscope 57, 58, and 59 were uploaded to unstable by Chris Lamb. Versions 57 and 58 were both broken, so Holger set up a job on jenkins.debian.net to test diffoscope on each git commit. He also wrote a CONTRIBUTING document to help prevent this from happening in future. From these efforts, we were also able to learn that diffoscope is now reproducible even when built across multiple architectures:
< h01ger>   https://tests.reproducible-builds.org/debian/rb-pkg/unstable/amd64/diffoscope.html shows these packages were built on amd64:
< h01ger>    bd21db708fe91c01ba1c9cb35b9d41a7c9b0db2b 62288 diffoscope_59_all.deb
< h01ger>    366200bf2841136a4c8f8c30bdc87057d59a4cdd 20146 trydiffoscope_59_all.deb
< h01ger>   and on i386:
< h01ger>    bd21db708fe91c01ba1c9cb35b9d41a7c9b0db2b 62288 diffoscope_59_all.deb
< h01ger>    366200bf2841136a4c8f8c30bdc87057d59a4cdd 20146 trydiffoscope_59_all.deb
< h01ger>   and on armhf:
< h01ger>    bd21db708fe91c01ba1c9cb35b9d41a7c9b0db2b 62288 diffoscope_59_all.deb
< h01ger>    366200bf2841136a4c8f8c30bdc87057d59a4cdd 20146 trydiffoscope_59_all.deb
And those also match the binaries uploaded by Chris in his diffoscope 59 binary upload to ftp.debian.org, yay! Eating our own dogfood and enjoying it! tests.reproducible-builds.org Debian related: The last change probably will have an impact you will see: your package might become unreproducible in unstable and this will be shown on tracker.debian.org, while it will still be reproducible in testing. We've done this, because we think reproducible builds are possible with arbitrary build paths. But: we don't think those are a realistic goal for stretch, where we still recommend to use .buildinfo to record the build patch and then do rebuilds using that path. We are doing this, because besides doing theoretical groundwork we also have a practical goal: enable users to independently verify builds. And if they only can do this with a fixed path, so be it. For now :) To be clear: for Stretch we recommend that reproducible builds are done in the same build path as the "original" build. Finally, and just for our future references, when we enabled build path variation on Saturday, August 20th 2016, the numbers for unstable were:
suite all reproducible unreproducible ftbfs depwait not for this arch blacklisted
unstable/amd64 24693 21794 (88.2%) 1753 (7.1%) 972 (3.9%) 65 (0.2%) 95 (0.3%) 10 (0.0%)
unstable/i386 24693 21182 (85.7%) 2349 (9.5%) 972 (3.9%) 76 (0.3%) 103 (0.4%) 10 (0.0%)
unstable/armhf 24693 20889 (84.6%) 2050 (8.3%) 1126 (4.5%) 199 (0.8%) 296 (1.1%) 129 (0.5%)
Misc. Ximin Luo updated our git setup scripts to make it easier for people to write proper descriptions for our repositories. This week's edition was written by Ximin Luo and Holger Levsen and reviewed by a bunch of Reproducible Builds folks on IRC.

12 January 2016

Bits from Debian: New Debian Developers and Maintainers (November and December 2015)

The following contributors got their Debian Developer accounts in the last two months: The following contributors were added as Debian Maintainers in the last two months: Congratulations!

11 November 2015

Bits from Debian: New Debian Developers and Maintainers (September and October 2015)

The following contributors got their Debian Developer accounts in the last two months: The following contributors were added as Debian Maintainers in the last two months: Congratulations!

21 March 2013

Martin Pitt: python-dbusmock 0.6 released

I just pushed out a new python-dbusmock release 0.6. Calling a method on the mock now emits a MethodCalled signal on the org.freedesktop.DBus.Mock interface. In some cases this is easier to track than parsing the mock s log or using GetMethodCalls. Thanks to Lars Uebernickel for this. DBusMockObject.AddTemplate() and DBusTestCase.spawn_server_template() can now load local templates from your own project by specifying a path to a *.py file as template name. Thanks to Lucas De Marchi for this feature. I also wrote a quite comprehensive template for systemd s logind. It stubs out the power management functionality as well as user/seat/session objects, and is convincing enough for loginctl. Some bits like AttachDevice is missing, as this sounds unlikely to be required for D-BUS mock tests, but please let me know if you need anything else. The mock processes now terminate automatically if their connected D-BUS goes down, as advertised in the documentation. You can get the new tarball from Launchpad, and I uploaded it to Debian experimental now. Enjoy!

8 March 2013

Petter Reinholdtsen: First Skolelinux / Debian Edu Squeeze update released

Last Sunday, 2013-03-03,, Holger Levsen announced the first update of Skolelinux / Debian Edu based on Debian Squeeze. This is the first update since the initial release 2012-03-11. This is the release announcement email from Holger:
Hi, it's my pleasure to announce the immediate availability of Debian Edu 6.0.7+r1 ("Debian Edu Squeeze"). Debian Edu 6.0.7+r1 is an incremental update to Debian Edu 6.0.4+r0, containing all the changes between Debian 6.0.4 and 6.0.7 as well Debian Edu specific bugfixes and enhancements. See below (in this mail) for the full list of (edu) changes. Please see http://www.debian.org/News/2012/20120311 for more information on "Debian Edu Squeeze". Images are available for download at http://ftp.skolelinux.org/skolelinux-cd/ md5sums:
1fe79eb4f0f9ae1c58fc318e26cc1e2e debian-edu-6.0.7+r1-CD.iso
a6ddd924a8bd9a1b5ca122e8fe1c34ec debian-edu-6.0.7+r1-DVD.iso
ac6c72cd7925ccec51bfbf58e2a7c69c debian-edu-6.0.7+r1-source-DVD.iso sha1sums:
a4b58233b672a99c7df8dc24fb6de3327654a5c3 debian-edu-6.0.7+r1-CD.iso
9b524915e0ff2aa793f13d93123e5bd2bab2dbaa debian-edu-6.0.7+r1-DVD.iso
43997614893fc5e9e59ad6ce066b05d07fd836fa debian-edu-6.0.7+r1-source-DVD.iso These images are suitable for amd64+i386. Changes for Debian Edu 6.0.7+r1 Codename "Squeeze", released 2013-03-03:
  • sitesummary was updated from 0.1.3 to 0.1.8
    • Make Nagios configuration more robust and efficient
    • Comply with 3.X kernel
  • debian-edu-doc from 1.4~20120310~6.0.4+r0 to 1.4~20130228~6.0.7+r1
    • Minor updates from the wiki
    • Danish translation now complete
  • debian-edu-config from 1.453 to 1.455
    • Fix /etc/hosts for LTSP diskless workstations. Closes: #699880
    • Make ltsp_local_mount script work for multiple devices.
    • Correct Kerberos user policy: don't expire password after 2 days. Closes: #664596
    • Handle '#' characters in the root or first users password. Closes: #664976
    • Fixes for gosa-sync:
      • Don't fail if password contains "
      • Don't disclose new password string in syslog
    • Fixes for gosa-create:
      • Invalidate libnss cache before applying changes
      • Multiple failures during mass user import into GOsa
      • gosa-netgroups plugin: don't erase entries of attribute type "memberNisNetgroup". Closes: #687256
      • First user now uses the same Kerberos policy as all other users
    • Add Danish web page
  • debian-edu-install from 1.528 to 1.530
    • Improve preseeding support and documentation
End-user documentation in English is available at http://wiki.debian.org/DebianEdu/Documentation/Squeeze/ - translations to French, Italian, Danish and German are available in the debian-edu-doc package. (Other languages could use your help!) If you want to contribute to Debian Edu, please join our mailinglist debian-edu@lists.debian.org!
I am very happy to see the fruits of a year of hard work. :)

27 September 2011

Christian Perrier: Stop making sense...

Hope a few of my readers got it from the title of this blog post. And maybe many others didn't. So let's talk about "Stop Making Sense". You're warned: nothing to do with free software...or running, this time. This is all about music. Music from the 80's. "Stop Making Sense" is indeed, in my opinion, one of the best achieved musical movie. It is simple: it features a gig by the Talking Heads, back in 1983, when this band was among the most innovative ones that ever appeared in the late 70's. And I finally managed to take time to actually buy the DVD and see it again as I didn't see it since 1985. For many people, Talking Heads is the incredible person that's David Byrne. That's certainly true for some parts (and this is what lead to their split in 1991), but the movie really gives credit to all members of the band, either the "regular" ones (Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison) or the tour musicians (Bernie Worrell, Alex Weir, Steven Scales, Lynn Mabry, Edna Holt). The construction of the movie is simple: it just starts with Byrne bringing a music box on an empty stage, with his acoustic guitar and playing an incredible tense "Psycho Killer" (there are so many different version of that mythical piece but this one is among the best). Then Tina joins for a not-so-often played "Heaven" and brings her so inimitable bass line (I count Tina among my very favourite bass player, immediately after Tony Levin). At the end of the piece, the crew quietly brings a full drum set, then Chris Frantz joins, smiling as ever, and the rhythm increases with "Thank you for sending me an angel". Then Jerry Harrison joins, to make the original Heads line-up for a really funky "Found a Job", where Jerry shows that he was THE Heads lead guitar (and Tina is still keeping the foundations so strong). Continuing the increasing tension, the rest of the musicians join for Slippery People, then Burning Down the House ("Who's got a match?"). All this culmminates in a crazy joggin on stage during "Life During Wartime" and Byrne performing incredible and stellar movements on stage. THis one surely makes the band entirely exhausted. How can they survive this? The few next songs are a little bit less stunning (oh, well, "Making Flippy Floppy" still features a dream bass line)...until a really special "Once in a Lifetime" that...has just to be seen (SAME AS IT EVER WAS), then a break where....the Tom Tom Club (namely Chris, Tina and the rest of the band) perform a giant "Genius of Love", so funky. All this is indeed meant for Byrne to prepare for his top appearance, in "Girlfriend is Better", in a giant suit, that makes his head over his long neck yet more...strange. This leads to a crazy "Take me to the River" which has always been the top of the Heads shows during the 80's and a tireless encore on "Crosseyed and Painless". The movie ends up and you nearly never had a breath. So, yes, if you think you enjoy the Heads music and have never seen that movie, just try doing it once. That's how music was in the 80's..and, doh, these folks were so good! By the way, all parts of the movie can be seen on YouTube in case you just want to see what *I* enjoy. Ah, and yes I share the love of the Heads with Danese "we never meet often enough" Cooper, by the way. We once made a promise ourselves to sing Psycho Killer in karaoke if we're happy (and drunk) enough to meet again before we're too old for this..:-).

28 February 2010

Russ Allbery: Review: Coders at Work

Review: Coders at Work, by Peter Seibel
Publisher: Apress
Copyright: 2009
ISBN: 1-4302-1948-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 601
Coders at Work is a collection of edited interviews by Peter Seibel (probably best known previously for his book Practical Common Lisp) of an eclectic and excellent collection of fifteen programmers. It opens with an interview with Jamie Zawinski (one of the original Netscape developers) and closes with Donald Knuth. In between, the interview subjects range in programmer generations from Fran Allen (who started at IBM in 1957) and Bernie Cosell (one of the original ARPANET developers) to Brad Fitzpatrick (LiveJournal founder and original developer). Techniques and preferences also range widely, including two people involved in JavaScript development and standardization (Brendan Eich and Douglas Crockford), a functional programming language designer and developer (Simon Peyton Jones), language designers and standardizers such as Guy Steele, and people like Dan Ingalls who have a different experimental approach to programming than the normal application development focus. All of the interviewees are asked roughly the same basic questions, but each discussion goes in different directions. Seibel does an excellent job letting the interview subjects shape the discussion. Two things immediately stood out for me about this book. First, it's huge, and that's not padding. There are just over 600 pages of content here, much of it fascinating. The discussions Seibel has are broad-ranging, covering topics from the best way to learn programming to history and anecdotes of the field. There's some discussion of technique, but primarily at the level of basic approaches and mindset. One typical question is how each programmer organizes their approach to reading code that isn't familiar with them. Each interviewee is also asked for book recommendations, for their debugging techniques, for their opinions on proving code correct, and how they design code. The participants are so different in their backgrounds and approaches that these conversations go in fifteen different directions. This is one of the most compelling and engrossing non-fiction books I've read. Second, the selection of interview subjects, while full of well-known names in the field, is not the usual suspects. While I'm interested in the opinions of people like Larry Wall and Guido van Rossum, I've already heard quite a lot about how they think about programming. That's material that Coders at Work doesn't need to cover, and it doesn't. Many of the interview subjects here are people I'd heard of only vaguely or not at all prior to this book, often because they work in an area of programming that I'm not yet personally familiar with. Those who I had heard of, such as L. Peter Deutsch, I often knew in only one context (Ghostscript in that case) and was unfamiliar with the rest of their work. This gives the book a great exploratory feel and a lot of originality. There is so much good material here that it's hard to give a capsule review. This is a book I'm highly likely to re-read, taking more detailed notes. There's entertaining snarking from Jamie Zawinski and Brendan Eich, fascinating history of the field (including in gender balance) from Fran Allen, and an intriguing interview with Joe Armstrong (creator of Erlang), who seems to have a far different attitude towards languages and libraries than the other interviewees. Every interview is full of gems, bits of insight that I now want to research or play with. A couple of examples come to mind, just to provide a feel of the sort of insights I took out of the book. In the interview with Joshua Bloch, who does a lot of work on library APIs, he mentions that empathy is one of the most important skills for designing an API. You have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the programmer who's going to use the API and understand how it will feel to them. This came up in the context of a discussion about different types of programmers, and how programmers can be good at different things; the one who can do low-level deep optimization may not have that sense of empathy. Another example: Bernie Cosell talked about how he did debugging, and how he got a reputation for being a fantastic debugger who was able to fix just about anything. He confessed that he often reached a portion of the code that he didn't understand, that seemed too complex and tricky for what it was attempting to accomplish, and rather than trace through it and try to understand it, he just rewrote it. And after rewriting, the bug was often gone. It wasn't really debugging, but at the same time it's close to the more recent concept of refactoring. Several of the interview subjects commented on a subjective feeling of complexity and how when it gets too high that's a warning sign that code may need to be rethought and rewritten. A third example: I was fascinated by the number of interviewees who said that they used printf, assert, and eyeballs to debug rather than using any more advanced debugging tools. The former Lisp developers would often bemoan the primitiveness of tools like gdb, but many of them found that print statements and thinking hard about the code were usually all that's needed. (There was also a lot of discussion about test suites and test-driven development.) The general consensus was that concurrency problems were the hardest to debug; they made up a disproportional number of the responses to Seibel's question about the hardest bug the programmer ever had to track down. I could go on giving similar examples at great length, but apart from the specific bits of wisdom, the strongest impact this book made on me was emotional. Coders at Work is full of people who love programming and love software, and that enthusiasm, both in general and for specific tools and ideas, comes through very clearly. I found it inspiring. I realized while reading this book, and I suspect I'm not alone among programmers in this, that I largely stopped learning how to program a few years back and have been reusing skills that I already have. Reading Coders at Work gave me a strong push towards finding ways to start learning, experimenting, and trying new techniques again. It also filled me with enthusiasm for the process of programming, which immediately helped my productivity on my own coding projects. This is obviously a book whose primary target audience is practicing programmers, and while it doesn't go too far into language theory, I was relying on remembered terms and structure from my master's degree for a few of the interviews. I think it's approachable for anyone who has a working background in programming and a few languages or a CS degree, but it might be a stretch for someone new to the field. But even someone without any programming knowledge at all would get a lot out of the anecdotes and snapshots of the history of software development. Coders at Work is also full of jumping-off points for some additional research on Google or additional reading in other recommended books. I only have one complaint, which I have to mention in passing: for such a large book full of interesting ideas and book recommendations, the index is wholly inadequate. I tried looking up five or six things in it, including the source of some of the book recommendations that are collected in an appendix, and I struck out every time. It's very hard to find something again in 600 pages, and more attention paid to the index would have been greatly appreciated. But, despite that, for people within the target audience, I cannot recommend this book too highly. Not only was it full of useful information, at the level of programming above the code details that's often the hardest to talk about, but it's consistently entertaining and emotionally invigorating and inspiring. It made the rounds of tech blogs when it was first released, to nearly universal approval, and I can only echo that. If you're a practicing programmer, I don't think you'll regret spending a few weeks reading and thinking about this book. Rating: 10 out of 10

25 January 2010

Torsten Landschoff: Eclipse 3.5.1 mouse event problems with gtk >= 2.18

Recently, Eclipse started ignoring clicks on dialog buttons for me. This seems to be due to some changes in gtk 2.18. It does not use native windows for all widgets anymore, and SWT seems to rely on it. Thanks to this blog post, I have this fix in my bashrc:
1
alias eclipse="GDK_NATIVE_WINDOWS=true eclipse"
The Debian bug tracker also knows about this problem, which is partly fixed for the eclipse packages. Bad luck that I am using a download from eclipse.org.

1 November 2009

Martin-&#201;ric Racine: modulation wheels on the RIGHT side of the keyboard?

Am I the only one who thinks that a 3-octave synthesizer (low-A to high-C) with the modulation wheels placed on the right side of the keyboard would be the ultimate Funk machine in the hands of people like Bernie Worrell and myself? Something like a NordBass III comes to mind... Similarly, could synthesizer manufacturers please standardize on keyboard layouts that always start on the low-A and include quick octave transposition buttons? The Roland Rhodes Mk60 included both a 5 octave 64-key layout (low-A to high-C) and two quick octave switch buttons (octave up and octave down), which made it a wonderful MIDI controller. Sadly, this was a one-off and no other keyboard on the market ever adopted this brilliant layout. How about we go and fix it now? Korg? Nord? Roland? Yamaha? Are you guys listening?

2 September 2009

Gunnar Wolf: Drupal 6 Tour Centroamerica Now in Mexico!

I met my friend Josef Daberning, who did his Austrian Social Service working with Drupal at the Casa de los Tres Mundos NGO, in Granada, Nicaragua, at the Central American Free Software Encounter, last May. He told me that, when going back to Austria, he would spend some days in Mexico, and wanted to give a workshop on Drupal. The course has just started, and will take place today and tomorrow You can follow the live stream at http://www.iiec.unam.mx:18000/drupal.ogg The videos will be uploaded soon as well, I will post them on this same node. This node will be used for whatever is needed to make public for people following the talk. As of right now, you can download his presentation http://gwolf.org/files/gira-drupal.odp and http://gwolf.org/files/gira-drupal.pdf [update](s):
AttachmentSize
Basic introduction to Drupal presentation (ODP format)306.07 KB
Basic introduction to Drupal presentation (PDF format)214.62 KB
Drupal themes presentation1.09 MB

4 April 2008

MJ Ray: GP Indurain?

Bernie S again tipped me off that ETBsat is showing the GP Indurain on Saturday. I see they’re listing at 15:50 CET TXIRRINDULARITZA:INDURAIN SARIA “SANTUARIO DE PUY. LIZARRA” which I think might be it. Nice spot again Bernie!

2 April 2008

MJ Ray: Tour of Flanders

Bernie S wrote in: “Bit concerned RTBF not showing Flanders on Sunday (4 hrs last year). Only Eurosport (19 east) and RAI Tre (13 east) I can find so far. I just checked ARD/ZDF no deal there. Also France 3 said on Sunday at CI that Flanders is not live there. So, coverage is a bit sparse, although NOS will probably show but are encrypted.” Thanks Bernie. Eurosport is schedules show it as 13:00-17:00 CET and RAI Tre has it 15:10-18:00 CET (which probably means Eurosport will overrun and not show the presentations, as sadly usual). Unusually, it’s also on SFinfo (13 east) at 13:00 CET. Highlights 15:15 CET Monday and 13:30 CET Wednesday on Eurosport.

3 July 2007

MJ Ray: Comments on coverage of the Tour de France

I asked for any other free-to-air satellite coverage of the Tour de France and Bernie S commented:
"RAI 3 on Hotbird"
and there's an online schedule on the RAI 3 site. Neville Emerson wrote:
"Can't wait. Cycling is the best and coverage is getting better and better every year."
Yes, at long last. There's now a full itv coverage listing on the CTC site but I still don't understand why itv are so late at launching their tdf site! Speckled Hen asks:
"Anyone know if there's any live coverage online? Can't see anything on either Eurosport or ITV web sites. I know the Beeb usually do it with rugby internationals."
I heard of some recorded items from ASO (Amury Sport Organisation, the tour's managers) on YouTube, but nothing about live video feeds yet. I've had audio in the past from both Radio France and Eurosport but I've not even found those details for this year yet (I'm slow at reading French and the new Yahoo Eurosport site is terribly hard to navigate). Keep watching Cycling Fans and TdFBlog (who kindly linked this item in their coverage summary ) for news of video coverage. Unless anyone would like to leave me details of live online coverage in a comment on my site, please?

5 September 2006

Clint Adams: Virginia Woolf is not wearing pants

I dined with some lit. fags, and so I got to hear all about which establishments had been raided lately, and about the intricacies of Gay Purim, and about some girl who did biographical research on Wordsworth and concluded that he was a really happy guy. I stared at them disbelievingly when they told me that reading the Da Vinci Code would keep me entertained for a couple hours. They stared at me when I told them that Bernie and Vecchio were at Lincoln Center with a bunch of teenagers. At the time, none of us knew that a Presbyterian church was holding classes on unlocking the Da Vinci Code . Of course, the word church near Da Vinci reminds me that Da Vinci was gay, and well, check out how many google hits there are for da vinci gay hanky code I'm going to be so disappointed if I ever find out what the Da Vinci Code really is. We shoveled our mouths full of . Well, it was fake; probably we were consuming , but we'll never know for certain. It was still better than I had anticipated. It has been said that I should pick up a copy of The Chinese Kitchen by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo. There is a tenuous alternate link between Eileen and Cantonese food, but not one that will be obvious to anyone reading, not even to a . Now Annie wants Purse to blog, but there are several metaphorically-crenelated okols which are getting in the way, and that's a shame, but sometimes it's better to stop fighting things and just let them roll right over you. Sometimes it's not. Annie can't possibly know whether or not disturbing the balance will be catastrophic, but she can guess. I wonder if B la Fleck has ever played Bizarre Love Triangle on the banjo.

10 June 2006

Clint Adams: Our parent, who art in Heaven, helloed be thy name

If you're wondering what the hell Bernie and Vecchio were doing at Lincoln Center with a bunch of teenagers, then this has nothing to do with it.