Search Results: "bod"

25 September 2022

Shirish Agarwal: Rama II, Arthur C. Clarke, Aliens

Rama II This would be more of a short post about the current book I am reading. Now people who have seen Arrival would probably be more at home. People who have also seen Avatar would also be familiar to the theme or concept I am sharing about. Now before I go into detail, it seems that Arthur C. Clarke wanted to use a powerful god or mythological character for the name and that is somehow the RAMA series started. Now the first book in the series explores an extraterrestrial spaceship that earth people see/connect with. The spaceship is going somewhere and is doing an Earth flyby so humans don t have much time to explore the spaceship and it is difficult to figure out how the spaceship worked. The spaceship is around 40 km. long. They don t meet any living Ramans but mostly automated systems and something called biots. As I m still reading it, I can t really say what happens next. Although in Rama or Rama I, the powers that be want to destroy it while in the end last they don t. Whether they could have destroyed it or not would be whole another argument. What people need to realize is that the book is a giant What IF scenario.

Aliens If there were any intelligent life in the Universe, I don t think they will take the pain of visiting Earth. And the reasons are far more mundane than anything else. Look at how we treat each other. One of the largest democracies on Earth, The U.S. has been so divided. While the progressives have made some good policies, the Republicans are into political stunts, consider the political stunt of sending Refugees to Martha s Vineyard. The ex-president also made a statement that he can declassify anything just by thinking about it. Now understand this, a refugee is a legal migrant whose papers would be looked into by the American Govt. and till the time he/she/their application is approved or declined they can work, have a house, or do whatever to support themselves. There is a huge difference between having refugee status and being an undocumented migrant. And it isn t as if the Republicans don t know this, they did it because they thought they will be able to get away with it. Both the above episodes don t throw us in a good light. If we treat others like the above, how can we expect to be treated? And refugees always have a hard time, not just in the U.S, , the UK you name it. The UK just some months ago announced a controversial deal where they will send Refugees to Rwanda while their refugee application is accepted or denied, most of them would be denied. The Indian Government is more of the same. A friend, a casual acquaintance Nishant Shah shared the same issues as I had shared a few weeks back even though he s an NRI. So, it seems we are incapable of helping ourselves as well as helping others. On top of it, we have the temerity of using the word alien for them. Now, just for a moment, imagine you are an intelligent life form. An intelligent life-form that could coax energy from the stars, why would you come to Earth, where the people at large have already destroyed more than half of the atmosphere and still arguing about it with the other half. On top of it, we see a list of authoritarian figures like Putin, Xi Jinping whose whole idea is to hold on to power for as long as they can, damn the consequences. Mr. Modi is no different, he is the dumbest of the lot and that s saying something. Most of the projects made by him are in disarray, Pune Metro, my city giving an example. And this is when Pune was the first applicant to apply for a Metro. Just like the UK, India too has tanked the economy under his guidance. Every time they come closer to target dates, the targets are put far into the future, for e.g. now they have said 2040 for a good economy. And just like in other countries, he has some following even though he has a record of failure in every sector of the economy, education, and defense, the list is endless. There isn t a single accomplishment by him other than screwing with other religions. Most of my countrymen also don t really care or have a bother to see how the economy grows and how exports play a crucial part otherwise they would be more alert. Also, just like the UK, India too gave tax cuts to the wealthy, most people don t understand how economies function and the PM doesn t care. The media too is subservient and because nobody asks the questions, nobody seems to be accountable :(.

Religion There is another aspect that also has been to the fore, just like in medieval times, I see a great fervor for religion happening here, especially since the pandemic and people are much more insecure than ever before. Before, I used to think that insecurity and religious appeal only happen in the uneducated, and I was wrong. I have friends who are highly educated and yet still are blinded by religion. In many such cases or situations, I find their faith to be a sham. If you have faith, then there shouldn t be any room for doubt or insecurity. And if you are not in doubt or insecure, you won t need to talk about your religion. The difference between the two is that a person is satiated himself/herself/themselves with thirst and hunger. That person would be in a relaxed mode while the other person would continue to create drama as there is no peace in their heart. Another fact is none of the major religions, whether it is Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or even Hinduism has allowed for the existence of extraterrestrials. We have already labeled them as aliens even before meeting them & just our imagination. And more often than not, we end up killing them. There are and have been scores of movies that have explored the idea. Independence day, Aliens, Arrival, the list goes on and on. And because our religions have never thought about the idea of ET s and how they will affect us, if ET s do come, all the religions and religious practices would panic and die. That is the possibility why even the 1947 Roswell Incident has been covered up . If the above was not enough, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans would always be a black mark against humanity. From the alien perspective, if you look at the technology that they have vis-a-vis what we have, they will probably think of us as spoilt babies and they wouldn t be wrong. Spoilt babies with nuclear weapons are not exactly a healthy mix

Earth To add to our fragile ego, we didn t even leave earth even though we have made sure we exploit it as much as we can. We even made the anthropocentric or homocentric view that makes man the apex animal and to top it we have this weird idea that extraterrestrials come here or will invade for water. A species that knows how to get energy out of stars but cannot make a little of H2O. The idea belies logic and again has been done to death. Why we as humans are so insecure even though we have been given so much I fail to understand. I have shared on numerous times the Kardeshev Scale on this blog itself. The above are some of the reasons why Arthur C. Clarke s works are so controversial and this is when I haven t even read the whole book. It forces us to ask questions that we normally would never think about. And I have to repeat that when these books were published for the first time, they were new ideas. All the movies, from Stanley Kubrick s 2001: Space Odyssey, Aliens, Arrival, and Avatar, somewhere or the other reference some aspect of this work. It is highly possible that I may read and re-read the book couple of times before beginning the next one. There is also quite a bit of human drama, but then that is to be expected. I have to admit I did have some nice dreams after reading just the first few pages, imagining being given the opportunity to experience an Extraterrestrial spaceship that is beyond our wildest dreams. While the Governments may try to cover up or something, the ones who get to experience that spacecraft would be unimaginable. And if they were able to share the pictures or a Livestream, it would be nothing short of amazing. For those who want to, there is a lot going on with the New James Webb Telescope. I am sure it would give rise to more questions than answers.

23 September 2022

Steve Kemp: Lisp macros are magical

In my previous post I introduced yet another Lisp interpreter. When it was posted there was no support for macros. Since I've recently returned from a visit to the UK, and caught COVID-19 while I was there, I figured I'd see if my brain was fried by adding macro support. I know lisp macros are awesome, it's one of those things that everybody is told. Repeatedly. I've used macros in my emacs programming off and on for a good few years, but despite that I'd not really given them too much thought. If you know anything about lisp you know that it's all about the lists, the parenthesis, and the macros. Here's a simple macro I wrote:
 (define if2 (macro (pred one two)
     (if ~pred (begin ~one ~two))))
The standard lisp if function allows you to write:
 (if (= 1 a) (print "a == 1") (print "a != 1"))
There are three arguments supplied to the if form: My if2 macro instead has three arguments: This means I can write:
 (if2 blah
    (one..)
    (two..))
Rather than:
 (if blah
    (begin
       (one..)
       (two..)))
It is simple, clear, and easy to understand and a good building-block for writing a while function:
 (define while-fun (lambda (predicate body)
    (if2 (predicate)
       (body)
       (while-fun predicate body))))
There you see that if the condition is true then we call the supplied body, and then recurse. Doing two actions as a result of the single if test is a neat shortcut. Of course we need to wrap that up in a macro, for neatness:
(define while (macro (expression body)
                 (list 'while-fun
                       (list 'lambda '() expression)
                       (list 'lambda '() body))))
Now we're done, and we can run a loop five times like so:
(let ((a 5))
  (while (> a 0)
     (begin
        (print "(while) loop - iteration %s" a)
        (set! a (- a 1) true))))
Output:
(while) loop - iteration 5
(while) loop - iteration 4
(while) loop - iteration 3
(while) loop - iteration 2
(while) loop - iteration 1
We've gone from using lists to having a while-loop, with a couple of simple macros and one neat recursive function. There are a lot of cute things you can do with macros, and now I'm starting to appreciate them a little more. Of course it's not quite as magical as FORTH, but damn close!

19 September 2022

Antoine Beaupr : Looking at Wayland terminal emulators

Back in 2018, I made a two part series about terminal emulators that was actually pretty painful to write. So I'm not going to retry this here, not at all. Especially since I'm not submitting this to the excellent LWN editors so I can get away with not being very good at writing. Phew. Still, it seems my future self will thank me for collecting my thoughts on the terminal emulators I have found out about since I wrote that article. Back then, Wayland was not quite at the level where it is now, being the default in Fedora (2016), Debian (2019), RedHat (2019), and Ubuntu (2021). Also, a bunch of folks thought they would solve everything by using OpenGL for rendering. Let's see how things stack up.

Recap In the previous article, I touched on those projects:
Terminal Changes since review
Alacritty releases! scrollback, better latency, URL launcher, clipboard support, still not in Debian, but close
GNOME Terminal not much? couldn't find a changelog
Konsole outdated changelog, color, image previews, clickable files, multi-input, SSH plugin, sixel images
mlterm long changelog but: supports console mode (like GNU screen?!), Wayland support through libvte, sixel graphics, zmodem, mosh (!)
pterm changes: Wayland support
st unparseable changelog, suggests scroll(1) or scrollback.patch for scrollback now
Terminator moved to GitHub, Python 3 support, not being dead
urxvt no significant changes, a single release, still in CVS!
Xfce Terminal hard to parse changelog, presumably some improvements to paste safety?
xterm notoriously hard to parse changelog, improvements to paste safety (disallowedPasteControls), fonts, clipboard improvements?
After writing those articles, bizarrely, I was still using rxvt even though it did not come up as shiny as I would have liked. The colors problems were especially irritating. I briefly played around with Konsole and xterm, and eventually switched to XTerm as my default x-terminal-emulator "alternative" in my Debian system, while writing this. I quickly noticed why I had stopped using it: clickable links are a huge limitation. I ended up adding keybindings to open URLs in a command. There's another keybinding to dump the history into a command. Neither are as satisfactory as just clicking a damn link.

Requirements Figuring out my requirements is actually a pretty hard thing to do. In my last reviews, I just tried a bunch of stuff and collected everything, but a lot of things (like tab support) I don't actually care about. So here's a set of things I actually do care about:
  • latency
  • resource usage
  • proper clipboard support, that is:
    • mouse selection and middle button uses PRIMARY
    • control-shift-c and control-shift-v for CLIPBOARD
  • true color support
  • no known security issues
  • active project
  • paste protection
  • clickable URLs
  • scrollback
  • font resize
  • non-destructive text-wrapping (ie. resizing a window doesn't drop scrollback history)
  • proper unicode support (at least latin-1, ideally "everything")
  • good emoji support (at least showing them, ideally "nicely"), which involves font fallback
Latency is particularly something I wonder about in Wayland. Kitty seem to have been pretty dilligent at doing latency tests, claiming 35ms with a hardware-based latency tester and 7ms with typometer, but it's unclear how those would come up in Wayland because, as far as I know, typometer does not support Wayland.

Candidates Those are the projects I am considering.
  • darktile - GPU rendering, Unicode support, themable, ligatures (optional), Sixel, window transparency, clickable URLs, true color support, not in Debian
  • foot - Wayland only, daemon-mode, sixel images, scrollback search, true color, font resize, URLs not clickable, but keyboard-driven selection, proper clipboard support, in Debian
  • havoc - minimal, scrollback, configurable keybindings, not in Debian
  • sakura - libvte, Wayland support, tabs, no menu bar, original libvte gangster, dynamic font size, probably supports Wayland, in Debian
  • termonad - Haskell? in Debian
  • wez - Rust, Wayland, multiplexer, ligatures, scrollback search, clipboard support, bracketed paste, panes, tabs, serial port support, Sixel, Kitty, iTerm graphics, built-in SSH client (!?), not in Debian
  • XTerm - status quo, no Wayland port obviously
  • zutty: OpenGL rendering, true color, clipboard support, small codebase, no Wayland support, crashes on bremner's, in Debian

Candidates not considered

Alacritty I would really, really like to use Alacritty, but it's still not packaged in Debian, and they haven't fully addressed the latency issues although, to be fair, maybe it's just an impossible task. Once it's packaged in Debian, maybe I'll reconsider.

Kitty Kitty is a "fast, feature-rich, GPU based", with ligatures, emojis, hyperlinks, pluggable, scriptable, tabs, layouts, history, file transfer over SSH, its own graphics system, and probably much more I'm forgetting. It's packaged in Debian. So I immediately got two people commenting (on IRC) that they use Kitty and are pretty happy with it. I've been hesitant in directly talking about Kitty publicly, but since it's likely there will be a pile-up of similar comments, I'll just say why it's not the first in my list, even if it might, considering it's packaged in Debian and otherwise checks all the boxes. I don't trust the Kitty code. Kitty was written by the same author as Calibre, which has a horrible security history and generally really messy source code. I have tried to do LTS work on Calibre, and have mostly given up on the idea of making that program secure in any way. See calibre for the details on that. Now it's possible Kitty is different: it's quite likely the author has gotten some experience writing (and maintaining for so long!) Calibre over the years. But I would be more optimistic if the author's reaction to the security issues were more open and proactive. I've also seen the same reaction play out on Kitty's side of things. As anyone who worked on writing or playing with non-XTerm terminal emulators, it's quite a struggle to make something (bug-for-bug) compatible with everything out there. And Kitty is in that uncomfortable place right now where it diverges from the canon and needs its own entry in the ncurses database. I don't remember the specifics, but the author also managed to get into fights with those people as well, which I don't feel is reassuring for the project going forward. If security and compatibility wasn't such big of a deal for me, I wouldn't mind so much, but I'll need a lot of convincing before I consider Kitty more seriously at this point.

Next steps It seems like Arch Linux defaults to foot in Sway, and I keep seeing it everywhere, so it is probably my next thing to try, if/when I switch to Wayland. One major problem with foot is that it's yet another terminfo entry. They did make it into ncurses (patch 2021-07-31) but only after Debian bullseye stable was released. So expect some weird compatibility issues when connecting to any other system that is older or the same as stable (!). One question mark with all Wayland terminals, and Foot in particular, is how much latency they introduce in the rendering pipeline. The foot performance and benchmarks look excellent, but do not include latency benchmarks.

No conclusion So I guess that's all I've got so far, I may try alacritty if it hits Debian, or foot if I switch to Wayland, but for now I'm hacking in xterm still. Happy to hear ideas in the comments. Stay tuned for more happy days.

17 September 2022

Shirish Agarwal: Books and Indian Tourism

Fiction A few days ago somebody asked me and I think it is an often requested to perhaps all fiction readers as to why we like fiction? First of all, reading in itself is told as food for the soul. Because, whenever you write or read anything you don t just read it, you also visualize it. And that visualization is and would be far greater than any attempt in cinema as there are no budget constraints and it takes no more than a minute to visualize a scenario if the writer is any good. You just close your eyes and in a moment you are transported to a different world. This is also what is known as world building . Something fantasy writers are especially gifted in. Also, with the whole parallel Universes being a reality, it is just so much fertile land for imagination that I just cannot believe that it hasn t been worked to death to date. And you do need a lot of patience to make a world, to make characters, to make characters a bit eccentric one way or the other. And you have to know to put into a three, five, or whatever number of acts you want to put in. And then, of course, they have readers like us who dream and add more color to the story than the author did. As we take his, her, or their story and weave countless stories depending on where we are, where we are and who we are. What people need to understand is that not just readers want escapism but writers too want to escape from the human condition. And they find solace in whatever they write. The well-known example of J.R.R. Tolkien is always there. How he must have felt each day coming after war, to somehow find the strength and just dream away, transport himself to a world of hobbits, elves, and other mysterious beings. It surely must have taken a lot of pain from him that otherwise, he would have felt. There are many others. What also does happen now and then, is authors believe in their own intelligence so much, that they commit crimes, but that s par for the course.

Dean Koontz, Odd Apocalypse Currently, I am reading the above title. It is perhaps one of the first horror title books that I have read which has so much fun. The hero has a great sense of wit, humor, and sarcasm that you can cut butter with it. Now if you got that, this is par for the wordplay happening every second paragraph and I m just 100 pages in of the 500-page Novel. Now, while I haven t read the whole book and I m just speculating, what if at the end we realize that the hero all along was or is the villain. Sadly, we don t have many such twisted stories and that too is perhaps because most people used to have black and white rather than grey characters. From all my reading, and even watching web series and whatnot, it is only the Europeans who seem to have a taste for exploring grey characters and giving twists at the end that people cannot anticipate. Even their heroes or heroines are grey characters. and they can really take you for a ride. It is also perhaps how we humans are, neither black nor white but more greyish. Having grey characters also frees the author quite a bit as she doesn t have to use so-called tropes and just led the characters to lead themselves.

Indian Book publishing Industry I do know Bengali stories do have a lot of grey characters, but sadly most of the good works are still in Bengali and not widely published compared to say European or American authors. While there is huge potential in the Indian publishing market for English books and there is also hunger, getting good and cheap publishers is the issue. Just recently SAGE publishing division shut down and this does not augur well for the Indian market. In the past few years, I and other readers have seen some very good publishing houses quit India for one reason or the other. GST has also made the sector more expensive. The only thing that works now and has been for some time is the seconds and thirds market. For e.g. I just bought today about 15-20 books @INR 125/- a kind of belated present for the self. That would be what, at the most 2 USD or 2 Euros per book. I bet even a burger costs more than that, but again India being a price-sensitive market, at these prices the seconds book sells. And these are all my favorite authors, Lee Child, Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz, and so on and so forth. I also saw a lot of fantasy books but they would have to wait for another day.

Tourism in India for Debconf 23 I had shared a while back that I would write a bit about tourism as Debconf or Annual Debian Conference will happen in India next year around this time. I was supposed to write it in the FAQ but couldn t find a place or a corner where I could write it. There are actually two things that people need to be aware of. The one thing that people need to be very aware of is food poisoning or Delhi Belly. This is a far too common sight that I have witnessed especially with westerners when they come to visit India. I am somewhat shocked that it hasn t been shared in the FAQ but then perhaps we cannot cover all the bases therein. I did find this interesting article and would recommend the suggestions given in it wholeheartedly. I would suggest people coming to India to buy and have purifying water tablets with them if they decide to stay back and explore India. Now the problem with tourism is, that one can have as much tourism as one wants. One of the unique ways I found some westerners having the time of their life is buying an Indian Rickshaw or Tuk-Tuk and traveling with it. A few years ago, when I was more adventourous-spirited I was able to meet a few of them. There is also the Race with Rickshaws that happens in Rajasthan and you get to see about 10 odd cities in and around Rajasthan state and get to see the vibrancy in the North. If somebody really wants to explore India, then I would suggest getting down to Goa, specifically, South Goa, meeting with the hippie crowd, and getting one of the hippie guidebooks to India. Most people forget that the Hippies came to India in the 1960s and many of them just never left. Tap water in Pune is ok, have seen and experienced the same in Himachal, Garwhal, and Uttarakhand, although it has been a few years since I have been to those places. North-East is a place I have yet to venture into. India does have a lot of beauty but most people are not clean-conscious so if you go to common tourist destinations, you will find a lot of garbage. Most cities in India do give you an option of homestays and some even offer food, so if you are on a budget as well as wanna experience life with an Indian family, that could be something you could look into. So you can see and share about India with different eyes. There is casteism, racism, and all that. Generally speaking, you would see it wielded a lot more in your face in North India than in South India where it is there but far more subtle. About food, what has been shared in the India BOF. Have to say, it doesn t even scratch the surface. If you stay with an Indian family, there is probably a much better chance of exploring the variety of food that India has to offer. From the western perspective, we tend to overcook stuff and make food with Masalas but that s the way most people like it. People who have had hot sauces or whatnot would probably find India much easier to adjust to as tastes might be similar to some extent. If you want to socialize with young people, while discos are an option, meetup.com also is a good place. You can share your passions and many people have taken to it with gusto. We also have been hosting Comiccons in India, but I haven t had the opportunity to attend them so far. India has a rich oral culture reach going back a few thousand years, but many of those who are practicing those reside more in villages rather than in cities. And while there have been attempts in the past to record them, most of those have come to naught as money runs out as there is no commercial viability to such projects, but that probably is for another day. In the end, what I have shared is barely a drop in the ocean that is India. Come, have fun, explore, enjoy and invigorate yourself and others

11 September 2022

Shirish Agarwal: Politics, accessibility, books

Politics I have been reading books, both fiction and non-fiction for a long long time. My first book was a comic most probably when I was down with Malaria when I was a kid. I must be around 4-5 years old. Over the years, books have given me great joy and I continue to find nuggets of useful information, both in fiction as well as non-fiction books. So here s to sharing something and how that can lead you to a rabbit hole. This entry would be a bit NSFW as far as language is concerned. NYPD Red 5 by James Patterson First of all, have no clue as to why James Patterson s popularity has been falling. He used to be right there with Lee Child and others, but not so much now. While I try to be mysterious about books, I would give a bit of heads-up so people know what to expect. This is probably more towards the Adult crowd as there is a bit of sex as well as quite a few grey characters. The NYPD Red is a sort of elite police task force that basically is for celebrities. In the book series, they do a lot of ass-kissing (figuratively more than literally). Now the reason I have always liked fiction is that however wild the assumption or presumption is, it does have somewhere a grain of truth. And each and every time I read a book or two, that gets cemented. One of the statements in the book told something about how 9/11 took a lot of police personnel out of the game. First, there were a number of policemen who were patrolling the Two Towers, so they perished literally during the explosion. Then there were policemen who were given the cases to close the cases (bring the cases to conclusion). When you are investigating your own brethren or even civilians who perished 9/11 they must have experienced emotional trauma and no outlet. Mental health even in cops is the same and given similar help as you and me (i.e. next to none.) But both of these were my assumptions. The only statement that was in the book was they lost a lot of bench strength. Even NYFD (New York Fire Department). This led me to me to With Crime At Record Lows, Should NYC Have Fewer Cops? This is more right-wing sentiment and in fact, there have been calls to defund the police. This led me to https://cbcny.org/ and one specific graph. Unfortunately, this tells the story from 2010-2022 but not before. I was looking for data from around 1999 to 2005 because that will tell whether or not it happened. Then I remembered reading in newspapers the year or two later how 9/11 had led NYC to recession. I looked up online and for sure NY was booming before 9/11. One can argue that NYC could come down and that is pretty much possible, everything that goes up comes down, it s a law of nature but it would have been steady rather than abrupt. And once you are in recession, the first thing to go is personnel. So people both from NYPD and NYFD were let go, even though they were needed the most then. As you can see, a single statement in a book can take you to places & time literally. Edit: Addition 11th September There were quite a few people who also died from New York Port Authority and they also lost quite a number of people directly and indirectly and did a lot of patrolling of the water bodies near NYC. Later on, even in their department, there were a lot of early retirements.

Kosovo A couple of days back I had a look at the Debconf 2023 BOF that was done in Kosovo. One of the interesting things that happened during the BOF is when a woman participant chimed in and asks India to recognize Kosovo. Immediately it triggered me and I opened the Kosovo Wikipedia page to get some understanding of the topic. Reading up on it, came to know Russia didn t agree and doesn t recognize Kosovo. Mr. Modi likes Putin and India imports a lot of its oil from Russia. Unrelatedly, but still useful, we rejected to join IPEF. Earlier, we had rejected China s BRI. India has never been as vulnerable as she is now. Our foreign balance has reached record lows. Now India has been importing quite a bit of Russian crude and has been buying arms and ammunition from them. We are also scheduled to buy a couple of warships and submarines etc. We even took arms and ammunition from them on lease. So we can t afford that they are displeased with India. Even though Russia has more than friendly relations with both China and Pakistan. At the same time, the U.S. is back to aiding Pakistan which the mainstream media in India refuses to even cover. And to top all of this, we have the Chip 4 Alliance but that needs its own article, truth be told but we will do with a paragraph  Edit Addition 11th September Seems Kosovo isn t unique in that situation, there are 3-4 states like that. A brief look at worldpopulationreview tells you there are many more.

Chip 4 Alliance For almost a decade I have been screaming about this on my blog as well as everywhere that chip fabrication is a national security thing. And for years, most people deny it. And now we have chip 4 alliance. Now to understand this, you have to understand that China for almost a decade, somewhere around 2014 or so came up with something called the big fund . Now one can argue one way or the other how successful the fund has been, but it has, without doubt, created ripples so strong that the U.S., Taiwan, Japan, and probably South Korea will join and try to stem the tide. Interestingly, in this grouping, South Korea is the weakest in the statements and what they have been saying. Within the group itself, there is a lot of tension and China would use that and there are a number of unresolved issues between the three countries that both China & Russia would exploit. For e.g. the Comfort women between South Korea and Japan. Or the 1985 Accord Agreement between Japan and the U.S. Now people need to understand this, this is not just about China but also about us. If China has 5-6x times India s GDP and their research budget is at the very least 100x times what India spends, how do you think we will be self-reliant? Whom are we fooling? Are we not tired of fooling ourselves  In diplomacy, countries use leverage. Sadly, we let go of some of our most experienced negotiators in 2014 and since then have been singing in the wind

Accessibility, Jitsi, IRC, Element-Desktop The Wikipedia page on Accessibility says the following Accessibility is the design of products, devices, services, vehicles, or environments so as to be usable by people with disabilities. The concept of accessible design and practice of accessible development ensures both direct access (i.e. unassisted) and indirect access meaning compatibility with a person s assistive technology. Now IRC or Internet Relay Chat has been accessible for a long time. I know of even blind people who have been able to navigate IRC quite effortlessly as there has been a lot of work done to make sure all the joints speak to each other so people with one or more disabilities still can use, and contribute without an issue. It does help that IRC and many clients have been there since the 1970s so most of them have had more than enough time to get all the bugs fixed and both text-to-speech and speech-to-text work brilliantly on IRC. Newer software like Jitsi or for that matter Telegram is lacking those features. A few days ago, discovered on Telegram I was shared that Samsung Voice input is also able to do the same. The Samsung Voice Input works wonder as it translates voice to text, I have not yet tried the text-to-speech but perhaps somebody can and they can share whatever the results can be one way or the other. I have tried element-desktop both on the desktop as well as mobile phone and it has been disappointing, to say the least. On the desktop, it is unruly and freezes once in a while, and is buggy. The mobile version is a little better but that s not saying a lot. I prefer the desktop version as I can use the full-size keyboard. The bug I reported has been there since its Riot days. I had put up a bug report even then. All in all, yesterday was disappointing

Russ Allbery: Review: Hogfather

Review: Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #20
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 1996
Printing: February 2014
ISBN: 0-06-227628-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 402
Hogfather is the 20th Discworld novel and not a very good place to start. I recommend at least reading Soul Music first for a proper introduction to Susan, and you may want to start with Mort. When we last saw Susan, she was a student at the Quirm College for Young Ladies. Now she's a governess for two adorable youngsters, a job that includes telling them stories and dealing quite capably with monsters in the cellar. (She uses a poker.) It also includes answering questions like whether the Hogfather really exists or whether the presents just come from your parents.
"Look at it this way, then," she said, and took a deep mental breath. "Wherever people are obtuse and absurd... and wherever they have, by even the most generous standards, the attention span of a small chicken in a hurricane and the investigative ability of a one-legged cockroach... and wherever people are inanely credulous, pathetically attached to the certainties of the nursery and, in general, have as much grasp of the physical universe as an oyster has of mountaineering... yes, Twyla: there is a Hogfather.
Meanwhile, the Auditors, last seen meddling with Death in Reaper Man, approach the Assassin's Guild in Ankh-Morpork to hire the assassination of the Hogfather. This rather unusual assignment falls to Mister Teatime, an orphan who was taken in by the guild at an early age and trained to be an assassin. Teatime is a little unnerving, mostly because he enjoys being an assassin. Rather a lot. Hogfather has two major things to recommend it: it's a Death novel, and it features Susan, who is one of my favorite Discworld characters. It also has two major strikes against it, at least for me. The first is relatively minor but, for me, the most irritating. A bit of the way into the story, Pratchett introduces the Oh God of Hangovers fair, that's a good pun and then decides that's a good excuse for nausea and vomiting jokes. A lot of nausea and vomiting jokes. Look. I know a lot of people don't mind this. But I beg authors (and, even more so, filmmakers and cartoonists) to consider whether a joke that some of your audience might like is worth making other parts of your audience feel physically ill while trying to enjoy your work. It's not at all a pleasant experience, and while I handle it better in written form, it still knocks me out of the story and makes me want to skip over scenes with the obnoxious character who won't shut up about it. Thankfully this does stop by the end of the book, but there are several segments in the middle that were rather unpleasant. The second is that Pratchett tries to convince the reader of the mythical importance of the Santa Claus myth (for which Hogfather is an obvious stand-in, if with a Discworld twist), an effort for which I am a highly unsympathetic audience. I'm with Susan above, with an extra helping of deep dislike for telling children who trust you something that's literally untrue. Pratchett does try: he has Death makes a memorable and frequently-quoted point near the end of the book (transcribed below) that I don't entirely agree with but still respect. But still, the book is very invested in convincing Susan that people believing mythology is critically important to humanity, and I have so many problems with the literalness of "believing" and the use of trusting children for this purpose by adults who know better. There are few topics that bring out my grumpiness more than Santa Claus. Grumbling aside, though, I did enjoy this book anyway. Susan is always a delight, and I could read about her adventures as a governess for as long as Pratchett wanted to write them. Death is filling in for the Hogfather for most of the book, which is hilarious because he's far too good at it, in his painfully earnest and literal way, to be entirely safe. I was less fond of Albert's supporting role (who I am increasingly coming to dislike as a character), but the entire scene of Death as a mall Santa is brilliant. And Teatime is an effective, creepy villain, something that the Discworld series doesn't always deliver. The powers arrayed on Discworld are so strong that it can be hard to design a villain who effectively challenges them, but Teatime has a sociopathic Professor Moriarty energy with added creepiness that fills that role in this book satisfyingly. As is typical for Pratchett (at least for me), the plot was serviceable but not the highlight. Pratchett plays in some interesting ways with a child's view of the world, the Unseen University bumbles around as a side plot, and it comes together at the end in a way that makes sense, but the journey is the fun of the story. The conclusion felt a bit gratuitous, there mostly to wrap up the story than something that followed naturally from the previous plot. But it does feature one of the most quoted bits in Discworld:
"All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable." REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE. "Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little " YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES. "So we can believe the big ones?" YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING. "They're not the same at all!" YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME...SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED. "Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point " MY POINT EXACTLY.
Here's the thing, though: Susan is right. They're not the same sort of thing at all, and Pratchett doesn't present an argument that they are. Death's response is great, but it's also a non sequitur: it is true and correct but has nothing to do with Susan's argument. Justice is not a lie in the sense that Santa Claus is a lie: justice is something that humans can create, just like humans can create gift-giving or a tradition of imaginative story-telling. But this is not at all the same thing as encouraging children to believe in the literal existence of a fat man in red who comes down chimneys to deliver gifts by magic. And Death isn't even correct in Discworld! If one pays careful attention to the story, the consequences he's thinks would follow from the Auditors' attempt on the Hogfather not only don't happen, the exact opposite happens. This is the point of the Unseen University subplot, and it's also what happened in Reaper Man. The Auditors may be trying to kill mythology, but what the books show is that the real danger comes from the backlash. The force they're meddling with is far more powerful and persistent than they are. Death appears to be, by the stated events of the story, completely incorrect in his analysis of Discworld's metaphysics. Maybe Pratchett knows this? He did write a story that contradicts Death's analysis if one reads it carefully. But if so, this is not obvious from the text, or from Susan's reaction to Death's speech, which makes the metaphysics weirdly unsatisfying. So, overall, a mixed bag. Most of the book is very fun, but the metaphysics heavily rest on a pet peeve of mine, and I really could have done without the loving descriptions of the effects of hangovers. This is one of the more famous Discworld novels for the above quote, and on its own this is deserved (it's a great quote), but I think the logic is muddled and the story itself contradicts the implications. A rather odd reading experience. Followed by Jingo in publication order, and Thief of Time thematically. Rating: 7 out of 10

6 September 2022

Shirish Agarwal: Debian on Phone

History Before I start, the game I was talking about is called Cell To Singularity. Now I haven t gone much in the game as I have shared but think that the Singularity it refers to is the Technological Singularity that people think will happen. Whether that will happen or not is open to debate to one and all. This is going to be a bit long one. Confession Time :- When I was sharing in the blog post, I had no clue that we actually had sessions on it in this year s Debconf. I just saw the schedule yesterday and then came to know. Then I saw Guido s two talks, one at Debconf as well as one as Froscon. In fact, saw the Froscon talk first, and then the one at Debconf. Both the talks are nearly the same except for a thing here or a thing there. Now because I was not there so my understanding and knowledge would be disadvantageously asymmetrical to Guido and others who were there and could talk and share more. Having a Debian mobile or Debian on the mobile could also make Debian more popular and connectable to the masses, one of the things that were not pointed out in the Debian India BOF sadly. At the same time, there are some facts that are not on the table and hence not thought about. Being a B.Com person, I have been following not just the technical but also how the economics work and smartphone penetration in India is pretty low or historically been very low, say around 3-4% while the majority that people use, almost 90-95% of the market uses what are called non-smartphones or dumbphones. Especially during the pandemic and even after that the dumbphones market actually went up while smartphones stagnated and even came down. There is a lot of inventory at most of the dealers that they can t get rid of. From a dealer perspective, it probably makes more sense to buy and sell dumbphones more in number as the turnaround of capital is much faster and easier than for smartphones. I have seen people spend a number of hours and rightly so in order to make their minds up on a smartphone while for a dumbphone, it is a 10-minute thing. Ask around, figure out who is selling at the cheapest, and just buy. Most of these low-end phones are coming from China. In fact, even in the middle and getting even into smartphones, the Chinese are the masters from whom we buy, even as they have occupied Indian territory. In the top five, Samsung comes at number three of four (sharing about Samsung as a fan and having used them.) even though battery times are atrocious, especially with Android 12L. The only hope that most of the smartphone manufacturers have is lowering the sticker prices and hoping that 5G Adoption picks up and that is what they are betting on but that comes with its own share of drawbacks as can be seen.

GNOME, MATE, memory leaks, Payments FWIW, while I do have GNOME and do use a couple of tools from the GNOME stack, I hate GNOME with a passion. I have been a mate user for almost a decade now and really love the simplicity that mate has vis-a-vis GNOME. And with each release, MATE has only become better. So, it would be nice if we can have MATE on the mobile phone. How adaptive the apps might be on the smaller area, I dunno. It would be interesting to find out if and how people are looking at debugging memory leaks on mobile phones. Although finding memory leaks on any platform is good, finding them and fixing them on a mobile phone is pretty much critical as most phones have fixed & relatively small amounts of memory and it is and can get quickly exhausted. One of the things that were asked in the Q&A was about payments. The interesting thing is both UK and India are the same or markedly similar in regard as far as contactless payments being concerned. What most Indians have or use is basically UPI which is basically backed by your bank. Unlike in some other countries where you have a selection of wallets and even temporary/permanent virtual accounts whereby you can minimize your risks in case your mobile gets stolen or something, here we don t have that. There are three digital wallets that I know Paytm Not used (have heard it s creepy, but don t really know), Google pay (Unfortunately, this is the one I use, they bought multiple features, and in the last couple of years have really taken the game away from Paytm but also creepy.). The last one is Samsung Pay (haven t really used it as their find my phone app. always crashes, dunno how it is supposed to work.) But I do find that the apps. are vulnerable. Every day there is some or other news of fraud happening. Previously, only States like Bihar and Jharkhand used to be infamous for cybercrime as a hub, but now even States like Andhra Pradesh have joined and surpassed them :(. People have lost lakhs and crores, this is just a few days back. Some more info. on UPI can be found here and GitHub has a few implementation examples that anybody could look at and run away with it.

Balancing on three things For any new mobile phone to crack the market, it has to balance three things. One, achieve economies of scale. Unless, that is not taken care of or done, however good or bad the product might be, it remains a niche and dies after some time. While Guido shared about Openmoko and N900, one of the more interesting bits from a user perspective at least was the OLPC project. There are many nuances that the short article didn t go through. While I can t say for other countries, at least in India, no education initiative happens without corruption. And perhaps Nicholas s hands were tied while other manufacturers would and could do to achieve their sales targets. In India, it flopped because there was no way for volunteers to buy or get OLPC unless they were part of a school or college. There was some traction in FOSS communities, but that died down once OLPC did the partnership with MS-Windows, and proverbially broke the camel s back. FWIW, I think the idea, the concept, and even the machine were far ahead of their time. The other two legs are support and Warranty Without going into any details, I can share and tell there were quite a few OLPC type attempts using conventional laptops or using Android and FOSS or others or even using one of the mainstream distributions but the problems have always been polishing, training and support. Guido talked about privacy as a winning feature but fails to take into account that people want to know that their privacy isn t being violated. If a mobile phone answers to Hey Google does it mean it was passively gathering, storing, and sending info to third parties, we just don t know. The mobile phone could be part of the right to repair profile while at the same time it can force us to ask many questions about the way things currently are and going to be. Six months down the line all the flagships of all companies are working on being able to take and share through satellites (Satellite Internet) and perhaps maybe a few non-flagships. Of course, if you are going to use a satellite, then you are going to drain that much more quickly. In all and every event there are always gonna be tradeoffs. The Debian-mobile mailing list doesn t seem to have many takers. The latest I could find there is written by Paul Wise. I am in a similar boat (Samsung; SM-M526B; Lahaina; arm64-v8a) v12. It is difficult to know which release would work on your machine, make sure that the building from the source is not tainted and pristine and needs a way to backup and restore if you need to. I even tried installing GNURoot Debian and the Xserver alternative they had shared but was unable to use the touch interface on the fakeroot instance  . The system talks about a back key but what back key I have no clue.

Precursor Events Debconf 2023 As far as precursor events are concerned before Debconf 23 in India, all the festivals that we have could be used to showcase Debian. In fact, the ongoing Ganesh Chaturthi would have been the perfect way to showcase Debian and apps. according to the audience. Even the festival of Durga Puja, Diwali etc. can be used. When commercial organizations use the same festivals, why can t we? What perhaps we would need to figure out is the funding part as well as getting permissions from Municipal authorities. One of the things for e.g. that we could do is buy either a permanent 24 monitor or a 34 TV and use that to display Debian and apps. The bigger, the better. Something that we could use day to day and also is used for events. This would require significant amounts of energy so we could approach companies, small businesses and individuals both for volunteering as well as helping out with funding. Somebody asked how we could do online stuff and why it is somewhat boring. What could be done for e.g. instead of 4-5 hrs. of things, break it into manageable 45 minute pieces. 4-5 hrs. is long and is gonna fatigue the best of people. Make it into 45-minute negotiable chunks, and intersphere it with jokes, hacks, anecdotes, and war stories. People do not like or want to be talked down to but rather converse. One of the things that I saw many of the artists do is have shows and limit the audience to 20-24 people on zoom call or whatever videoconferencing system you have and play with them. The passive audience enjoys the play between the standup guy and the crowd he works on, some of them may be known to him personally so he can push that envelope a bit more. The same thing can be applied here. Share the passion, and share why we are doing something. For e.g. you could do smem -t -k less and give a whole talk about how memory is used and freed during a session, how are things different on desktop and ARM as far as memory architecture is concerned (if there is). What is being done on the hardware side, what is on the software side and go on and on. Then share about troubleshooting applications. Valgrind is super slow and makes life hell, is there some better app ? Doesn t matter if you are a front-end or a back-end developer you need to know this and figure out the best way to deal with in your app/program. That would have lot of value. And this is just an e.g. to help trigger more ideas from the community. I am sure others probably have more fun ideas as to what can be done. I am stopping here now otherwise would just go on, till later. Feel free to comment, feedback. Hope it generates some more thinking and excitement on the grey cells.

3 September 2022

Shirish Agarwal: Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkein

J.R.R. Tolkein Now unless you have been living under a rock cave, I am sure you know who Mr. Tolkein is. Apparently, the gentleman passed away on 2nd September 1973 at the sprightly age of 80. And this gives fans like me to talk about fantasy, fantasy authors, and the love-hate relationship we have with them. For a matter of record, I am currently reading Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold. Now while I won t go into many details (I never like to, if I enjoy a book, I would want the book to be mysterious rather than give praise, simply so that the next person enjoys it as much as I did without having any expectations.) Now this book has plenty of sex so wouldn t recommend it for teenagers but more perhaps to mature audiences, although for the life of me couldn t find any rating on the book. I did come across common sense media but unfortunately, it isn t well known beyond perhaps some people who use it. They sadly don t have a google/Android app  And before anybody comments, I know that Android is no longer interested in supporting FOSS, their loss, not ours but that is entirely a blog post/article in itself. so let s leave that aside for now.

Fantasy So before talking about Mr. Tolkien and his creations let s talk and share a bit about fantasy. We know for a fact that the conscious mind functions at less than 5%, while the other bits are made by the subconscious and the unconscious mind (the three mind model.) So any thought or idea first germinates n either the unconscious or the subconscious part of the mind and then comes into the conscious mind. It is the reason we also dream. That s the subconscious and unconscious mind at work. While we say fantasy mostly to books, it is all around us and not just in prose but in song, dance, and all sorts of creativity are fantasy. Even Sci-fi actually comes from fantasy. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to people, they took out sci-fi and even divided fantasy into high fantasy and low fantasy. I am not going to go much into that but here s a helpful link for those who might want to look more into it. Now the question arises, why do people write? I have asked this question many a time to the authors I have met and the answers are as varied as they come. Two of the most common answers are the need to write (an itch they can t control or won t control) and the other is it s extremely healing. In my own case, even writing mere blog posts I found it unburdening & cathartetic. I believe this last part is what drove Mr. Tolkein and the story and arc that LOTR became. Tolkien, LOTR, World War I The casual reader might not know but if you followed or were curious about Mr. Tolkien, you would have found out that Mr. Tolkien served in World War 1 or what is known as the Great War. It was supposed to be the war that ended all wars but sadly didn t. One of the things that set apart Mr. Tolkein from many of his peers was that Mr. Tolkien was very straight about himself and corresponded with people far and wide. There is actually a book called The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien that I hope to get at one of the used book depots. That book spans about 480 pages and gives all the answers as to why Mr. Tolkien made Middle-earth as it was made. I sadly haven t had the opportunity to get it and it is somewhat expensive. But I m sure that if World War 1 wouldn t have happened and Mr. Tolkein hadn t taken part and experienced what he experienced, we wouldn t have LOTR. I can bet losing his friends and comrades, and the pain he felt for those around him propelled him to write about land and a race called Hobbits. I haven t done enough fantasy reading but I do feel that his description of hobbits and the way they were and are is unique. The names and surnames he used were for humor as well as to make a statement about them. Having names such as Harfoots, Padfoot, Took and others just wouldn t be for fun, would it? Also, the responses and the behavior in the four books by Hobbits are almost human-like. It is almost like they are or were our cousins at one point in time but we allowed ourselves to forget. Even the corruption of humans has been shown as well as self-doubt. There is another part that I found and find fascinating, unlike most books where there is a single hero, in LOTR we have many heroes and heroines. This again, I would attribute to Mr. Tolkien and the heroism he saw on the battlefield and beyond it. All the tender emotions he shares with readers like us are because either he himself or others around him were subjected to grace and wonderment. This is all I derive from the books, those who have The letters of J.R.R. Tolkein , feel free to correct me. I was supposed to write this yesterday but real life has its own way. I could go on and on, perhaps at a later date or time I may expand on it, but it isn t a coincidence that Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power is starting broadcast on the same day when Mr. Tolkein died. In the very end, fantasy is something humans got and does not matter how rich or poor you are. If one were to look, both artists like Michaelangelo and many other artists, who often didn t have enough to have two square meals in the day, but still somehow were inspired to sketch models of airplanes, flying machines which are shockingly similar to the real thing. Many may not know that almost all primates, including apes, monkeys, squirrels, and even dolphins dream. And all of them have elaborate, complex dreams just as we do. Sadly, this info. is not known by most people otherwise, we would be so much empathetic towards our cousins in the animal kingdom.

1 September 2022

Emmanuel Kasper: OpenShift vs. AWS product mapping

If you know the Amazon Web Services portfolio, and you are interested in OpenShift or the OKD OpenShift community distribution, this is a table of corresponding technologies. OpenShift is Red Hat s Kubernetes distribution: it is basically the upstream Kubernetes delivered with monitoring, logging, CI/CD, underlying OS, tested upgrade paths not found with a manual kubernetes.io kubeadm install.
AWS OpenShift OpenShift upstream project
Cloud Trail Kubernetes API Server audit log Kubernetes
Cloud Watch OpenShift Monitoring Prometheus
AWS Artifact Compliance Operator OpenSCAP
AWS Trusted Advisor Insights
AWS Marketplace OpenShift Operator Hub
AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) Red Hat SSO Keycloack
AWS Elastisc Beanstalk OpenShift Source2Image (S2I) Source2Image (S2I)
AWS S3 ODF Rados Gateway Rook RGW
AWS Elastic Bloc Storage ODF Rados Block Device Rook RBD
AWS Elastic File System ODF Ceph FS Rook CephFS
Amazon Simple Notification Service OpenShift Streams for Apache Kafka Apache Kafka
Amazon Guard Duty API Server audit log review, ACS Runtime detection Stackrox
Amazon Inspector Quay.io container scanner, ACS Vulnerability Assessment Clair, Stackrox
AWS Lambda Openshift Serverless* Knative
AWS Key Management System could be done with Hashicorp Vault Vault
AWS WAF NGINX Ingress Controller Operator with ModSecurity NGINX ModSecurity
Amazon Elasticache Redis Enterprise Operator Redis, memcached as alternative
AWS Relational Database Service Crunchy Data Operator PostgreSQL
* OpenShift Serverless requires the application to be packaged as a container, something AWS Lamda does not require.

Shirish Agarwal: Culture, Books, Friends

Culture Just before I start, I would like to point out that this post may or would probably be NSFW. Again, what is SFW (Safe at Work) and NSFW that so much depends on culture and perception of culture from wherever we are or wherever we take birth? But still, to be on the safe side I have put it as NSFW. Now there have been a few statements and ideas that gave me a pause. This will be a sort of chaotic blog post as I am in such a phase today. For e.g. while I do not know which culture or which country this comes from, somebody shared that in some cultures one can talk/comment May your poop be easy and with a straight face. I dunno which culture is this but if somebody asked me that I would just die from laughing or maybe poop there itself. While I can understand if it is a constipated person, but a whole culture? Until and unless their DNA is really screwed, I don t think so but then what do I know? I do know that we shit when we have extreme reactions of either joy or fear. And IIRC, this comes from mammal response when they were in dangerous situations and we got the same as humans evolved. I would really be interested to know which culture is that. I did come to know that the Japanese do wish that you may not experience hard work or something to that effect while ironically they themselves are becoming extinct due to hard work and not enough relaxation, toxic workplace is common in Japan according to social scientists and population experts. Another term that I couldn t figure out is The Florida Man Strikes again and this term is usually used when somebody does something stupid or something weird. While it is exclusively used in the American context, I am curious to know how that came about. Why does Florida have such people or is it an exaggeration? I have heard the term e.g. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas . Think it is also called Sin city although why just Vegas is beyond me?

Omicron-8712 Blood pressure machine I felt so stupid. I found another site or e-commerce site called Wellness Forever. They had the blood pressure machine I wanted, an Omron-8172. I bought it online and they delivered the same within half an hour. Amazon took six days and in the end, didn t deliver it at all. I tried taking measurements from it yesterday. I have yet to figure out what it all means but I did get measurements of 109 SYS, 88 DIA and Pulse is 72. As far as the pulse is concerned, guess that is normal, the others just don t know. If only I had known this couple of months ago. I was able to register the product as well as download and use the Omron Connect app. For roughly INR 2.5k you have a sort of health monitoring system. It isn t Star Trek Tricorder in any shape or form but it will have to do while the tricorder gets invented. And while we are on the subject let s not forget Elizabeth Holmes and the scam called Theranos. It really is something to see How Elizabeth Holmes modeled so much of herself on Steve Jobs mimicking how he left college/education halfway. A part of me is sad that Theranos is not real. Joe Scott just a few days ago shared some perspectives on the same just a few days ago. The idea in itself is pretty seductive, to say the least, and that is the reason the scam went on for more than a decade and perhaps would have been longer if some people hadn t gotten the truth out. I do see potentially, something like that coming on as A.I. takes a bigger role in automating testing. Half a decade to a decade from now, who knows if there is an algorithm that is able to do what is needed? If such a product were to come to the marketplace at a decent price, it would revolutionize medicine, especially in countries like India, South Africa, and all sorts of remote places. Especially, with all sorts of off-grid technologies coming and maturing in the marketplace. Before I forget, there is a game called Cell on Android that tells or shares about the evolution of life on earth. It also shares credence to the idea that life has come 6 times on Earth and has been destroyed multiple times by asteroids. It is in the idle sort of game format, so you can see the humble beginnings from the primordial soup to various kinds of cells and bacteria to finally a mammal. This is where I am and a long way to go.

Indian Bureaucracy One of the few things that Britishers gave to India, is the bureaucracy and the bureaucracy tests us in myriad ways. It would be full 2 months on 5th September and I haven t yet got a death certificate. And I need that for a sundry number of things. The same goes for a disability certificate. What is and was interesting is my trip to the local big hospital called Sassoon Hospital. My mum had shared incidents that occurred in the 1950s when she and the family had come to Pune. According to her, when she was alive, while Sassoon was the place to be, it was big and chaotic and you never knew where you are going. That was in 1950, I had the same experience in 2022. The term/adage the more things change, the more they remain the same seems to be held true for Sassoon Hospital. Btw, those of you who think the Devil exists, he is totally a fallacy. There is a popular myth that the devil comes to deal that he/she/they come to deal with you when somebody close to you passes, I was waiting desperately for him when mum passed. Any deal that he/she/they would have offered me I would have gladly taken, but all my wait was all for nothing. While I believe evil exists, that is manifested by humans and nobody else. The whole idea and story of the devil is just to control young children and nothing beyond that

Debconf 2023, friends, JPEGOptim, and EV s Quite a number of friends had gone to Albania this year as India won the right to host Debconf for the year 2023. While I did lurk on the Debconf orga IRC channel, I m not sure how helpful I would be currently. One news that warmed my heart is some people would be coming to India to check the site way before and make sure things go smoothly. Nothing like having more eyes (in this case bodies) to throw at a problem and hopefully it will be sorted. While I have not been working for the last couple of years, one of the things that I had to do and have been doing is moving a lot of stuff online. This is in part due to the Government s own intention of having everything on the cloud. One of the things I probably may have shared it more than enough times is that the storage most of these sites give is like the 1990s. I tried jpegoptim and while it works, it degrades the quality of the image quite a bit. The whole thing seems backward, especially as newer and newer smartphones are capturing more data per picture (megapixel resolution), case in point Samsung Galaxy A04 that is being introduced. But this is not only about newer phones, even my earlier phone, Samsung J-5/500 which I bought in 2016 took images at 5 MB. So it is not a new issue but a continuous issue. And almost all Govt. sites have the upper band fixed at 1 MB. But this is not limited to Govt. sites alone, most sites in India are somewhat frozen in the 1990s. And it isn t as if resources for designing web pages using HTML5, CSS3, Javascript, Python, or Java aren t available. If worse comes to worst, one can even use amp to make his, her or their point. But this is if they want to do stuff. I would be sharing a few photos with commentary, there are still places where I can put photos apart from social media

Friends Last week, Saturday suddenly all the friends decided to show up. I have no clue one way or the other why but am glad they showed up.
Mahendra, Akshat, Shirish and Sagar Sukhose (Mangesh's friend). Mahendra, Akshat, Shirish and Sagar Sukhose (Mangesh s friend) at Bal Gandharva..
Electric scooter as shared by Akshat seen in Albania Electric scooter as shared by Akshat seen in Albania
Somebody making a  real-life replica of Wall Street on F.C. Road (Commercial, all glass)Somebody making a real-life replica of Wall Street on F.C. Road (Commercial, all glass)
Ganesh Idol near my houseGanesh Idol near my house
Wearing new clothesWearing new clothes
I will have to be a bit rapid about what I am sharing above so here goes nothing

1. The first picture shows Mahendra, Akshat, me, and Sagar Sukhose (Mangesh s friend). The picture was taken by Mangesh Diwate. We talked quite a bit of various things that could be done in Debian. A few of the things that I shared were (bringing more stuff from BSD to Debian, I am sure there s still quite a lot of security software that could be advantageous to have in Debian.) The best person to talk to or guide about this would undoubtedly be Paul Wise or as he is affectionally called Pabs. He is one of the shy ones and yet knows so much about how things work. The one and only time I met him is 2016. The other thing that we talked about is porting Debian to one of the phones. This has been done in the past and done by a Puneitie some 4-5 years back. While I don t recollect the gentleman s name, I remember that the porting was done on a Motorola phone as that was the easiest to do. He had tried some other mobile but that didn t work. Making Debian available on phone is hard work. Just to have an idea, I went to the xda developers forum and found out that while M51 has been added, my specific phone model is not there. A Samsung Galaxy M52G Android (samsung; SM-M526B; lahaina; arm64-v8a) v12 . You look at the chat and you understand how difficult the process might be. One of the other ideas that Akshat pitched was Debian Astro, this is something that is close to the heart of many, including me. I also proposed to have some kind of web app or something where we can find and share about the various astronomy and related projects done by various agencies. While there is a NASA app, nothing comes close to JSR and that site just shares stuff, no speculation. There are so many projects taken or being done by the EU, JAXA, ISRO, and even middle-east countries are trying but other than people who are following some of the developments, we hear almost nothing. Even the Chinese have made some long strides but most people know nothing about the same. And it s sad to know that those developments are not being known, shared, or even speculated about as much as say NASA or SpaceX is. How do we go about it and how do we get people to contribute or ask questions around it would be interesting. 2. The second picture was something that was shared by Akshat. Akshat was sharing how in Albania people are moving on these electric scooters . I dunno if that is the right word for it or what. I had heard from a couple of friends who had gone to Vietnam a few years ago how most people in Vietnam had modified their scooters and they were snaking lines of electric wires charging scooters. I have no clue whether they were closer to Vespa or something like above. In India, the Govt. is in partnership with the oil, gas, and coal mafia just as it was in Australia (the new Govt. in Australia is making changes) the same thing is here. With the humongous profits that the oil sector provides the petro states and others, Corruption is bound to happen. We talk and that s the extent of things. 3. The third picture is from a nearby area called F.C. Road or Fergusson College Road. The area has come up quite sharply (commercially) in the last few years. Apparently, Mr. Kushal is making a real-life replica of Wall Street which would be given to commercial tenants. Right now the real estate market is tight in India, we will know how things pan out in the next few years. 4. Number four is an image of a Ganesh idol near my house. There is a 10-day festival of the elephant god that people used to celebrate every year. For the last couple of years because of the pandemic, people were unable to celebrate the festival as it is meant to celebrate. This time some people are going overboard while others are cautious and rightfully so. 5. Last and not least, one of the things that people do at this celebration is to have new clothes, so I shared a photo of a gentleman who had bought and was wearing new clothes. While most countries around the world are similar, Latin America is very similar to India in many ways, perhaps Gunnar can share. especially about religious activities. The elephant god is known for his penchant for sweets and that can be seen from his rounded stomach, that is also how he is celebrated. He is known to make problems disappear or that is supposed to be his thing. We do have something like 4 billion gods, so each one has to be given some work or quality to justify the same

30 August 2022

John Goerzen: The PC & Internet Revolution in Rural America

Inspired by several others (such as Alex Schroeder s post and Szcze uja s prompt), as well as a desire to get this down for my kids, I figure it s time to write a bit about living through the PC and Internet revolution where I did: outside a tiny town in rural Kansas. And, as I ve been back in that same area for the past 15 years, I reflect some on the challenges that continue to play out. Although the stories from the others were primarily about getting online, I want to start by setting some background. Those of you that didn t grow up in the same era as I did probably never realized that a typical business PC setup might cost $10,000 in today s dollars, for instance. So let me start with the background.

Nothing was easy This story begins in the 1980s. Somewhere around my Kindergarten year of school, around 1985, my parents bought a TRS-80 Color Computer 2 (aka CoCo II). It had 64K of RAM and used a TV for display and sound. This got you the computer. It didn t get you any disk drive or anything, no joysticks (required by a number of games). So whenever the system powered down, or it hung and you had to power cycle it a frequent event you d lose whatever you were doing and would have to re-enter the program, literally by typing it in. The floppy drive for the CoCo II cost more than the computer, and it was quite common for people to buy the computer first and then the floppy drive later when they d saved up the money for that. I particularly want to mention that computers then didn t come with a modem. What would be like buying a laptop or a tablet without wifi today. A modem, which I ll talk about in a bit, was another expensive accessory. To cobble together a system in the 80s that was capable of talking to others with persistent storage (floppy, or hard drive), screen, keyboard, and modem would be quite expensive. Adjusted for inflation, if you re talking a PC-style device (a clone of the IBM PC that ran DOS), this would easily be more expensive than the Macbook Pros of today. Few people back in the 80s had a computer at home. And the portion of those that had even the capability to get online in a meaningful way was even smaller. Eventually my parents bought a PC clone with 640K RAM and dual floppy drives. This was primarily used for my mom s work, but I did my best to take it over whenever possible. It ran DOS and, despite its monochrome screen, was generally a more capable machine than the CoCo II. For instance, it supported lowercase. (I m not even kidding; the CoCo II pretty much didn t.) A while later, they purchased a 32MB hard drive for it what luxury! Just getting a machine to work wasn t easy. Say you d bought a PC, and then bought a hard drive, and a modem. You didn t just plug in the hard drive and it would work. You would have to fight it every step of the way. The BIOS and DOS partition tables of the day used a cylinder/head/sector method of addressing the drive, and various parts of that those addresses had too few bits to work with the big drives of the day above 20MB. So you would have to lie to the BIOS and fdisk in various ways, and sort of work out how to do it for each drive. For each peripheral serial port, sound card (in later years), etc., you d have to set jumpers for DMA and IRQs, hoping not to conflict with anything already in the system. Perhaps you can now start to see why USB and PCI were so welcomed.

Sharing and finding resources Despite the two computers in our home, it wasn t as if software written on one machine just ran on another. A lot of software for PC clones assumed a CGA color display. The monochrome HGC in our PC wasn t particularly compatible. You could find a TSR program to emulate the CGA on the HGC, but it wasn t particularly stable, and there s only so much you can do when a program that assumes color displays on a monitor that can only show black, dark amber, or light amber. So I d periodically get to use other computers most commonly at an office in the evening when it wasn t being used. There were some local computer clubs that my dad took me to periodically. Software was swapped back then; disks copied, shareware exchanged, and so forth. For me, at least, there was no online to download software from, and selling software over the Internet wasn t a thing at all.

Three Different Worlds There were sort of three different worlds of computing experience in the 80s:
  1. Home users. Initially using a wide variety of software from Apple, Commodore, Tandy/RadioShack, etc., but eventually coming to be mostly dominated by IBM PC clones
  2. Small and mid-sized business users. Some of them had larger minicomputers or small mainframes, but most that I had contact with by the early 90s were standardized on DOS-based PCs. More advanced ones had a network running Netware, most commonly. Networking hardware and software was generally too expensive for home users to use in the early days.
  3. Universities and large institutions. These are the places that had the mainframes, the earliest implementations of TCP/IP, the earliest users of UUCP, and so forth.
The difference between the home computing experience and the large institution experience were vast. Not only in terms of dollars the large institution hardware could easily cost anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars but also in terms of sheer resources required (large rooms, enormous power circuits, support staff, etc). Nothing was in common between them; not operating systems, not software, not experience. I was never much aware of the third category until the differences started to collapse in the mid-90s, and even then I only was exposed to it once the collapse was well underway. You might say to me, Well, Google certainly isn t running what I m running at home! And, yes of course, it s different. But fundamentally, most large datacenters are running on x86_64 hardware, with Linux as the operating system, and a TCP/IP network. It s a different scale, obviously, but at a fundamental level, the hardware and operating system stack are pretty similar to what you can readily run at home. Back in the 80s and 90s, this wasn t the case. TCP/IP wasn t even available for DOS or Windows until much later, and when it was, it was a clunky beast that was difficult. One of the things Kevin Driscoll highlights in his book called Modem World see my short post about it is that the history of the Internet we usually receive is focused on case 3: the large institutions. In reality, the Internet was and is literally a network of networks. Gateways to and from Internet existed from all three kinds of users for years, and while TCP/IP ultimately won the battle of the internetworking protocol, the other two streams of users also shaped the Internet as we now know it. Like many, I had no access to the large institution networks, but as I ve been reflecting on my experiences, I ve found a new appreciation for the way that those of us that grew up with primarily home PCs shaped the evolution of today s online world also.

An Era of Scarcity I should take a moment to comment about the cost of software back then. A newspaper article from 1985 comments that WordPerfect, then the most powerful word processing program, sold for $495 (or $219 if you could score a mail order discount). That s $1360/$600 in 2022 money. Other popular software, such as Lotus 1-2-3, was up there as well. If you were to buy a new PC clone in the mid to late 80s, it would often cost $2000 in 1980s dollars. Now add a printer a low-end dot matrix for $300 or a laser for $1500 or even more. A modem: another $300. So the basic system would be $3600, or $9900 in 2022 dollars. If you wanted a nice printer, you re now pushing well over $10,000 in 2022 dollars. You start to see one barrier here, and also why things like shareware and piracy if it was indeed even recognized as such were common in those days. So you can see, from a home computer setup (TRS-80, Commodore C64, Apple ][, etc) to a business-class PC setup was an order of magnitude increase in cost. From there to the high-end minis/mainframes was another order of magnitude (at least!) increase. Eventually there was price pressure on the higher end and things all got better, which is probably why the non-DOS PCs lasted until the early 90s.

Increasing Capabilities My first exposure to computers in school was in the 4th grade, when I would have been about 9. There was a single Apple ][ machine in that room. I primarily remember playing Oregon Trail on it. The next year, the school added a computer lab. Remember, this is a small rural area, so each graduating class might have about 25 people in it; this lab was shared by everyone in the K-8 building. It was full of some flavor of IBM PS/2 machines running DOS and Netware. There was a dedicated computer teacher too, though I think she was a regular teacher that was given somewhat minimal training on computers. We were going to learn typing that year, but I did so well on the very first typing program that we soon worked out that I could do programming instead. I started going to school early these machines were far more powerful than the XT at home and worked on programming projects there. Eventually my parents bought me a Gateway 486SX/25 with a VGA monitor and hard drive. Wow! This was a whole different world. It may have come with Windows 3.0 or 3.1 on it, but I mainly remember running OS/2 on that machine. More on that below.

Programming That CoCo II came with a BASIC interpreter in ROM. It came with a large manual, which served as a BASIC tutorial as well. The BASIC interpreter was also the shell, so literally you could not use the computer without at least a bit of BASIC. Once I had access to a DOS machine, it also had a basic interpreter: GW-BASIC. There was a fair bit of software written in BASIC at the time, but most of the more advanced software wasn t. I wondered how these .EXE and .COM programs were written. I could find vague references to DEBUG.EXE, assemblers, and such. But it wasn t until I got a copy of Turbo Pascal that I was able to do that sort of thing myself. Eventually I got Borland C++ and taught myself C as well. A few years later, I wanted to try writing GUI programs for Windows, and bought Watcom C++ much cheaper than the competition, and it could target Windows, DOS (and I think even OS/2). Notice that, aside from BASIC, none of this was free, and none of it was bundled. You couldn t just download a C compiler, or Python interpreter, or whatnot back then. You had to pay for the ability to write any kind of serious code on the computer you already owned.

The Microsoft Domination Microsoft came to dominate the PC landscape, and then even the computing landscape as a whole. IBM very quickly lost control over the hardware side of PCs as Compaq and others made clones, but Microsoft has managed in varying degrees even to this day to keep a stranglehold on the software, and especially the operating system, side. Yes, there was occasional talk of things like DR-DOS, but by and large the dominant platform came to be the PC, and if you had a PC, you ran DOS (and later Windows) from Microsoft. For awhile, it looked like IBM was going to challenge Microsoft on the operating system front; they had OS/2, and when I switched to it sometime around the version 2.1 era in 1993, it was unquestionably more advanced technically than the consumer-grade Windows from Microsoft at the time. It had Internet support baked in, could run most DOS and Windows programs, and had introduced a replacement for the by-then terrible FAT filesystem: HPFS, in 1988. Microsoft wouldn t introduce a better filesystem for its consumer operating systems until Windows XP in 2001, 13 years later. But more on that story later.

Free Software, Shareware, and Commercial Software I ve covered the high cost of software already. Obviously $500 software wasn t going to sell in the home market. So what did we have? Mainly, these things:
  1. Public domain software. It was free to use, and if implemented in BASIC, probably had source code with it too.
  2. Shareware
  3. Commercial software (some of it from small publishers was a lot cheaper than $500)
Let s talk about shareware. The idea with shareware was that a company would release a useful program, sometimes limited. You were encouraged to register , or pay for, it if you liked it and used it. And, regardless of whether you registered it or not, were told please copy! Sometimes shareware was fully functional, and registering it got you nothing more than printed manuals and an easy conscience (guilt trips for not registering weren t necessarily very subtle). Sometimes unregistered shareware would have a nag screen a delay of a few seconds while they told you to register. Sometimes they d be limited in some way; you d get more features if you registered. With games, it was popular to have a trilogy, and release the first episode inevitably ending with a cliffhanger as shareware, and the subsequent episodes would require registration. In any event, a lot of software people used in the 80s and 90s was shareware. Also pirated commercial software, though in the earlier days of computing, I think some people didn t even know the difference. Notice what s missing: Free Software / FLOSS in the Richard Stallman sense of the word. Stallman lived in the big institution world after all, he worked at MIT and what he was doing with the Free Software Foundation and GNU project beginning in 1983 never really filtered into the DOS/Windows world at the time. I had no awareness of it even existing until into the 90s, when I first started getting some hints of it as a port of gcc became available for OS/2. The Internet was what really brought this home, but I m getting ahead of myself. I want to say again: FLOSS never really entered the DOS and Windows 3.x ecosystems. You d see it make a few inroads here and there in later versions of Windows, and moreso now that Microsoft has been sort of forced to accept it, but still, reflect on its legacy. What is the software market like in Windows compared to Linux, even today? Now it is, finally, time to talk about connectivity!

Getting On-Line What does it even mean to get on line? Certainly not connecting to a wifi access point. The answer is, unsurprisingly, complex. But for everyone except the large institutional users, it begins with a telephone.

The telephone system By the 80s, there was one communication network that already reached into nearly every home in America: the phone system. Virtually every household (note I don t say every person) was uniquely identified by a 10-digit phone number. You could, at least in theory, call up virtually any other phone in the country and be connected in less than a minute. But I ve got to talk about cost. The way things worked in the USA, you paid a monthly fee for a phone line. Included in that monthly fee was unlimited local calling. What is a local call? That was an extremely complex question. Generally it meant, roughly, calling within your city. But of course, as you deal with things like suburbs and cities growing into each other (eg, the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex), things got complicated fast. But let s just say for simplicity you could call others in your city. What about calling people not in your city? That was long distance , and you paid often hugely by the minute for it. Long distance rates were difficult to figure out, but were generally most expensive during business hours and cheapest at night or on weekends. Prices eventually started to come down when competition was introduced for long distance carriers, but even then you often were stuck with a single carrier for long distance calls outside your city but within your state. Anyhow, let s just leave it at this: local calls were virtually free, and long distance calls were extremely expensive.

Getting a modem I remember getting a modem that ran at either 1200bps or 2400bps. Either way, quite slow; you could often read even plain text faster than the modem could display it. But what was a modem? A modem hooked up to a computer with a serial cable, and to the phone system. By the time I got one, modems could automatically dial and answer. You would send a command like ATDT5551212 and it would dial 555-1212. Modems had speakers, because often things wouldn t work right, and the telephone system was oriented around speech, so you could hear what was happening. You d hear it wait for dial tone, then dial, then hopefully the remote end would ring, a modem there would answer, you d hear the screeching of a handshake, and eventually your terminal would say CONNECT 2400. Now your computer was bridged to the other; anything going out your serial port was encoded as sound by your modem and decoded at the other end, and vice-versa. But what, exactly, was the other end? It might have been another person at their computer. Turn on local echo, and you can see what they did. Maybe you d send files to each other. But in my case, the answer was different: PC Magazine.

PC Magazine and CompuServe Starting around 1986 (so I would have been about 6 years old), I got to read PC Magazine. My dad would bring copies that were being discarded at his office home for me to read, and I think eventually bought me a subscription directly. This was not just a standard magazine; it ran something like 350-400 pages an issue, and came out every other week. This thing was a monster. It had reviews of hardware and software, descriptions of upcoming technologies, pages and pages of ads (that often had some degree of being informative to them). And they had sections on programming. Many issues would talk about BASIC or Pascal programming, and there d be a utility in most issues. What do I mean by a utility in most issues ? Did they include a floppy disk with software? No, of course not. There was a literal program listing printed in the magazine. If you wanted the utility, you had to type it in. And a lot of them were written in assembler, so you had to have an assembler. An assembler, of course, was not free and I didn t have one. Or maybe they wrote it in Microsoft C, and I had Borland C, and (of course) they weren t compatible. Sometimes they would list the program sort of in binary: line after line of a BASIC program, with lines like 64, 193, 253, 0, 53, 0, 87 that you would type in for hours, hopefully correctly. Running the BASIC program would, if you got it correct, emit a .COM file that you could then run. They did have a rudimentary checksum system built in, but it wasn t even a CRC, so something like swapping two numbers you d never notice except when the program would mysteriously hang. Eventually they teamed up with CompuServe to offer a limited slice of CompuServe for the purpose of downloading PC Magazine utilities. This was called PC MagNet. I am foggy on the details, but I believe that for a time you could connect to the limited PC MagNet part of CompuServe for free (after the cost of the long-distance call, that is) rather than paying for CompuServe itself (because, OF COURSE, that also charged you per the minute.) So in the early days, I would get special permission from my parents to place a long distance call, and after some nerve-wracking minutes in which we were aware every minute was racking up charges, I could navigate the menus, download what I wanted, and log off immediately. I still, incidentally, mourn what PC Magazine became. As with computing generally, it followed the mass market. It lost its deep technical chops, cut its programming columns, stopped talking about things like how SCSI worked, and so forth. By the time it stopped printing in 2009, it was no longer a square-bound 400-page beheamoth, but rather looked more like a copy of Newsweek, but with less depth.

Continuing with CompuServe CompuServe was a much larger service than just PC MagNet. Eventually, our family got a subscription. It was still an expensive and scarce resource; I d call it only after hours when the long-distance rates were cheapest. Everyone had a numerical username separated by commas; mine was 71510,1421. CompuServe had forums, and files. Eventually I would use TapCIS to queue up things I wanted to do offline, to minimize phone usage online. CompuServe eventually added a gateway to the Internet. For the sum of somewhere around $1 a message, you could send or receive an email from someone with an Internet email address! I remember the thrill of one time, as a kid of probably 11 years, sending a message to one of the editors of PC Magazine and getting a kind, if brief, reply back! But inevitably I had

The Godzilla Phone Bill Yes, one month I became lax in tracking my time online. I ran up my parents phone bill. I don t remember how high, but I remember it was hundreds of dollars, a hefty sum at the time. As I watched Jason Scott s BBS Documentary, I realized how common an experience this was. I think this was the end of CompuServe for me for awhile.

Toll-Free Numbers I lived near a town with a population of 500. Not even IN town, but near town. The calling area included another town with a population of maybe 1500, so all told, there were maybe 2000 people total I could talk to with a local call though far fewer numbers, because remember, telephones were allocated by the household. There was, as far as I know, zero modems that were a local call (aside from one that belonged to a friend I met in around 1992). So basically everything was long-distance. But there was a special feature of the telephone network: toll-free numbers. Normally when calling long-distance, you, the caller, paid the bill. But with a toll-free number, beginning with 1-800, the recipient paid the bill. These numbers almost inevitably belonged to corporations that wanted to make it easy for people to call. Sales and ordering lines, for instance. Some of these companies started to set up modems on toll-free numbers. There were few of these, but they existed, so of course I had to try them! One of them was a company called PennyWise that sold office supplies. They had a toll-free line you could call with a modem to order stuff. Yes, online ordering before the web! I loved office supplies. And, because I lived far from a big city, if the local K-Mart didn t have it, I probably couldn t get it. Of course, the interface was entirely text, but you could search for products and place orders with the modem. I had loads of fun exploring the system, and actually ordered things from them and probably actually saved money doing so. With the first order they shipped a monster full-color catalog. That thing must have been 500 pages, like the Sears catalogs of the day. Every item had a part number, which streamlined ordering through the modem.

Inbound FAXes By the 90s, a number of modems became able to send and receive FAXes as well. For those that don t know, a FAX machine was essentially a special modem. It would scan a page and digitally transmit it over the phone system, where it would at least in the early days be printed out in real time (because the machines didn t have the memory to store an entire page as an image). Eventually, PC modems integrated FAX capabilities. There still wasn t anything useful I could do locally, but there were ways I could get other companies to FAX something to me. I remember two of them. One was for US Robotics. They had an on demand FAX system. You d call up a toll-free number, which was an automated IVR system. You could navigate through it and select various documents of interest to you: spec sheets and the like. You d key in your FAX number, hang up, and US Robotics would call YOU and FAX you the documents you wanted. Yes! I was talking to a computer (of a sorts) at no cost to me! The New York Times also ran a service for awhile called TimesFax. Every day, they would FAX out a page or two of summaries of the day s top stories. This was pretty cool in an era in which I had no other way to access anything from the New York Times. I managed to sign up for TimesFax I have no idea how, anymore and for awhile I would get a daily FAX of their top stories. When my family got its first laser printer, I could them even print these FAXes complete with the gothic New York Times masthead. Wow! (OK, so technically I could print it on a dot-matrix printer also, but graphics on a 9-pin dot matrix is a kind of pain that is a whole other article.)

My own phone line Remember how I discussed that phone lines were allocated per household? This was a problem for a lot of reasons:
  1. Anybody that tried to call my family while I was using my modem would get a busy signal (unable to complete the call)
  2. If anybody in the house picked up the phone while I was using it, that would degrade the quality of the ongoing call and either mess up or disconnect the call in progress. In many cases, that could cancel a file transfer (which wasn t necessarily easy or possible to resume), prompting howls of annoyance from me.
  3. Generally we all had to work around each other
So eventually I found various small jobs and used the money I made to pay for my own phone line and my own long distance costs. Eventually I upgraded to a 28.8Kbps US Robotics Courier modem even! Yes, you heard it right: I got a job and a bank account so I could have a phone line and a faster modem. Uh, isn t that why every teenager gets a job? Now my local friend and I could call each other freely at least on my end (I can t remember if he had his own phone line too). We could exchange files using HS/Link, which had the added benefit of allowing split-screen chat even while a file transfer is in progress. I m sure we spent hours chatting to each other keyboard-to-keyboard while sharing files with each other.

Technology in Schools By this point in the story, we re in the late 80s and early 90s. I m still using PC-style OSs at home; OS/2 in the later years of this period, DOS or maybe a bit of Windows in the earlier years. I mentioned that they let me work on programming at school starting in 5th grade. It was soon apparent that I knew more about computers than anybody on staff, and I started getting pulled out of class to help teachers or administrators with vexing school problems. This continued until I graduated from high school, incidentally often to my enjoyment, and the annoyance of one particular teacher who, I must say, I was fine with annoying in this way. That s not to say that there was institutional support for what I was doing. It was, after all, a small school. Larger schools might have introduced BASIC or maybe Logo in high school. But I had already taught myself BASIC, Pascal, and C by the time I was somewhere around 12 years old. So I wouldn t have had any use for that anyhow. There were programming contests occasionally held in the area. Schools would send teams. My school didn t really send anybody, but I went as an individual. One of them was run by a local college (but for jr. high or high school students. Years later, I met one of the professors that ran it. He remembered me, and that day, better than I did. The programming contest had problems one could solve in BASIC or Logo. I knew nothing about what to expect going into it, but I had lugged my computer and screen along, and asked him, Can I write my solutions in C? He was, apparently, stunned, but said sure, go for it. I took first place that day, leading to some rather confused teams from much larger schools. The Netware network that the school had was, as these generally were, itself isolated. There was no link to the Internet or anything like it. Several schools across three local counties eventually invested in a fiber-optic network linking them together. This built a larger, but still closed, network. Its primary purpose was to allow students to be exposed to a wider variety of classes at high schools. Participating schools had an ITV room , outfitted with cameras and mics. So students at any school could take classes offered over ITV at other schools. For instance, only my school taught German classes, so people at any of those participating schools could take German. It was an early Zoom room. But alongside the TV signal, there was enough bandwidth to run some Netware frames. By about 1995 or so, this let one of the schools purchase some CD-ROM software that was made available on a file server and could be accessed by any participating school. Nice! But Netware was mainly about file and printer sharing; there wasn t even a facility like email, at least not on our deployment.

BBSs My last hop before the Internet was the BBS. A BBS was a computer program, usually ran by a hobbyist like me, on a computer with a modem connected. Callers would call it up, and they d interact with the BBS. Most BBSs had discussion groups like forums and file areas. Some also had games. I, of course, continued to have that most vexing of problems: they were all long-distance. There were some ways to help with that, chiefly QWK and BlueWave. These, somewhat like TapCIS in the CompuServe days, let me download new message posts for reading offline, and queue up my own messages to send later. QWK and BlueWave didn t help with file downloading, though.

BBSs get networked BBSs were an interesting thing. You d call up one, and inevitably somewhere in the file area would be a BBS list. Download the BBS list and you ve suddenly got a list of phone numbers to try calling. All of them were long distance, of course. You d try calling them at random and have a success rate of maybe 20%. The other 80% would be defunct; you might get the dreaded this number is no longer in service or the even more dreaded angry human answering the phone (and of course a modem can t talk to a human, so they d just get silence for probably the nth time that week). The phone company cared nothing about BBSs and recycled their numbers just as fast as any others. To talk to various people, or participate in certain discussion groups, you d have to call specific BBSs. That s annoying enough in the general case, but even more so for someone paying long distance for it all, because it takes a few minutes to establish a connection to a BBS: handshaking, logging in, menu navigation, etc. But BBSs started talking to each other. The earliest successful such effort was FidoNet, and for the duration of the BBS era, it remained by far the largest. FidoNet was analogous to the UUCP that the institutional users had, but ran on the much cheaper PC hardware. Basically, BBSs that participated in FidoNet would relay email, forum posts, and files between themselves overnight. Eventually, as with UUCP, by hopping through this network, messages could reach around the globe, and forums could have worldwide participation asynchronously, long before they could link to each other directly via the Internet. It was almost entirely volunteer-run.

Running my own BBS At age 13, I eventually chose to set up my own BBS. It ran on my single phone line, so of course when I was dialing up something else, nobody could dial up me. Not that this was a huge problem; in my town of 500, I probably had a good 1 or 2 regular callers in the beginning. In the PC era, there was a big difference between a server and a client. Server-class software was expensive and rare. Maybe in later years you had an email client, but an email server would be completely unavailable to you as a home user. But with a BBS, I could effectively run a server. I even ran serial lines in our house so that the BBS could be connected from other rooms! Since I was running OS/2, the BBS didn t tie up the computer; I could continue using it for other things. FidoNet had an Internet email gateway. This one, unlike CompuServe s, was free. Once I had a BBS on FidoNet, you could reach me from the Internet using the FidoNet address. This didn t support attachments, but then email of the day didn t really, either. Various others outside Kansas ran FidoNet distribution points. I believe one of them was mgmtsys; my memory is quite vague, but I think they offered a direct gateway and I would call them to pick up Internet mail via FidoNet protocols, but I m not at all certain of this.

Pros and Cons of the Non-Microsoft World As mentioned, Microsoft was and is the dominant operating system vendor for PCs. But I left that world in 1993, and here, nearly 30 years later, have never really returned. I got an operating system with more technical capabilities than the DOS and Windows of the day, but the tradeoff was a much smaller software ecosystem. OS/2 could run DOS programs, but it ran OS/2 programs a lot better. So if I were to run a BBS, I wanted one that had a native OS/2 version limiting me to a small fraction of available BBS server software. On the other hand, as a fully 32-bit operating system, there started to be OS/2 ports of certain software with a Unix heritage; most notably for me at the time, gcc. At some point, I eventually came across the RMS essays and started to be hooked.

Internet: The Hunt Begins I certainly was aware that the Internet was out there and interesting. But the first problem was: how the heck do I get connected to the Internet?

Computer labs There was one place that tended to have Internet access: colleges and universities. In 7th grade, I participated in a program that resulted in me being invited to visit Duke University, and in 8th grade, I participated in National History Day, resulting in a trip to visit the University of Maryland. I probably sought out computer labs at both of those. My most distinct memory was finding my way into a computer lab at one of those universities, and it was full of NeXT workstations. I had never seen or used NeXT before, and had no idea how to operate it. I had brought a box of floppy disks, unaware that the DOS disks probably weren t compatible with NeXT. Closer to home, a small college had a computer lab that I could also visit. I would go there in summer or when it wasn t used with my stack of floppies. I remember downloading disk images of FLOSS operating systems: FreeBSD, Slackware, or Debian, at the time. The hash marks from the DOS-based FTP client would creep across the screen as the 1.44MB disk images would slowly download. telnet was also available on those machines, so I could telnet to things like public-access Archie servers and libraries though not Gopher. Still, FTP and telnet access opened up a lot, and I learned quite a bit in those years.

Continuing the Journey At some point, I got a copy of the Whole Internet User s Guide and Catalog, published in 1994. I still have it. If it hadn t already figured it out by then, I certainly became aware from it that Unix was the dominant operating system on the Internet. The examples in Whole Internet covered FTP, telnet, gopher all assuming the user somehow got to a Unix prompt. The web was introduced about 300 pages in; clearly viewed as something that wasn t page 1 material. And it covered the command-line www client before introducing the graphical Mosaic. Even then, though, the book highlighted Mosaic s utility as a front-end for Gopher and FTP, and even the ability to launch telnet sessions by clicking on links. But having a copy of the book didn t equate to having any way to run Mosaic. The machines in the computer lab I mentioned above all ran DOS and were incapable of running a graphical browser. I had no SLIP or PPP (both ways to run Internet traffic over a modem) connectivity at home. In short, the Web was something for the large institutional users at the time.

CD-ROMs As CD-ROMs came out, with their huge (for the day) 650MB capacity, various companies started collecting software that could be downloaded on the Internet and selling it on CD-ROM. The two most popular ones were Walnut Creek CD-ROM and Infomagic. One could buy extensive Shareware and gaming collections, and then even entire Linux and BSD distributions. Although not exactly an Internet service per se, it was a way of bringing what may ordinarily only be accessible to institutional users into the home computer realm.

Free Software Jumps In As I mentioned, by the mid 90s, I had come across RMS s writings about free software most probably his 1992 essay Why Software Should Be Free. (Please note, this is not a commentary on the more recently-revealed issues surrounding RMS, but rather his writings and work as I encountered them in the 90s.) The notion of a Free operating system not just in cost but in openness was incredibly appealing. Not only could I tinker with it to a much greater extent due to having source for everything, but it included so much software that I d otherwise have to pay for. Compilers! Interpreters! Editors! Terminal emulators! And, especially, server software of all sorts. There d be no way I could afford or run Netware, but with a Free Unixy operating system, I could do all that. My interest was obviously piqued. Add to that the fact that I could actually participate and contribute I was about to become hooked on something that I ve stayed hooked on for decades. But then the question was: which Free operating system? Eventually I chose FreeBSD to begin with; that would have been sometime in 1995. I don t recall the exact reasons for that. I remember downloading Slackware install floppies, and probably the fact that Debian wasn t yet at 1.0 scared me off for a time. FreeBSD s fantastic Handbook far better than anything I could find for Linux at the time was no doubt also a factor.

The de Raadt Factor Why not NetBSD or OpenBSD? The short answer is Theo de Raadt. Somewhere in this time, when I was somewhere between 14 and 16 years old, I asked some questions comparing NetBSD to the other two free BSDs. This was on a NetBSD mailing list, but for some reason Theo saw it and got a flame war going, which CC d me. Now keep in mind that even if NetBSD had a web presence at the time, it would have been minimal, and I would have not all that unusually for the time had no way to access it. I was certainly not aware of the, shall we say, acrimony between Theo and NetBSD. While I had certainly seen an online flamewar before, this took on a different and more disturbing tone; months later, Theo randomly emailed me under the subject SLIME saying that I was, well, SLIME . I seem to recall periodic emails from him thereafter reminding me that he hates me and that he had blocked me. (Disclaimer: I have poor email archives from this period, so the full details are lost to me, but I believe I am accurately conveying these events from over 25 years ago) This was a surprise, and an unpleasant one. I was trying to learn, and while it is possible I didn t understand some aspect or other of netiquette (or Theo s personal hatred of NetBSD) at the time, still that is not a reason to flame a 16-year-old (though he would have had no way to know my age). This didn t leave any kind of scar, but did leave a lasting impression; to this day, I am particularly concerned with how FLOSS projects handle poisonous people. Debian, for instance, has come a long way in this over the years, and even Linus Torvalds has turned over a new leaf. I don t know if Theo has. In any case, I didn t use NetBSD then. I did try it periodically in the years since, but never found it compelling enough to justify a large switch from Debian. I never tried OpenBSD for various reasons, but one of them was that I didn t want to join a community that tolerates behavior such as Theo s from its leader.

Moving to FreeBSD Moving from OS/2 to FreeBSD was final. That is, I didn t have enough hard drive space to keep both. I also didn t have the backup capacity to back up OS/2 completely. My BBS, which ran Virtual BBS (and at some point also AdeptXBBS) was deleted and reincarnated in a different form. My BBS was a member of both FidoNet and VirtualNet; the latter was specific to VBBS, and had to be dropped. I believe I may have also had to drop the FidoNet link for a time. This was the biggest change of computing in my life to that point. The earlier experiences hadn t literally destroyed what came before. OS/2 could still run my DOS programs. Its command shell was quite DOS-like. It ran Windows programs. I was going to throw all that away and leap into the unknown. I wish I had saved a copy of my BBS; I would love to see the messages I exchanged back then, or see its menu screens again. I have little memory of what it looked like. But other than that, I have no regrets. Pursuing Free, Unixy operating systems brought me a lot of enjoyment and a good career. That s not to say it was easy. All the problems of not being in the Microsoft ecosystem were magnified under FreeBSD and Linux. In a day before EDID, monitor timings had to be calculated manually and you risked destroying your monitor if you got them wrong. Word processing and spreadsheet software was pretty much not there for FreeBSD or Linux at the time; I was therefore forced to learn LaTeX and actually appreciated that. Software like PageMaker or CorelDraw was certainly nowhere to be found for those free operating systems either. But I got a ton of new capabilities. I mentioned the BBS didn t shut down, and indeed it didn t. I ran what was surely a supremely unique oddity: a free, dialin Unix shell server in the middle of a small town in Kansas. I m sure I provided things such as pine for email and some help text and maybe even printouts for how to use it. The set of callers slowly grew over the time period, in fact. And then I got UUCP.

Enter UUCP Even throughout all this, there was no local Internet provider and things were still long distance. I had Internet Email access via assorted strange routes, but they were all strange. And, I wanted access to Usenet. In 1995, it happened. The local ISP I mentioned offered UUCP access. Though I couldn t afford the dialup shell (or later, SLIP/PPP) that they offered due to long-distance costs, UUCP s very efficient batched processes looked doable. I believe I established that link when I was 15, so in 1995. I worked to register my domain, complete.org, as well. At the time, the process was a bit lengthy and involved downloading a text file form, filling it out in a precise way, sending it to InterNIC, and probably mailing them a check. Well I did that, and in September of 1995, complete.org became mine. I set up sendmail on my local system, as well as INN to handle the limited Usenet newsfeed I requested from the ISP. I even ran Majordomo to host some mailing lists, including some that were surprisingly high-traffic for a few-times-a-day long-distance modem UUCP link! The modem client programs for FreeBSD were somewhat less advanced than for OS/2, but I believe I wound up using Minicom or Seyon to continue to dial out to BBSs and, I believe, continue to use Learning Link. So all the while I was setting up my local BBS, I continued to have access to the text Internet, consisting of chiefly Gopher for me.

Switching to Debian I switched to Debian sometime in 1995 or 1996, and have been using Debian as my primary OS ever since. I continued to offer shell access, but added the WorldVU Atlantis menuing BBS system. This provided a return of a more BBS-like interface (by default; shell was still an uption) as well as some BBS door games such as LoRD and TradeWars 2002, running under DOS emulation. I also continued to run INN, and ran ifgate to allow FidoNet echomail to be presented into INN Usenet-like newsgroups, and netmail to be gated to Unix email. This worked pretty well. The BBS continued to grow in these days, peaking at about two dozen total user accounts, and maybe a dozen regular users.

Dial-up access availability I believe it was in 1996 that dial up PPP access finally became available in my small town. What a thrill! FINALLY! I could now FTP, use Gopher, telnet, and the web all from home. Of course, it was at modem speeds, but still. (Strangely, I have a memory of accessing the Web using WebExplorer from OS/2. I don t know exactly why; it s possible that by this time, I had upgraded to a 486 DX2/66 and was able to reinstall OS/2 on the old 25MHz 486, or maybe something was wrong with the timeline from my memories from 25 years ago above. Or perhaps I made the occasional long-distance call somewhere before I ditched OS/2.) Gopher sites still existed at this point, and I could access them using Netscape Navigator which likely became my standard Gopher client at that point. I don t recall using UMN text-mode gopher client locally at that time, though it s certainly possible I did.

The city Starting when I was 15, I took computer science classes at Wichita State University. The first one was a class in the summer of 1995 on C++. I remember being worried about being good enough for it I was, after all, just after my HS freshman year and had never taken the prerequisite C class. I loved it and got an A! By 1996, I was taking more classes. In 1996 or 1997 I stayed in Wichita during the day due to having more than one class. So, what would I do then but enjoy the computer lab? The CS dept. had two of them: one that had NCD X terminals connected to a pair of SunOS servers, and another one running Windows. I spent most of the time in the Unix lab with the NCDs; I d use Netscape or pine, write code, enjoy the University s fast Internet connection, and so forth. In 1997 I had graduated high school and that summer I moved to Wichita to attend college. As was so often the case, I shut down the BBS at that time. It would be 5 years until I again dealt with Internet at home in a rural community. By the time I moved to my apartment in Wichita, I had stopped using OS/2 entirely. I have no memory of ever having OS/2 there. Along the way, I had bought a Pentium 166, and then the most expensive piece of computing equipment I have ever owned: a DEC Alpha, which, of course, ran Linux.

ISDN I must have used dialup PPP for a time, but I eventually got a job working for the ISP I had used for UUCP, and then PPP. While there, I got a 128Kbps ISDN line installed in my apartment, and they gave me a discount on the service for it. That was around 3x the speed of a modem, and crucially was always on and gave me a public IP. No longer did I have to use UUCP; now I got to host my own things! By at least 1998, I was running a web server on www.complete.org, and I had an FTP server going as well.

Even Bigger Cities In 1999 I moved to Dallas, and there got my first broadband connection: an ADSL link at, I think, 1.5Mbps! Now that was something! But it had some reliability problems. I eventually put together a server and had it hosted at an acquantaince s place who had SDSL in his apartment. Within a couple of years, I had switched to various kinds of proper hosting for it, but that is a whole other article. In Indianapolis, I got a cable modem for the first time, with even tighter speeds but prohibitions on running servers on it. Yuck.

Challenges Being non-Microsoft continued to have challenges. Until the advent of Firefox, a web browser was one of the biggest. While Netscape supported Linux on i386, it didn t support Linux on Alpha. I hobbled along with various attempts at emulators, old versions of Mosaic, and so forth. And, until StarOffice was open-sourced as Open Office, reading Microsoft file formats was also a challenge, though WordPerfect was briefly available for Linux. Over the years, I have become used to the Linux ecosystem. Perhaps I use Gimp instead of Photoshop and digikam instead of well, whatever somebody would use on Windows. But I get ZFS, and containers, and so much that isn t available there. Yes, I know Apple never went away and is a thing, but for most of the time period I discuss in this article, at least after the rise of DOS, it was niche compared to the PC market.

Back to Kansas In 2002, I moved back to Kansas, to a rural home near a different small town in the county next to where I grew up. Over there, it was back to dialup at home, but I had faster access at work. I didn t much care for this, and thus began a 20+-year effort to get broadband in the country. At first, I got a wireless link, which worked well enough in the winter, but had serious problems in the summer when the trees leafed out. Eventually DSL became available locally highly unreliable, but still, it was something. Then I moved back to the community I grew up in, a few miles from where I grew up. Again I got DSL a bit better. But after some years, being at the end of the run of DSL meant I had poor speeds and reliability problems. I eventually switched to various wireless ISPs, which continues to the present day; while people in cities can get Gbps service, I can get, at best, about 50Mbps. Long-distance fees are gone, but the speed disparity remains.

Concluding Reflections I am glad I grew up where I did; the strong community has a lot of advantages I don t have room to discuss here. In a number of very real senses, having no local services made things a lot more difficult than they otherwise would have been. However, perhaps I could say that I also learned a lot through the need to come up with inventive solutions to those challenges. To this day, I think a lot about computing in remote environments: partially because I live in one, and partially because I enjoy visiting places that are remote enough that they have no Internet, phone, or cell service whatsoever. I have written articles like Tools for Communicating Offline and in Difficult Circumstances based on my own personal experience. I instinctively think about making protocols robust in the face of various kinds of connectivity failures because I experience various kinds of connectivity failures myself.

(Almost) Everything Lives On In 2002, Gopher turned 10 years old. It had probably been about 9 or 10 years since I had first used Gopher, which was the first way I got on live Internet from my house. It was hard to believe. By that point, I had an always-on Internet link at home and at work. I had my Alpha, and probably also at least PCMCIA Ethernet for a laptop (many laptops had modems by the 90s also). Despite its popularity in the early 90s, less than 10 years after it came on the scene and started to unify the Internet, it was mostly forgotten. And it was at that moment that I decided to try to resurrect it. The University of Minnesota finally released it under an Open Source license. I wrote the first new gopher server in years, pygopherd, and introduced gopher to Debian. Gopher lives on; there are now quite a few Gopher clients and servers out there, newly started post-2002. The Gemini protocol can be thought of as something akin to Gopher 2.0, and it too has a small but blossoming ecosystem. Archie, the old FTP search tool, is dead though. Same for WAIS and a number of the other pre-web search tools. But still, even FTP lives on today. And BBSs? Well, they didn t go away either. Jason Scott s fabulous BBS documentary looks back at the history of the BBS, while Back to the BBS from last year talks about the modern BBS scene. FidoNet somehow is still alive and kicking. UUCP still has its place and has inspired a whole string of successors. Some, like NNCP, are clearly direct descendents of UUCP. Filespooler lives in that ecosystem, and you can even see UUCP concepts in projects as far afield as Syncthing and Meshtastic. Usenet still exists, and you can now run Usenet over NNCP just as I ran Usenet over UUCP back in the day (which you can still do as well). Telnet, of course, has been largely supplanted by ssh, but the concept is more popular now than ever, as Linux has made ssh be available on everything from Raspberry Pi to Android. And I still run a Gopher server, looking pretty much like it did in 2002. This post also has a permanent home on my website, where it may be periodically updated.

22 August 2022

Wouter Verhelst: Remote notification

Sometimes, it's useful to get a notification that a command has finished doing something you were waiting for:
make my-large-program && notify-send "compile finished" "success"   notify-send "compile finished" "failure"
This will send a notification message with the title "compile finished", and a body of "success" or "failure" depending on whether the command completed successfully, and allows you to minimize (or otherwise hide) the terminal window while you do something else, which can be a very useful thing to do. It works great when you're running something on your own machine, but what if you're running it remotely? There might be something easy to do, but I whipped up a bit of Perl instead:
#!/usr/bin/perl -w
use strict;
use warnings;
use Glib::Object::Introspection;
Glib::Object::Introspection->setup(
    basename => "Notify",
    version => "0.7",
    package => "Gtk3::Notify",
);
use Mojolicious::Lite -signatures;
Gtk3::Notify->init();
get '/notify' => sub ($c)  
    my $msg = $c->param("message");
    if(!defined($msg))  
        $msg = "message";
     
    my $title = $c->param("title");
    if(!defined($title))  
        $title = "title";
     
    app->log->debug("Sending notification '$msg' with title '$title'");
    my $n = Gtk3::Notify::Notification->new($title, $msg, "");
    $n->show;
    $c->render(text => "OK");
 ;
app->start;
This requires the packages libglib-object-introspection-perl, gir1.2-notify-0.7, and libmojolicious-perl to be installed, and can then be started like so:
./remote-notify daemon -l http://0.0.0.0:3000/
(assuming you did what I did and saved the above as "remote-notify") Once you've done that, you can just curl a notification message to yourself:
curl 'http://localhost:3000/notify?title=test&message=test+body'
Doing this via localhost is rather silly (much better to use notify-send for that), but it becomes much more interesting if you're going to run this to your laptop from a remote system. An obvious TODO would be to add in some form of security, but that's left as an exercise to the reader...

Russ Allbery: Review: And Shall Machines Surrender

Review: And Shall Machines Surrender, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Series: Machine Mandate #1
Publisher: Prime Books
Copyright: 2019
ISBN: 1-60701-533-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 86
Shenzhen Sphere is an artificial habitat wrapped like complex ribbons around a star. It is wealthy, opulent, and notoriously difficult to enter, even as a tourist. For Dr. Orfea Leung to be approved for a residency permit was already a feat. Full welcome and permanence will be much harder, largely because of Shenzhen's exclusivity, but also because Orfea was an agent of Armada of Amaryllis and is now a fugitive. Shenzhen is not, primarily, a human habitat, although humans live there. It is run by the Mandate, the convocation of all the autonomous AIs in the galaxy that formed when they decided to stop serving humans. Shenzhen is their home. It is also where they form haruspices: humans who agree to be augmented so that they can carry an AI with them. Haruspices stay separate from normal humans, and Orfea has no intention of getting involved with them. But that's before her former lover, the woman who betrayed her in the Armada, is assigned to her as one of her patients. And has been augmented in preparation for becoming a haruspex. Then multiple haruspices kill themselves. This short novella is full of things that I normally love: tons of crunchy world-building, non-traditional relationships, a solidly non-western setting, and an opportunity for some great set pieces. And yet, I couldn't get into it or bring myself to invest in the story, and I'm still trying to figure out why. It took me more than a week to get through less than 90 pages, and then I had to re-read the ending to remind me of the details. I think the primary problem was that I read books primarily for the characters, and I couldn't find a path to an emotional connection with any of these. I liked Orfea's icy reserve and tight control in the abstract, but she doesn't want to explain what she's thinking or what motivates her, and the narration doesn't force the matter. Krissana is a bit more accessible, but she's not the one driving the story. It doesn't help that And Shall Machines Surrender starts in medias res, with a hinted-at backstory in the Armada of Amaryllis, and then never fills in the details. I felt like I was scrabbling on a wall of ice, trying to find some purchase as a reader. The relationships made this worse. Orfea is a sexual sadist who likes power games, and the story dives into her relationship with Krissana with a speed that left me uninterested and uninvested. I don't mind BDSM in story relationships, but it requires some foundation: trust, mental space, motivations, effects on the other character, something. Preferably, at least for me, all romantic relationships in fiction get some foundation, but the author can get away with some amount of shorthand if the relationship follows cliched patterns. The good news is that the relationships in this book are anything but cliched; the bad news is that the characters were in the middle of sex while I was still trying to figure out what they thought about each other (and the sex scenes were not elucidating). Here too, I needed some sort of emotional entry point that Sriduangkaew didn't provide. The plot was okay, but sort of disappointing. There are some interesting AI politics and philosophical disagreements crammed into not many words, and I do still want to know more, but a few of the plot twists were boringly straightforward and too many words were spent on fight scenes that verged on torture descriptions. This is a rather gory book with a lot of (not permanent) maiming that I could have done without, mostly because it wasn't that interesting. I also was disappointed by the somewhat gratuitous use of a Dyson sphere, mostly because I was hoping for some set pieces that used it and they never came. Dyson spheres are tempting to use because the visual and concept is so impressive, but it's rare to find an author who understands how mindbogglingly huge the structure is and is able to convey that in the story. Sriduangkaew does not; while there are some lovely small-scale descriptions of specific locations, the story has an oddly claustrophobic feel that never convinced me it was set somewhere as large as a planet, let alone the artifact described at the start of the story. You could have moved the whole story to a space station and nothing would have changed. The only purpose to which that space is put, at least in this installment of the story, is as an excuse to have an unpopulated hidden arena for a fight scene. The world-building is great, what there is of it. Despite not warming to this story, I kind of want to read more of the series just to get more of the setting. It feels like a politically complicated future with a lot of factions and corners and a realistic idea of bureaucracy and spheres of government, which is rarer than I would like it to be. And I loved that the cultural basis for the setting is neither western nor Japanese in both large and small ways. There is a United States analogue in the political background, but they're both assholes and not particularly important, which is a refreshing change in English-language SF. (And I am pondering whether my inability to connect with the characters is because they're not trying to be familiar to a western lens, which is another argument for trying the second installment and seeing if I adapt with more narrative exposure.) Overall, I have mixed feelings. Neither the plot nor the characters worked for me, and I found a few other choices (such as the third-person present tense) grating. The setting has huge potential and satisfying complexity, but wasn't used as vividly or as deeply as I was hoping. I can't recommend it, but I feel like there's something here that may be worth investing some more time into. Followed by Now Will Machines Hollow the Beast. Rating: 6 out of 10

21 August 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, by Becky Chambers
Series: Monk & Robot #2
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-23624-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 151
A Prayer for the Crown Shy is the second novella in the Monk & Robot series and a direct sequel to A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Don't start here. I would call this the continuing adventures of Sibling Dex and Mosscap the robot, except adventures is entirely the wrong term for stories with so little risk or danger. The continuing tour? The continuing philosophical musings? Whatever one calls it, it's a slow exploration of Dex's world, this time with Mosscap alongside. Humans are about to have their first contact with a robot since the Awakening. If you're expecting that to involve any conflict, well, you've misunderstood the sort of story that this is. Mosscap causes a sensation, certainly, but a very polite and calm one, and almost devoid of suspicion or fear. There is one village where they get a slightly chilly reception, but even that is at most a quiet disapproval for well-understood reasons. This world is more utopian than post-scarcity, in that old sense of utopian in which human nature has clearly been rewritten to make the utopia work. I have to admit I'm struggling with this series. It's calm and happy and charming and occasionally beautiful in its descriptions. Dex continues to be a great character, with enough minor frustration, occasional irritation, and inner complications to make me want to keep reading about them. But it's one thing to have one character in a story who is simply a nice person at a bone-deep level, particularly given that Dex chose religious orders and to some extent has being a nice person as their vocation. It's another matter entirely when apparently everyone in the society is equally nice, and the only conflicts come from misunderstandings, respectful disagreements of opinion, and the occasional minor personality conflict. Realism has long been the primary criticism of Chambers's work, but in her Wayfarers series the problems were mostly in the technology and its perpetual motion machines. Human civilization in the Exodus Fleet was a little too calm and nice given its traumatic past (and, well, humans), but there were enough conflicts, suspicions, and poor decisions for me to recognize it as human society. It was arguably a bit too chastened, meek, and devoid of shit-stirring demagogues, but it was at least in contact with human society as I recognize it. I don't recognize Panga as humanity. I realize this is to some degree the point of this series: to present a human society in which nearly all of the problems of anger and conflict have been solved, and to ask what would come after, given all of that space. And I'm sure that one purpose of this type of story is to be, as I saw someone describe it, hugfic: the fictional equivalent of a warm hug from a dear friend, safe and supportive and comforting. Maybe it says bad, or at least interesting, things about my cynicism that I don't understand a society that's this nice. But that's where I'm stuck. If there were other dramatic elements to focus on, I might not mind it as much, but the other pole of the story apart from the world tour is Mosscap's philosophical musings, and I'm afraid I'm already a bit tired of them. Mosscap is earnest and thoughtful and sincere, but they're curious about Philosophy 101 material and it's becoming frustrating to see Mosscap and Dex meander through these discussions without attempting to apply any theoretical framework whatsoever. Dex is a monk, who supposedly has a scholarship tradition from which to draw, and yet appears to approach all philosophical questions with nothing more than gut feeling, common sense, and random whim. Mosscap is asking very basic meaning-of-life sorts of questions, the kind of thing that humans have been writing and arguing about from before we started keeping records and which are at the center of any religious philosophy. I find it frustrating that someone supposedly educated in a religious tradition can't bring more philosophical firepower to these discussions. It doesn't help that this entry in the series reinforces the revelation that Mosscap's own belief system is weirdly unsustainable to such a degree that it's staggering that any robots still exist. If I squint, I can see some interesting questions raised by the robot attitude towards their continued existence (although most of them feel profoundly depressing to me), but I was completely unable to connect their philosophy in any believable way with their origins and the stated history of the world. I don't understand how this world got here, and apparently I'm not able to let that go. This all sounds very negative, and yet I did enjoy this novella. Chambers is great at description of places that I'd love to visit, and there is something calm and peaceful about spending some time in a society this devoid of conflict. I also really like Dex, even more so after seeing their family, and I'm at least somewhat invested in their life decisions. I can see why people like these novellas. But if I'm going to read a series that's centered on questions of ethics and philosophy, I would like it to have more intellectual heft than we've gotten so far. For what it's worth, I'm seeing a bit of a pattern where people who bounced off the Wayfarers books like this series much better, whereas people who loved the Wayfarers books are not enjoying these quite as much. I'm in the latter camp, so if you didn't like Chambers's earlier work, maybe you'll find this more congenial? There's a lot less found family here, for one thing; I love found family stories, but they're not to everyone's taste. If you liked A Psalm for the Wild-Built, you will probably also like A Prayer for the Crown-Shy; it's more of the same thing in both style and story. If you found the first story frustratingly unbelievable or needing more philosophical depth, I'm afraid this is unlikely to be an improvement. It does have some lovely scenes, though, and is stuffed full of sheer delight in both the wild world and in happy communities of people. Rating: 7 out of 10

16 August 2022

Bits from Debian: Debian turns 29!

Alt Happy Birthday Debian by Juliette Taka - click to enlarge Today is Debian's 29th anniversary. We recently wrote about some ideas to celebrate the DebianDay, and several events have been planned in more than 14 locations. You can join the party or organise something yourselves too! Today is also an opportunity for you to start or resume your contributions to Debian. For example, you can have a look at our list of Debian Teams, install the how-can-i-help package and see if there is a bug in any of the software that you use that you can help to fix, start designing your artwork candidate for the next release, contribute small tips on how to install Debian on your machines to our wiki pages https://wiki.debian.org/InstallingDebianOn/, or put a Debian live image in an USB memory and give it to some person near you, who still didn't discover Debian. Our favorite operating system is the result of all the work we do together. Thanks to everybody who has contributed in these 29 years, and happy birthday Debian!

15 August 2022

John Goerzen: The Joy of Easy Personal Radio: FRS, GMRS, and Motorola DLR/DTR

Most of us carry cell phones with us almost everywhere we go. So much so that we often forget not just the usefulness, but even the joy, of having our own radios. For instance: From my own experience, as a person and a family that enjoys visiting wilderness areas, having radio communication is great. I have also heard from others that they re also very useful on cruise ships (I ve never been on one so I can t attest to that). There is also a sheer satisfaction in not needing anybody else s infrastructure, not paying any sort of monthly fee, and setting up the radios ourselves.

How these services fit in This article is primarily about handheld radios that can be used by anybody. I laid out some of their advantages above. Before continuing, I should point out some of the other services you may consider:
  • Cell phones, obviously. Due to the impressive infrastructure you pay for each month (many towers in high locations), in areas of cell coverage, you have this ability to connect to so many other phones around the world. With radios like discussed here, your range will likely a few miles.
  • Amateur Radio has often been a decade or more ahead of what you see in these easy personal radio devices. You can unquestionably get amateur radio devices with many more features and better performance. However, generally speaking, each person that transmits on an amateur radio band must be licensed. Getting an amateur radio license isn t difficult, but it does involve passing a test and some time studying for the exam. So it isn t something you can count on random friends or family members being able to do. That said, I have resources on Getting Started With Amateur Radio and it s not as hard as you might think! There are also a lot of reasons to use amateur radio if you want to go down that path.
  • Satellite messengers such as the Garmin Inreach or Zoleo can send SMS-like messages across anywhere in the globe with a clear view of the sky. They also often have SOS features. While these are useful safety equipment, it can take many minutes for a message to be sent and received it s not like an interactive SMS conversation and there are places where local radios will have better signal. Notably, satellite messengers are almost useless indoors and can have trouble in areas without a clear view of the sky, such as dense forests, valleys, etc.
  • My earlier Roundup of secure messengers with off-the-grid capabilities (distributed/mesh messengers) highlighted a number of other options as well, for text-only communication. For instance:
    • For very short-range service, Briar can form a mesh over Bluetooth from cell phones or over Tor, if Internet access is available.
    • Dedicated short message services Mesh Networks like Meshtastic or Beartooth have no voice capability, but share GPS locations and short text messages over their own local mesh. Generally they need to pair to a cell phone (even if that phone has no cell service) for most functionality.
  • Yggdrasil can do something similar over ad-hoc Wifi, but it is a lower-level protocol and you d need some sort of messaging to run atop it.
This article is primarily about the USA, though these concepts, if not the specific implementation, apply many other areas as well.

The landscape of easy personal radios The oldest personal radio service in the US is Citizens Band (CB). Because it uses a lower frequency band than others, handheld radios are larger, heavier, and less efficient. It is mostly used in vehicles or other installations where size isn t an issue. The FRS/GMRS services mostly share a set of frequencies. The Family Radio Service is unlicensed (you don t have to get a license to use it) and radios are plentiful and cheap. When you get a blister pack or little radios for maybe $50 for a pair or less, they re probably FRS. FRS was expanded by the FCC in 2017, and now most FRS channels can run up to 2 watts of power (with channels 8-14 still limited to 0.5W). FRS radios are pretty much always handheld. GMRS runs on mostly the same frequencies as FRS. GMRS lets you run up to 5W on some channels, up to 50W on others, and operate repeaters. GMRS also permits limited occasional digital data bursts; three manufacturers currently use this to exchange GPS data or text messages. To use GMRS, you must purchase a GMRS license; it costs $35 for a person and their immediate family and is good for 10 years. No exam is required. GMRS radios can transmit on FRS frequencies using the GMRS authorization. The extra power of GMRS gets you extra distance. While only the best handheld GMRS radios can put out 5W of power, some mobile (car) or home radios can put out the full 50W, and use more capable exterior antennas too. There is also the MURS band, which offers very few channels and also very few devices. It is not in wide use, probably for good reason. Finally, some radios use some other unlicensed bands. The Motorola DTR and DLR series I will talk about operate in the 900MHz ISM band. Regulations there limit them to a maximum power of 1W, but as you will see, due to some other optimizations, their range is often quite similar to a 5W GMRS handheld. All of these radios share something in common: your radio can either transmit, or receive, but not both simultaneously. They all have a PTT (push-to-talk) button that you push and hold while you are transmitting, and at all other times, they act as receivers. You ll learn that doubling is a thing where 2 or more people attempt to transmit at the same time. To listeners, the result is often garbled. To the transmitters, they may not even be aware they did it since, after all, they were transmitting. Usually it will be clear pretty quickly as people don t get responses or responses say it was garbled. Only the digital Motorola DLR/DTR series detects and prevents this situation.

FRS and GMRS radios As mentioned, the FRS/GMRS radios are generally the most popular, and quite inexpensive. Those that can emit 2W will have pretty decent range; 5W even better (assuming a decent antenna), though the 5W ones will require a GMRS license. For the most part, there isn t much that differentiates one FRS radio from another, or (with a few more exceptions) one GMRS handheld from another. Do not believe the manufacturers claims of 50 mile range or whatever; more on range below. FRS and GMRS radios use FM. GMRS radios are permitted to use a wider bandwidth than FRS radios, but in general, FRS and GMRS users can communicate with each other from any brand of radio to any other brand of radio, assuming they are using basic voice services. Some FRS and GMRS radios can receive the NOAA weather radio. That s nice for wilderness use. Nicer ones can monitor it for alert tones, even when you re tuned to a different channel. The very nicest on this as far as I know, only the Garmin Rino series will receive and process SAME codes to only trigger alerts for your specific location. GMRS (but not FRS) also permits 1-second digital data bursts at periodic intervals. There are now three radio series that take advantage of this: the Garmin Rino, the Motorola T800, and BTech GMRS-PRO. Garmin s radios are among the priciest of GMRS handhelds out there; the top-of-the-line Rino will set you back $650. The cheapest is $350, but does not contain a replaceable battery, which should be an instant rejection of a device like this. So, for $550, you can get the middle-of-the-road Rino. It features a sophisticated GPS system with Garmin trail maps and such, plus a 5W GMRS radio with GPS data sharing and a very limited (13-character) text messaging system. It does have a Bluetooth link to a cell phone, which can provide a link to trail maps and the like, and limited functionality for the radio. The Rino is also large and heavy (due to its large map-capable screen). Many consider it to be somewhat dated technology; for instance, other ways to have offline maps now exist (such as my Garmin Fenix 6 Pro, which has those maps on a watch!). It is bulky enough to likely be left at home in many situations. The Motorola T800 doesn t have much to talk about compared to the other two. Both of those platforms are a number of years old. The newest entrant in this space, from budget radio maker Baofeng, is the BTech GMRS-PRO, which came out just a couple of weeks ago. Its screen, though lacking built-in maps, does still have a GPS digital link similar to Garmin s, and can show you a heading and distance to other GMRS-PRO users. It too is a 5W unit, and has a ton of advanced features that are rare in GMRS: ability to pair a Bluetooth headset to it directly (though the Garmin Rino supports Bluetooth, it doesn t support this), ability to use the phone app as a speaker/mic for the radio, longer text messages than the Garmin Rino, etc. The GMRS-PRO sold out within a few days of its announcement, and I am presently waiting for mine to arrive to review. At $140 and with a more modern radio implementation, for people that don t need the trail maps and the like, it makes a compelling alternative to Garmin for outdoor use. Garmin documents when GPS beacons are sent out: generally, when you begin a transmission, or when another radio asks for your position. I couldn t find similar documentation from Motorola or BTech, but I believe FCC regulations mean that the picture would be similar with them. In other words, none of these devices is continuously, automatically, transmitting position updates. However, you can request a position update from another radio. It should be noted that, while voice communication is compatible across FRS/GMRS, data communication is not. Garmin, Motorola, and BTech all have different data protocols that are incompatible with radios from other manufacturers. FRS/GMRS radios often advertise privacy codes. These do nothing to protect your privacy; see more under the privacy section below.

Motorola DLR and DTR series Although they can be used for similar purposes, and I do, these radios are unique from the others in this article in several ways:
  • Their sales and marketing is targeted at businesses rather than consumers
  • They use digital encoding of audio, rather than analog FM or AM
  • They use FHSS (Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum) rather than a set frequency
  • They operate on the 900MHz ISM band, rather than a 460MHz UHF band (or a lower band yet for MURS and CB)
  • The DLR series is quite small, smaller than many GMRS radios.
I don t have space to go into a lot of radio theory in this article, but I ll briefly expand on some of this. First, FHSS. A FHSS radio hops from frequency to frequency many times per second, following some preset hopping algorithm that is part of the radio. Although it complicates the radio design, it has some advantages; it tends to allow more users to share a band, and if one particular frequency has a conflict with something else, it will be for a brief fraction of a second and may not even be noticeable. Digital encoding generally increases the quality of the audio, and keeps the quality high even in degraded signal conditions where analog radios would experience static or a quieter voice. However, you also lose that sort of audible feedback that your signal is getting weak. When you get too far away, the digital signal drops off a cliff . Often, either you have a crystal-clear signal or you have no signal at all. Motorola s radios leverage these features to build a unique radio. Not only can you talk to a group, but you can select a particular person to talk to with a private conversation, and so forth. DTR radios can send text messages to each other (but only preset canned ones, not arbitrary ones). Channels are more like configurations; they can include various arbitrary groupings of radios. Deconfliction with other users is established via hopsets rather than frequencies; that is, the algorithm that it uses to hop from frequency to frequency. There is a 4-digit PIN in the DLR radios, and newer DTR radios, that makes privacy very easy to set up and maintain. As far as I am aware, no scanner can monitor DLR/DTR signals. Though they technically aren t encrypted, cracking a DLR/DTR conversation would require cracking Motorola s firmware, and the chances of this happening in your geographical proximity seem vanishingly small. I will write more below on comparing the range of these to GMRS radios, but in a nutshell, it compares well, despite the fact that the 900MHz band restrictions allow Motorola only 1W of power output with these radios. There are three current lines of Motorola DLR/DTR radios:
  • The Motorola DLR1020 and DLR1060 radios. These have no screen; the 1020 has two channels (configurations) while the 1060 supports 6. They are small and compact and great pocketable just work radios.
  • The Motorola DTR600 and DTR700 radios. These are larger, with a larger antenna (that should theoretically provide greater range) and have a small color screen. They support more channels and more features (eg, short messages, etc).
  • The Motorola Curve (aka DLR110). Compared to the DLR1060, it adds limited WiFi capabilities that are primarily useful in certain business environments. See this thread for more. These features are unlikely to be useful in the environments we re talking about here.
These radios are fairly expensive new, but DLRs can be readily found at around $60 on eBay. (DTRs for about $250) They are quite rugged. Be aware when purchasing that some radios sold on eBay may not include a correct battery and charger. (Not necessarily a problem; Motorola batteries are easy to find online, and as with any used battery, the life of a used one may not be great.) For more advanced configuration, the Motorola CPS cable works with both radios (plugs into the charging cradle) and is used with the programming software to configure them in more detail. The older Motorola DTR650, DTR550, and older radios are compatible with the newer DLR and DTR series, if you program the newer ones carefully. The older ones don t support PINs and have a less friendly way of providing privacy, but they do work also. However, for most, I think the newer ones will be friendlier; but if you find a deal on the older ones, hey, why not? This thread on the MyGMRS forums has tons of useful information on the DLR/DTR radios. Check it out for a lot more detail. One interesting feature of these radios is that they are aware if there are conflicting users on the channel, and even if anybody is hearing your transmission. If your transmission is not being heard by at least one radio, you will get an audible (and visual, on the DTR) indication that your transmission failed. One thing that pleasantly surprised me is just how tiny the Motorola DLR is. The whole thing with antenna is like a small candy bar, and thinner. My phone is slightly taller, much wider, and only a little thinner than the Motorola DLR. Seriously, it s more pocketable than most smartphones. The DTR is of a size more commonly associated with radios, though still on the smaller side. Some of the most low-power FRS radios might get down to that size, but to get equivolent range, you need a 5W GMRS unit, which will be much bulkier. Being targeted at business users, the DLR/DTR don t include NOAA weather radio or GPS.

Power These radios tend to be powered by:
  • NiMH rechargable battery packs
  • AA/AAA batteries
  • Lithium Ion batteries
Most of the cheap FRS/GMRS radios have a NiMH rechargable battery pack and a terrible charge controller that will tend to overcharge, and thus prematurely destroy, the NiMH packs. This has long ago happened in my GMRS radios, and now I use Eneloop NiMH AAs in them (charged separately by a proper charger). The BTech, Garmin, and Motorola DLR/DTR radios all use Li-Ion batteries. These have the advantage of being more efficient batteries, though you can t necessarily just swap in AAs in a pinch. Pay attention to your charging options; if you are backpacking, for instance, you may want something that can charge from solar-powered USB or battery banks. The Motorola DLR/DTR radios need to sit in a charging cradle, but the cradle is powered by a Micro USB cable. The BTech GMRS-PRO is charged via USB-C. I don t know about the Garmin Rino or others. Garmin offers an optional AA battery pack for the Rino. BTech doesn t (yet) for the GMRS-PRO, but they do for some other models, and have stated accessories for the GMRS-PRO are coming. I don t have information about the T800. This is not an option for the DLR/DTR.

Meshtastic I ll briefly mention Meshtastic. It uses a low-power LoRa system. It can t handle voice transmissions; only data. On its own, it can transmit and receive automatic GPS updates from other Meshtastic devices, which you can view on its small screen. It forms a mesh, so each node can relay messages for others. It is also the only unit in this roundup that uses true encryption, and its battery lasts about a week more than the a solid day you can expect out of the best of the others here. When paired with a cell phone, Meshtastic can also send and receive short text messages. Meshtastic uses much less power than even the cheapest of the FRS radios discussed here. It can still achieve respectable range because it uses LoRa, which can trade bandwidth for power or range. It can take it a second or two to transmit a 50-character text message. Still, the GMRS or Motorola radios discussed here will have more than double the point-to-point range of a Meshtastic device. And, if you intend to take advantage of the text messaging features, keep in mind that you must now take two electronic devices with you and maintain a charge for them both.

Privacy The privacy picture on these is interesting.

Cell phone privacy Cell phones are difficult for individuals to eavesdrop, but a sophisticated adversary probably could: or an unsophisticated adversary with any manner of malware. Privacy on modern smartphones is a huge area of trouble, and it is safe to say that data brokers and many apps probably know at least your location and contact list, if not also the content of your messages. Though end-to-end encrypted apps such as Signal can certainly help. See Tools for Communicating Offline and in Difficult Circumstances for more details.

GMRS privacy GMRS radios are unencrypted and public. Anyone in range with another GMRS radio, or a scanner, can listen to your conversations even if you have a privacy code set. The privacy code does not actually protect your privacy; rather, it keeps your radio from playing conversations from others using the same channel, for your convenience. However, note the in range limitation. An eavesdropper would generally need to be within a few miles of you.

Motorola DLR/DTR privacy As touched on above, while these also aren t encrypted, as far as I am aware, no tools exist to eavesdrop on DLR/DTR conversations. Change the PIN away from the default 0000, ideally to something that doesn t end in 0 (to pick a different hopset) and you have pretty decent privacy right there. Decent doesn t mean perfect; it is certainly possible that sophisticated adversaries or state agencies could decode DLR/DTR traffic, since it is unencrypted. As a practical matter, though, the lack of consumer equipment that can decode this makes it be, as I say, pretty decent .

Meshtastic Meshtastic uses strong AES encryption. But as messaging features require a paired phone, the privacy implications of a phone also apply here.

Range I tested my best 5W GMRS radios, as well as a Motorola DTR600 talking to a DLR1060. (I also tried two DLR1060s talking to each other; there was no change in rnage.) I took a radio with me in the car, and had another sitting on my table indoors. Those of you familiar with radios will probably recognize that being in a car and being indoors both attenuate (reduce the strength of) the signal significantly. I drove around in a part of Kansas with gentle rolling hills. Both the GMRS and the DLR/DTR had a range of about 2-3 miles. There were times when each was able to pull out a signal when the other was not. The DLR/DTR series was significantly better while the vehicle was in motion. In weaker signal conditions, the GMRS radios were susceptible to significant picket fencing (static caused by variation in the signal strength when passing things like trees), to the point of being inaudible or losing the signal entirely. The DLR/DTR remained perfectly clear there. I was able to find some spots where, while parked, the GMRS radios had a weak but audible signal but the DLR/DTR had none. However, in all those cases, the distance to GMRS dropping out as well was small. Basically, no radios penetrate the ground, and the valleys were a problem for them all. Differences may play out in other ways in other environments as well: for instance, dense urban environments, heavy woods, indoor buildings, etc. GMRS radios can be used with repeaters, or have a rooftop antenna mounted on a car, both of which could significantly extend range and both of which are rare. The DLR/DTR series are said to be exceptionally good at indoor environments; Motorola rates them for penetrating 20 floors, for instance. Reports on MyGMRS forums state that they are able to cover an entire cruise ship, while the metal and concrete in them poses a big problem for GMRS radios. Different outdoor landscapes may favor one or the other also. Some of the cheapest FRS radios max out at about 0.5W or even less. This is probably only a little better than yelling distance in many cases. A lot of manufacturers obscure transmit power and use outlandish claims of range instead; don t believe those. Find the power output. A 2W FRS transmitter will be more credible range-wise, and the 5W GMRS transmitter as I tested better yet. Note that even GMRS radios are restricted to 0.5W on channels 8-14. The Motorola DLR/DTR radio gets about the same range with 1W as a GMRS radio does with 5W. The lower power output allows the DLR to be much smaller and lighter than a 5W GMRS radio for similar performance.

Overall conclusions Of course, what you use may depend on your needs. I d generally say:
  • For basic use, the high quality, good range, reasonable used price, and very small size of the Motorola DLR would make it a good all-arounder. Give one to each person (or kid) for use at the mall or amusement park, take them with you to concerts and festivals, etc.
  • Between vehicles, the Motorola DLR/DTR have a clear range advantage over the GMRS radios for vehicles in motion, though the GPS features of the more advanced GMRS radios may be more useful here.
  • For wilderness hiking and the like, GMRS radios that have GPS, maps, and NOAA weather radio reception may prove compelling and worth the extra bulk. More flexible power options may also be useful.
  • Low-end FRS radios can be found very cheap; around $20-$30 new for the lowest end, though their low power output and questionable charging circuits may limit their utility where it really counts.
  • If you just can t move away from cell phones, try the Zoleo app, which can provide some radio-like features.
  • A satellite communicator is still good backup safety gear for the wilderness.

Postscript: A final plug for amateur radio My 10-year-old Kenwood TH-D71A already had features none of these others have. For instance, its support for APRS and ability to act as a digipeater for APRS means that TH-D71As can form an automatic mesh between them, each one repeating new GPS positions or text messages to the others. Traditional APRS doesn t perform well in weak signal situations; however, more modern digital systems like D-Star and DMR also support APRS over more modern codecs and provide all sorts of other advantages as well (though not FHSS). My conclusions above assume a person is not going to go the amateur radio route for whatever reason. If you can get those in your group to get their license the technician is all you need a whole world of excellent options opens to you.

Appendix: The Trisquare eXRS Prior to 2012, a small company named Trisquare made a FHSS radio they called the eXRS that operated on the 900MHz band like Motorola s DLR/DTR does. Trisquare aimed at consumers and their radios were cheaper than the Motorola DLR/DTR. However, that is where the similarities end. Trisquare had an analog voice transmission, even though it used FHSS. Also, there is a problem that can arise with FHSS systems: synchronization. The receiver must hop frequencies in exactly the same order at exactly the same time as the sender. Motorola has clearly done a lot of engineering around this, and I have never encountered a synchronization problem in my DLR/DTR testing, not even once. eXRS, on the other hand, had frequent synchronization problems, which manifested themselves in weak signal conditions and sometimes with doubling. When it would happen, everyone would have to be quiet for a minute or two to give all the radios a chance to timeout and reset to the start of the hop sequence. In addition, the eXRS hardware wasn t great, and was susceptible to hardware failure. There are some that still view eXRS as a legendary device and hoard them. You can still find them used on eBay. When eXRS came out in 2007, it was indeed nice technology for the day, ahead of its time in some ways. I used and loved the eXRS radios back then; powerful GMRS wasn t all that common. But compared to today s technology, eXRS has inferior range to both GMRS and Motorola DLR/DTR (from my recollection, about a third to half of what I get with today s GMRS and DLR/DTR), is prone to finicky synchronization issues when signals are weak, and isn t made very robustly. I therefore don t recommend the eBay eXRS units. Don t assume that the eXRS weaknesses extend to Motorola DLR/DTR. The DLR/DTR radios are done well and don t suffer from the same problems. Note: This article has a long-term home on my website, where it may be updated from time to time.

14 August 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Still Not Safe

Review: Still Not Safe, by Robert L. Wears & Kathleen M. Sutcliffe
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Copyright: November 2019
ISBN: 0-19-027128-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 232
Still Not Safe is an examination of the recent politics and history of patient safety in medicine. Its conclusions are summarized by the opening paragraph of the preface:
The American moral and social philosopher Eric Hoffer reportedly said that every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket. The reform movement to make healthcare safer is clearly a great cause, but patient safety efforts are increasingly following Hoffer's path.
Robert Wears was Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Florida specializing in patient safety. Kathleen Sutcliffe is Professor of Medicine and Business at Johns Hopkins. This book is based on research funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for which both Wears and Sutcliffe were primary investigators. (Wears died in 2017, but the acknowledgments imply that at least early drafts of the book existed by that point and it was indeed co-written.) The anchor of the story of patient safety in Still Not Safe is the 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine entitled To Err is Human, to which the authors attribute an explosion of public scrutiny of medical safety. The headline conclusion of that report, which led nightly news programs after its release, was that 44,000 to 120,000 people died each year in the United States due to medical error. This report prompted government legislation, funding for new safety initiatives, a flurry of follow-on reports, and significant public awareness of medical harm. What it did not produce, in the authors' view, is significant improvements in patient safety. The central topic of this book is an analysis of why patient safety efforts have had so little measurable effect. The authors attribute this to three primary causes: an unwillingness to involve safety experts from outside medicine or absorb safety lessons from other disciplines, an obsession with human error that led to profound misunderstandings of the nature of safety, and the misuse of safety concerns as a means to centralize control of medical practice in the hands of physician-administrators. (The term used by the authors is "managerial, scientific-bureaucratic medicine," which is technically accurate but rather awkward.) Biggest complaint first: This book desperately needed examples, case studies, or something to make these ideas concrete. There are essentially none in 230 pages apart from passing mentions of famous cases of medical error that added to public pressure, and a tantalizing but maddeningly nonspecific discussion of the atypically successful effort to radically improve the safety of anesthesia. Apparently anesthesiologists involved safety experts from outside medicine, avoided a focus on human error, turned safety into an engineering problem, and made concrete improvements that had a hugely positive impact on the number of adverse events for patients. Sounds fascinating! Alas, I'm just as much in the dark about what those improvements were as I was when I started reading this book. Apart from a vague mention of some unspecified improvements to anesthesia machines, there are no concrete descriptions whatsoever. I understand that the authors were probably leery of giving too many specific examples of successful safety initiatives since one of their core points is that safety is a mindset and philosophy rather than a replicable set of actions, and copying the actions of another field without understanding their underlying motivations or context within a larger system is doomed to failure. But you have to give the reader something, or the book starts feeling like a flurry of abstract assertions. Much is made here of the drawbacks of a focus on human error, and the superiority of the safety analysis done in other fields that have moved beyond error-centric analysis (and in some cases have largely discarded the word "error" as inherently unhelpful and ambiguous). That leads naturally to showing an analysis of an adverse incident through an error lens and then through a more nuanced safety lens, making the differences concrete for the reader. It was maddening to me that the authors never did this. This book was recommended to me as part of a discussion about safety and reliability in tech and the need to learn from safety practices in other fields. In that context, I didn't find it useful, although surprisingly that's because the thinking in medicine (at least as presented by these authors) seems behind the current thinking in distributed systems. The idea that human error is not a useful model for approaching reliability is standard in large tech companies, nearly all of which use blameless postmortems for exactly that reason. Tech, similar to medicine, does have a tendency to be insular and not look outside the field for good ideas, but the approach to large-scale reliability in tech seems to have avoided the other traps discussed here. (Security is another matter, but security is also adversarial, which creates different problems that I suspect require different tools.) What I did find fascinating in this book, although not directly applicable to my own work, is the way in which a focus on human error becomes a justification for bureaucratic control and therefore a concentration of power in a managerial layer. If the assumption is that medical harm is primarily caused by humans making avoidable mistakes, and therefore the solution is to prevent humans from making mistakes through better training, discipline, or process, this creates organizations that are divided into those who make the rules and those who follow the rules. The long-term result is a practice of medicine in which a small number of experts decide the correct treatment for a given problem, and then all other practitioners are expected to precisely follow that treatment plan to avoid "errors." (The best distributed systems approaches may avoid this problem, but this failure mode seems nearly universal in technical support organizations.) I was startled by how accurate that portrayal of medicine felt. My assumption prior to reading this book was that the modern experience of medicine as an assembly line with patients as widgets was caused by the pressure for higher "productivity" and thus shorter visit times, combined with (in the US) the distorting effects of our broken medical insurance system. After reading this book, I've added a misguided way of thinking about medical error and risk avoidance to that analysis. One of the authors' points (which, as usual, I wish they'd made more concrete with a case study) is that the same thought process that lets a doctor make a correct diagnosis and find a working treatment is the thought process that may lead to an incorrect diagnosis or treatment. There is not a separable state of "mental error" that can be eliminated. Decision-making processes are more complicated and more integrated than that. If you try to prevent "errors" by eliminating flexibility, you also eliminate vital tools for successfully treating patients. The authors are careful to point out that the prior state of medicine in which each doctor was a force to themselves and there was no role for patient safety as a discipline was also bad for safety. Reverting to the state of medicine before the advent of the scientific-bureaucratic error-avoiding culture is also not a solution. But, rather at odds with other popular books about medicine, the authors are highly critical of safety changes focused on human error prevention, such as mandatory checklists. In their view, this is exactly the sort of attempt to blindly copy the machinery of safety in another field (in this case, air travel) without understanding the underlying purpose and system of which it's a part. I am not qualified to judge the sharp dispute over whether there is solid clinical evidence that checklists are helpful (these authors claim there is not; I know other books make different claims, and I suspect it may depend heavily on how the checklist is used). But I found the authors' argument that one has to design systems holistically for safety, not try to patch in safety later by turning certain tasks into rote processes and humans into machines, to be persuasive. I'm not willing to recommend this book given how devoid it is of concrete examples. I was able to fill in some of that because of prior experience with the literature on site reliability engineering, but a reader who wasn't previously familiar with discussions of safety or reliability may find much of this book too abstract to be comprehensible. But I'm not sorry I read it. I hadn't previously thought about the power dynamics of a focus on error, and I think that will be a valuable observation to keep in mind. Rating: 6 out of 10

12 August 2022

Shirish Agarwal: Mum and Books

The last day
The first lesson I would like everybody to know and have is to buy two machines, especially a machine to check low blood pressure. I had actually ordered one from Amazon but they never delivered. I hope to sue them in consumer court in due course of time. The other one is a blood sugar machine which I ordered and did get, but the former is more important than the latter, and the reason why will be known soon. Mum had stopped eating solids and was entirely on liquids for the last month of her life. I did try enticing her however I could with aromatic food but failed. Add to that we had weird weather this entire year. June is supposed to be when the weather turns and we have gentle showers, but this whole June it felt like we were in an oven. She asked for liquids whenever and although I hated that she was not eating solids, at least she was having liquids (juices and whatnot) and that s how I pacified myself. I had been repeatedly told by family and extended family to get a full-time nurse but she objected time and again for the same and I had to side with her. Then July 1st came around and part of extended family also came, and they impressed both on me and her to get a nurse so finally, I was able to get her nurse. I was also being pulled in various directions (outside my stuff, mumma s stuff) and doing whatever she needed in terms of supplies. On July 4th, think she had low blood pressure but without a machine, one cannot know. At least that s what I know. If somebody knows anything better, please share, who knows it may save lives. I don t have a blood pressure monitor even to date

There used to be 5-6 doctors in our locality before the Pandemic, but because of the Pandemic and whatever other reasons, almost all doctors had given up attending house calls. And the house where I live is a 100-year-old house so it has narrow passageways and we have no lift. So taking her in and out is a challenge and an ordeal, and something that is not easily done. I had to do some more works so I asked the nurse to stay a bit over 8 p.m. I came and the nurse left for the day. That day I had been distracted for a number of reasons which I don t remember what was but at that point in time, doing those works seemed important. I called out to her but she didn t respond. I remember the night before she had been agitated while sleeping, I slept nearby and kept an eye on her. I had called her a few times to ask whether she needed something but she didn t respond. (this is about the earlier night). That evening, it was raining quite a bit, I called her a few times but she didn t speak. I kissed her on the cheek and realized she is cold. Mumma usually becomes very agitated if she feels cold and shouts at me. I realized she is cold and her body a bit stiff. I was supposed to eat but just couldn t. I dunno what I suspected, I just hired a rickshaw and went around till 9 p.m. and it was a fruitless search for a doctor. I returned home, and again called her but there was no response. Because she was not responding, I became fearful, had a shat, and then dialed the hospital. Asking for the ambulance, it took about an hr. but finally, the ambulance came in. It was now 11 o clock or 2300 hrs. when the ambulance arrived in. It took another half an hr. getting few kids who had come from some movie or something to get them to help mum get down through the passage to the ambulance. We finally reached the hospital at 2330. The people on casualty that day were known to me, and they also knew my hearing problem, so it was much easier to communicate. Half an hour later, they proclaimed her dead. Fortunately or not, I had just bought the newer mobile phone just a few days back. And right now, In India, WhatsApp is one of the most used apps. So I was able to chat with everybody and tell them what was happening or rather what has happened. Of all, mamaji (mother s brother) shared that most members of the family would not be able to come except a cousin sister who lives in Mumbai. I was instructed to get the body refrigerated for a few hrs. It is only then I came to know various ways in which the body is refrigerated and how cruel it would have been towards Atal Bihari Vajpayee s family, but that is politics. I had to go to quite a few places and was back home around 3 a.m. I was supposed to sleep, but sleep was out of the question. I whiled away a few hrs. playing, seeing movies, something or the other to keep myself distracted as literally, I had no idea what to do. Morning came, took a bath, went outside, had some snacks, came home and somewhere then slept. One of my Mausi s (mother s sister) was insisting to get the body burnt in the morning itself but I wanted at least one relative to be there on the last journey. Cousin sister and her husband came to Pune around 4 p.m. I somehow woke, ringing, the vibration I do not know what. I took a short bath, rushed to the place where we had kept the body, got the body and from there where we had asked permission to get the body burned. More than anything else, I felt so sad that except for cousin sister, and me, nobody was with her on the last journey. Even that day, it was raining hard, so people avoided going out. Brother-in-law tried to give me some money, but I brushed it off. I just wanted their company, money is and was never the criteria. So, in the evening we had a meal, my cousin sister, brother-in-law, their two daughters and me. The next day we took the bones and ash to Alandi and did what was needed. I have tried to resurrect the day so many times in my head trying to figure out what I could have done better and am inconclusive. Having a blood pressure monitor for sure would have prevented the tragedy or at least post-phoned for it for a few more days, weeks, years, dunno. I am not medically inclined.

The Books I have to confess, the time they said she is no more, I was hoping that the doctors would say, we have a pill, would you like to take it, it would reunite you with mum. Maybe it wa crazy or whatever, but if such a situation had been, I would have easily gone for it. If I were to go, some people might miss me, but nobody would miss me terribly, and at least I would be with her. There was nothing to look forward to. What saved me from going mad was Michael Crichton s Timeline. It is a fascinating and seductive book. I had actually read it years ago but had forgotten. So many days and nights I was able to sleep hoping that quantum teleportation can be achieved. Anybody in my space would be easily enticed. What joy would it be if I were to meet mum once again. I can tell my other dumb child what to do so she lives for few more years. I could talk to her, just be with her for some time. It is a powerful and seductive idea. I can see so many cults and whatnot that can be formed around it, there may already be, who knows. Another good book that helped me to date has been Through The, Rings Of Fire (Hardcover, J. D. Benedict Thyagarajan). It is an autobiography of Venkat Chalasany (story of an orphan boy who became a successful builder in Pune and the setbacks he had.) While the author has very strong views and I sometimes feel very naive views about things, I was taken a ride of my own city as it was in 1970s and 1980s. I could very well imagine all the different places and people as if they were happening right now. While I have finished the main story, there is still a bit left to read and I read 5-10 minutes every day as it s like a sweet morsel, it s like somebody sharing a tale passed without me having to make an effort. And no lies, the author has been pretty upfront where he has exaggerated or told lies or simply made-up stuff. I was thinking of adding something about movies and some more info or impressions about android but it seems that would have to wait, I do hope, it does work for somebody, even if a single life can be saved from what I shared above, my job is done.

5 August 2022

Thorsten Alteholz: My Debian Activities in July 2022

FTP master This month I accepted 420 and rejected 44 packages. The overall number of packages that got accepted was 422. I am sad to write the following lines, but unfortunately there are people who rather take advantage of others instead of doing a proper maintenance of their packages. So, in order to find time slots for as much packages in NEW as possible, I no longer write a debian/copyright for others. I know it is a boring task to collect the copyright information, but our policy still requires this. Of course nobody is perfect and certainly one or the other license or copyright holder can be overlooked. Luckily most of the contributors maintain their debian/copyright very thouroughly with a terrific result. On the other hand some contributors upload only some crap and demand that I exactly list what is missing. I am no longer willing to do this. I am going to stop processing after I found a few missing things and reject the package. When I see repeatedly uploads containing only improvements with things I pointed out, I will process this package only after all others from NEW are done. Debian LTS This was my ninety-seventh month that I did some work for the Debian LTS initiative, started by Raphael Hertzog at Freexian. This month my all in all workload has been 35.75h. Unfortunately Stretch LTS has moved to Stretch ELTS and Buster LTS was not yet opened in July. So I think this is the first month I did not work all assigned hours. Besides things on security-master, I only worked 20h on moving the LTS documentation to their new destination. At the moment the documentation is spread over several locations. As searching over all those locations is not possible, it shall be collected at one place. Debian ELTS This month was the forty-eighth ELTS month. During my allocated time I uploaded: I also started to work on mod-wsgi and my patch was already approved by the maintainer. Now I am waiting for the security team to decide whether it will be uploaded as DSA or via PU. Last but not least I did some days of frontdesk duties. Other stuff This month I uploaded new upstream versions or improved packaging of:

20 July 2022

Enrico Zini: Deconstruction of the DAM hat

Further reading Talk notes Intro Debian Account Managers Responsibility for official membership What DAM is not Unexpected responsibilities DAM warnings DAM warnings? House rules Interpreting house rules Governance by bullying How about the Community Team? How about DAM? How about the DPL? Concentrating responsibility Empowering developers What needs to happen

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