Search Results: "casi"

15 September 2022

Jonathan Dowland: things I'd like to 3D print, revisited

Back in November I wrote up a list of 25 things I would 3D print. Let's revisit the list and see how things have developed. Stuff I won't print
  • Some kind of 45 leaning prong to dry bottles and flasks on
  • A tea tray and coasters
  • Small tins to keep loose-leaf tea in
It was pointed out to me that you can't safely print things to store food in with most materials, as their porous/layered nature facilitates the growth of bacteria. So, I'll rule out those items.
A vinyl record.
The size of the grooves in a vinyl record are smaller than conventional FDM printers can achieve. Things I've printed
a replacement prop arm/foot for my computer keyboard
Someone has modelled the exact part I need, and it worked great:
replacement toy bolt replacement toy bolt
replacement bits for an Early Learning Centre Build It Deluxe Set
I was amazed to find that someone has already modelled one of these, too, and it worked beautifully:
Little kids trinkets. Pacman ghosts
The Pacman ghost family so far The Pacman ghost family so far
So far, I've tried to print useful, functional things, but on a few occasions I've printed a little Pacman ghost when testing printer calibration or similar. I've mostly used these models:
  • Lego storage/sorters
  • DIY bits-and-bobs sorter/storage (nuts and bolts etc)
I learned about a Slicer setting sometimes called "Vase mode" and found this interesting system of modular drawers that are designed to be printed in Vase mode, so I gave them a go: I printed one and four drawers for it and gave it to my daughter. It might be used for sorting Lego, or possibly as a chest-of-drawers for a dolls house.
A free-standing inclined vinyl record display stand
A bracket to install a Gotek drive in my Amiga 500 Summary From my original list of 25 things to print, I've done 7 of them and determined 4 are not viable. The things in this list I've printed have been off-the-shelf models that other people have constructed. The things I haven't printed are designs I will do myself, which is one reason I haven't printed them yet: building your own designs is the hard part!

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,, 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, 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, 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.

25 August 2022

Antoine Beaupr : One dead Purism laptop

The "s rie noire" continues. I ordered my first Purism Librem 13v4 laptop in April 2019 and it arrived, unsurprisingly, more than three weeks later. But more surprisingly, it did not work at all: a problem eerily similar to this post talking about a bricked Purism laptop. Thankfully, Purism was graceful enough to cross-ship a replacement, and once I paid the extra (gulp) 190$ Fedex fee, I had my new elite laptop read. Less than a year later, the right USB-A port breaks: it would deliver power, but no data signal (nothing in dmesg or lsusb). Two months later, the laptop short-circuits and completely dies. And here goes another RMA, this time without a shipping label or cross shipping, so I had to pay shipping fees. Now the third laptop in as many years is as good as dead. The left hinge basically broke off. Earlier this year, I had noticed something was off with the lid: it was wobbly. I figured that it was just the way that laptop was, "they don't make it as sturdy as they did in the good old days, do they". But it was probably a signal of some much worse problem. Eventually, the bottom panel actually cracked open, and I realized that some internal mechanism had basically exploded. The hinges of the Librem are screwed into little golden sprockets that are fitted in plastic shims of the laptop casing. The shims had exploded: after opening the back lid, they litterally fell off (alongside the tiny golden sprocket). Support confirmed that I needed a case replacement, but unfortunately they were "out of stock" of replacement cases for the Librem 13, and have been for a while. I am 13 on the waiting list, apparently. So this laptop is basically dead for me right now: it's my travel laptop. It's primary purpose is to sit at home until I go to a conference or a meeting or a cafe or upstairs or wherever to do some work. I take the laptop, pop the lid, tap-tap some work, close the lid. Had I used that laptop as my primary device, I would probably have closed and opened that lid thousands of times. But because it's a travel laptop, that number is probably in the hundreds, which means this laptop is not designed to withstand prolonged use. I have now ordered a framework laptop, 12th generation. I have some questions about their compatibility with Debian (and Linux in general), and concerns about power usage, but it certainly can't be worse than the Purism, in any case. And it can only get better over time: the main board is fully replaceable, and they have replacement hinges on stock, although the laptop itself is currently in pre-order (slated for September). I will probably post a full review when I actually lay my hand on this device. In the meantime, I strongly discourage anyone from buying Purism products, as I previously did. You can the full maintenance history of the laptop in the review page as well.

24 August 2022

Jonathan Dowland: Our Study, 2022

Two years ago I blogged a photo of my study. I'd been planning to revisit that for a while but I'd been somewhat embarrassed by the state of it, but I've finally decided to bite the bullet.
Fisheye shot of my home office, 2022 Fisheye shot of my home office, 2022
What's changed The supposedly-temporary 4x4 KALLAX has become a permanent feature. I managed to wedge it on the right-hand side far wall, next to the bookcase. They fit snugly together. Since I'd put my turntable on top, I've now dedicated the top row of four spaces to 12" records. (There's a close-up pic here). My hi-fi speakers used to be in odd places: they're now on my desktop. Also on my desktop: a camera, repurposed as a webcam, and a 90s old Creative Labs beige microphone; both to support video conferencing. The desktop is otherwise, largely unchanged. My Amiga 500 and Synthesiser had continued to live there until very recently when I had an accident with a pot of tea. I'm in two minds as to whether I'll bring them back: having the desk clear is quite nice. There's a lot of transient stuff and rubbish to sort out: the bookcase visible on the left, the big one behind my chair on the right (itself to get rid of); and the collection of stuff on the floor. Sadly, the study is the only room in our house where things like this can be collected prior to disposal: it's disruptive, but less so than if we stuffed them in a bedroom. You can't easily see the "temporary" storage unit for Printer(s) that used to be between bookcases on the right-hand wall. It's still there, situated behind my desk chair. I did finally get rid of the deprecated printer (and I plan to change the HP laser too, although that's a longer story). The NAS, I have recently moved to the bottom-right Kallax cube, and that seems to work well. There's really no other space in the Study for the printer. Also not pictured: a much improved ceiling light. What would I like to improve First and foremost, get rid of all the transient stuff! It's a simple matter of not putting the time in to sort it out If I manage that, I've been trying to think about how to best organise material relating to ongoing projects. Some time ago I salivated over this home office tour for an embedded developer. Jay has an interesting project tray system. I'm thinking of developing something like that, with trays or boxes I can store in the Kallax to my right. I'd love to put a comfortable reading chair, perhaps a wing-backed thing, and a reading light, over on the left-hand side near the window. And/or, a bench at a height enabling me to do the occasional bit of standing work, and/or to support the Alesis Micron (or a small digital Piano).

23 August 2022

Ian Jackson: prefork-interp - automatic startup time amortisation for all manner of scripts

The problem I had - Mason, so, sadly, FastCGI Since the update to current Debian stable, the website for YARRG, (a play-aid for Puzzle Pirates which I wrote some years ago), started to occasionally return Internal Server Error , apparently due to bug(s) in some FastCGI libraries. I was using FastCGI because the website is written in Mason, a Perl web framework, and I found that Mason CGI calls were slow. I m using CGI - yes, trad CGI - via userv-cgi. Running Mason this way would compile the template for each HTTP request just when it was rendered, and then throw the compiled version away. The more modern approach of an application server doesn t scale well to a system which has many web applications most of which are very small. The admin overhead of maintaining a daemon, and corresponding webserver config, for each such service would be prohibitive, even with some kind of autoprovisioning setup. FastCGI has an interpreter wrapper which seemed like it ought to solve this problem, but it s quite inconvenient, and often flaky. I decided I could do better, and set out to eliminate FastCGI from my setup. The result seems to be a success; once I d done all the hard work of writing prefork-interp, I found the result very straightforward to deploy. prefork-interp prefork-interp is a small C program which wraps a script, plus a scripting language library to cooperate with the wrapper program. Together they achieve the following: Features: Important properties not always satisfied by competing approaches: Swans paddling furiously The implementation is much more complicated than the (apparent) interface. I won t go into all the details here (there are some terrifying diagrams in the source code if you really want), but some highlights: We use an AF_UNIX socket (hopefully in /run/user/UID, but in ~ if not) for rendezvous. We can try to connect without locking, but we must protect the socket with a separate lockfile to avoid two concurrent restart attempts. We want stderr from the script setup (pre-initialisation) to be delivered to the caller, so the script ought to inherit our stderr and then will need to replace it later. Twice, in fact, because the daemonic server process can t have a stderr. When a script is restarted for any reason, any old socket will be removed. We want the old server process to detect that and quit. (If hung about, it would wait for the idle timeout; if this happened a lot - eg, a constantly changing set of services - we might end up running out of pids or something.) Spotting the socket disappearing, without polling, involves use of a library capable of using inotify (or the equivalent elsewhere). Choosing a C library to do this is not so hard, but portable interfaces to this functionality can be hard to find in scripting languages, and also we don t want every language binding to have to reimplement these checks. So for this purpose there s a little watcher process, and associated IPC. When an invoking instance of prefork-interp is killed, we must arrange for the executing service instance to stop reading from its stdin (and, ideally, writing its stdout). Otherwise it s stealing input from prefork-interp s successors (maybe the user s shell)! Cleanup ought not to depend on positive actions by failing processes, so each element of the system has to detect failures of its peers by means such as EOF on sockets/pipes. Obtaining prefork-interp I put this new tool in my chiark-utils package, which is a collection of useful miscellany. It s available from git. Currently I make releases by uploading to Debian, where prefork-interp has just hit Debian unstable, in chiark-utils 7.0.0. Support for other scripting languages I would love Python to be supported. If any pythonistas reading this think you might like to help out, please get in touch. The specification for the protocol, and what the script library needs to do, is documented in the source code Future plans for chiark-utils chiark-utils as a whole is in need of some tidying up of its build system and packaging. I intend to try to do some reorganisation. Currently I think it would be better to organising the source tree more strictly with a directory for each included facility, rather than grouping compiled and scripts together. The Debian binary packages should be reorganised more fully according to their dependencies, so that installing a program will ensure that it works. I should probably move the official git repo from my own git+gitweb to a forge (so we can have MRs and issues and so on). And there should be a lot more testing, including Debian autopkgtests.
edited 2022-08-23 10:30 +01:00 to improve the formatting

comment count unavailable comments

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

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.

12 August 2022

Wouter Verhelst: Upgrading a Windows 10 VM to Windows 11

I run Debian on my laptop (obviously); but occasionally, for $DAYJOB, I have some work to do on Windows. In order to do so, I have had a Windows 10 VM in my libvirt configuration that I can use. A while ago, Microsoft issued Windows 11. I recently found out that all the components for running Windows 11 inside a libvirt VM are available, and so I set out to upgrade my VM from Windows 10 to Windows 11. This wasn't as easy as I thought, so here's a bit of a writeup of all the things I ran against, and how I fixed them. Windows 11 has a number of hardware requirements that aren't necessary for Windows 10. There are a number of them, but the most important three are: So let's see about all three.

A modern enough processor If your processor isn't modern enough to run Windows 11, then you can probably forget about it (unless you want to use qemu JIT compilation -- I dunno, probably not going to work, and also not worth it if it were). If it is, all you need is the "host-passthrough" setting in libvirt, which I've been using for a long time now. Since my laptop is less than two months old, that's not a problem for me.

A TPM 2.0 module My Windows 10 VM did not have a TPM configured, because it wasn't needed. Luckily, a quick web search told me that enabling that is not hard. All you need to do is:
  • Install the swtpm and swtpm-tools packages
  • Adding the TPM module, by adding the following XML snippet to your VM configuration:
      <tpm model='tpm-tis'>
        <backend type='emulator' version='2.0'/>
    Alternatively, if you prefer the graphical interface, click on the "Add hardware" button in the VM properties, choose the TPM, set it to Emulated, model TIS, and set its version to 2.0.
You're done! Well, with this part, anyway. Read on.

Secure boot Here is where it gets interesting. My Windows 10 VM was old enough that it was configured for the older i440fx chipset. This one is limited to PCI and IDE, unlike the more modern q35 chipset (which supports PCIe and SATA, and does not support IDE nor SATA in IDE mode). There is a UEFI/Secure Boot-capable BIOS for qemu, but it apparently requires the q35 chipset, Fun fact (which I found out the hard way): Windows stores where its boot partition is somewhere. If you change the hard drive controller from an IDE one to a SATA one, you will get a BSOD at startup. In order to fix that, you need a recovery drive. To create the virtual USB disk, go to the VM properties, click "Add hardware", choose "Storage", choose the USB bus, and then under "Advanced options", select the "Removable" option, so it shows up as a USB stick in the VM. Note: this takes a while to do (took about an hour on my system), and your virtual USB drive needs to be 16G or larger (I used the libvirt default of 20G). There is no possibility, using the buttons in the virt-manager GUI, to convert the machine from i440fx to q35. However, that doesn't mean it's not possible to do so. I found that the easiest way is to use the direct XML editing capabilities in the virt-manager interface; if you edit the XML in an editor it will produce error messages if something doesn't look right and tell you to go and fix it, whereas the virt-manager GUI will actually fix things itself in some cases (and will produce helpful error messages if not). What I did was:
  • Take backups of everything. No, really. If you fuck up, you'll have to start from scratch. I'm not responsible if you do.
  • Go to the Edit->Preferences option in the VM manager, then on the "General" tab, choose "Enable XML editing"
  • Open the Windows VM properties, and in the "Overview" section, go to the "XML" tab.
  • Change the value of the machine attribute of the domain.os.type element, so that it says pc-q35-7.0.
  • Search for the domain.devices.controller element that has pci in its type attribute and pci-root in its model one, and set the model attribute to pcie-root instead.
  • Find all elements, setting their dev=hdX to dev=sdX, and bus="ide" to bus="sata"
  • Find the USB controller (domain.devices.controller with type="usb", and set its model to qemu-xhci. You may also want to add ports="15" if you didn't have that yet.
  • Perhaps also add a few PCIe root ports:
    <controller type="pci" index="1" model="pcie-root-port"/>
    <controller type="pci" index="2" model="pcie-root-port"/>
    <controller type="pci" index="3" model="pcie-root-port"/>
I figured out most of this by starting the process for creating a new VM, on the last page of the wizard that pops up selecting the "Modify configuration before installation" option, going to the "XML" tab on the "Overview" section of the new window that shows up, and then comparing that against what my current VM had. Also, it took me a while to get this right, so I might have forgotten something. If virt-manager gives you an error when you hit the Apply button, compare notes against the VM that you're in the process of creating, and copy/paste things from there to the old VM to make the errors go away. As long as you don't remove configuration that is critical for things to start, this shouldn't break matters permanently (but hey, use your backups if you do break -- you have backups, right?) OK, cool, so now we have a Windows VM that is... unable to boot. Remember what I said about Windows storing where the controller is? Yeah, there you go. Boot from the virtual USB disk that you created above, and select the "Fix the boot" option in the menu. That will fix it. Ha ha, only kidding. Of course it doesn't. I honestly can't tell you everything that I fiddled with, but I think the bit that eventually fixed it was where I chose "safe mode", which caused the system to do a hickup, a regular reboot, and then suddenly everything was working again. Meh. Don't throw the virtual USB disk away yet, you'll still need it. Anyway, once you have it booting again, you will now have a machine that theoretically supports Secure Boot, but you're still running off an MBR partition. I found a procedure on how to convert things from MBR to GPT that was written almost 10 years ago, but surprisingly it still works, except for the bit where the procedure suggests you use diskmgmt.msc (for one thing, that was renamed; and for another, it can't touch the partition table of the system disk either). The last step in that procedure says to restart your computer!, which is fine, except at this point you obviously need to switch over to the TianoCore firmware, otherwise you're trying to read a UEFI boot configuration on a system that only supports MBR booting, which obviously won't work. In order to do that, you need to add a loader element to the domain.os element of your libvirt configuration:
<loader readonly="yes" type="pflash">/usr/share/OVMF/</loader>
When you do this, you'll note that virt-manager automatically adds an nvram element. That's fine, let it. I figured this out by looking at the documentation for enabling Secure Boot in a VM on the Debian wiki, and using the same trick as for how to switch chipsets that I explained above. Okay, yay, so now secure boot is enabled, and we can install Windows 11! All good? Well, almost. I found that once I enabled secure boot, my display reverted to a 1024x768 screen. This turned out to be because I was using older unsigned drivers, and since we're using Secure Boot, that's no longer allowed, which means Windows reverts to the default VGA driver, and that only supports the 1024x768 resolution. Yeah, I know. The solution is to download the virtio-win ISO from one of the links in the virtio-win github project, connecting it to the VM, going to Device manager, selecting the display controller, clicking on the "Update driver" button, telling the system that you have the driver on your computer, browsing to the CD-ROM drive, clicking the "include subdirectories" option, and then tell Windows to do its thing. While there, it might be good to do the same thing for unrecognized devices in the device manager, if any. So, all I have to do next is to get used to the completely different user interface of Windows 11. Sigh. Oh, and to rename the "w10" VM to "w11", or some such. Maybe.

4 August 2022

Abhijith PA: Trip to misty mountains in Munnar

Munnar is a hill station in Idukki district of Kerala, India. Home to 2nd largest tea plantation in the country. Lot of people visit here on summer and in winter as well. I live in the neighboring district of Munnar though I never made a visit. In my mind I pictured Munnar as a Tourist trap with lots of garbage lying around. I recently made a visit and it changed my perception of this place. Munnar!

Little background I never liked tea much. I am also not a coffee person either. But if I have to choose over two that will be coffee because of the strong aroma. Going to relatives house, they always offered hot tea defacto. I always find difficult say no to their friendly gesture. But I hate tea. A generation before me drinks lot of tea here at my place. You can see tea stalls in every corner and people sipping tea. I always wondered why people drink lot of tea on a hot country like India. The book I am currently trying to read has a chapter about Munnar and how it became a Tea plantation under the British rule. Well, around the same time. I watched a documentary program about the tea and Munnar.

Munnar Munnar on early evening Too much word here and there I decided to do a visit. I took a motorbike and started a journey to Munnar. Due to covid restrictions there weren t much tourists, so this was to my advantage. There are many water falls on the way to Munnar. Some are very close to road and some are far away but can be spotted. Munnar travel is just not about the destination because its never been a single spot. Enjoying the journey that the ride has to offer. I stayed at a hotel, little far away from town, though I never recommend hotels in Munnar. Try to find home stays and small establishments away from the town. There are British Era bungalows inside the plantations still maintained in good condition which can be booked per room or entire property. The lush greenery on the Mountains of tea plantation is very refreshing and feast to our eyes. The mornings and evenings of Munnar is something to watch, mountains wrapped in mist slowly uncovering with sunlight and again slipping to mist by dark evening. I planned only to visit places which are less explored by tourists. People here live a simple life. Most of them are plantation workers. The native people of Munnar are actually tribal folks but since the plantation boom many people from Tamil Nadu(neighboring state) and other parts of Kerala settled here. The houses of this plantation workers resembled Hobbit homes in Shire from Lord of the Rings as they are in the hill slides. The Kannan Devan hills, the biggest hill in area covers more than half of Munnar. Hobbit homes Two famous Tea companies from Munnar are Tata Tea and KDHP(Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company (P) Limited) tea. KDHP is actually an employee owned Tea company ie a good share of this company is owned by the employees working there. This was interesting to me, so I bought a bag of speciality tea from KDHP store on my return. I don t drink tea on a daily basis but I will try it on special occasions.

30 July 2022

Ian Jackson: chiark s skip-skip-cross-up-grade

Two weeks ago I upgraded chiark from Debian jessie i386 to bullseye amd64, after nearly 30 years running Debian i386. This went really quite well, in fact! Background chiark is my colo - a server I run, which lives in a data centre in London. It hosts ~200 users with shell accounts, various websites and mailing lists, moderators for a number of USENET newsgroups, and countless other services. chiark s internal setup is designed to enable my users to do a maximum number of exciting things with a minimum of intervention from me. chiark s OS install dates to 1993, when I installed Debian 0.93R5, the first version of Debian to advertise the ability to be upgraded without reinstalling. I think that makes it one of the oldest Debian installations in existence. Obviously it s had several new hardware platforms too. (There was a prior install of Linux on the initial hardware, remnants of which can maybe still be seen in some obscure corners of chiark s /usr/local.) chiark s install is also at the very high end of the installation complexity, and customisation, scale: reinstalling it completely would be an enormous amount of work. And it s unique. chiark s upgrade history chiark s last major OS upgrade was to jessie (Debian 8, released in April 2015). That was in 2016. Since then we have been relying on Debian s excellent security support posture, and the Debian LTS and more recently Freexian s Debian ELTS projects and some local updates, The use of ELTS - which supports only a subset of packages - was particularly uncomfortable. Additionally, chiark was installed with 32-bit x86 Linux (Debian i386), since that was what was supported and available at the time. But 32-bit is looking very long in the tooth. Why do a skip upgrade So, I wanted to move to the fairly recent stable release - Debian 11 (bullseye), which is just short of a year old. And I wanted to crossgrade (as its called) to 64-bit. In the past, I have found I have had greater success by doing direct upgrades, skipping intermediate releases, rather than by following the officially-supported path of going via every intermediate release. Doing a skip upgrade avoids exposure to any packaging bugs which were present only in intermediate release(s). Debian does usually fix bugs, but Debian has many cautious users, so it is not uncommon for bugs to be found after release, and then not be fixed until the next one. A skip upgrade avoids the need to try to upgrade to already-obsolete releases (which can involve messing about with multiple snapshots from It is also significantly faster and simpler, which is important not only because it reduces downtime, but also because it removes opportunities (and reduces the time available) for things to go badly. One downside is that sometimes maintainers aggressively remove compatibility measures for older releases. (And compatibililty packages are generally removed quite quickly by even cautious maintainers.) That means that the sysadmin who wants to skip-upgrade needs to do more manual fixing of things that haven t been dealt with automatically. And occasionally one finds compatibility problems that show up only when mixing very old and very new software, that no-one else has seen. Crossgrading Crossgrading is fairly complex and hazardous. It is well supported by the low level tools (eg, dpkg) but the higher-level packaging tools (eg, apt) get very badly confused. Nowadays the system is so complex that downloading things by hand and manually feeding them to dpkg is impractical, other than as a very occasional last resort. The approach, generally, has been to set the system up to want to be the new architecture, run apt in a download-only mode, and do the package installation manually, with some fixing up and retrying, until the system is coherent enough for apt to work. This is the approach I took. (In current releases, there are tools that will help but they are only in recent releases and I wanted to go direct. I also doubted that they would work properly on chiark, since it s so unusual.) Peril and planning Overall, this was a risky strategy to choose. The package dependencies wouldn t necessarily express all of the sequencing needed. But it still seemed that if I could come up with a working recipe, I could do it. I restored most of one of chiark s backups onto a scratch volume on my laptop. With the LVM snapshot tools and chroots. I was able to develop and test a set of scripts that would perform the upgrade. This was a very effective approach: my super-fast laptop, with local caches of the package repositories, was able to do many edit, test, debug cycles. My recipe made heavy use of, to make sure that it wouldn t rot between testing and implementation. When I had a working scheme, I told my users about the planned downtime. I warned everyone it might take even 2 or 3 days. I made sure that my access arrangemnts to the data centre were in place, in case I needed to visit in person. (I have remote serial console and power cycler access.) Reality - the terrible rescue install My first task on taking the service down was the check that the emergency rescue installation worked: chiark has an ancient USB stick in the back, which I can boot to from the BIOS. The idea being that many things that go wrong could be repaired from there. I found that that install was too old to understand chiark s storage arrangements. mdadm tools gave very strange output. So I needed to upgrade it. After some experiments, I rebooted back into the main install, bringing chiark s service back online. I then used the main install of chiark as a kind of meta-rescue-image for the rescue-image. The process of getting the rescue image upgraded (not even to amd64, but just to something not totally ancient) was fraught. Several times I had to rescue it by copying files in from the main install outside. And, the rescue install was on a truly ancient 2G USB stick which was terribly terribly slow, and also very small. I hadn t done any significant planning for this subtask, because it was low-risk: there was little way to break the main install. Due to all these adverse factors, sorting out the rescue image took five hours. If I had known how long it would take, at the beginning, I would have skipped it. 5 hours is more than it would have taken to go to London and fix something in person. Reality - the actual core upgrade I was able to start the actual upgrade in the mid-afternoon. I meticulously checked and executed the steps from my plan. The terrifying scripts which sequenced the critical package updates ran flawlessly. Within an hour or so I had a system which was running bullseye amd64, albeit with many important packages still missing or unconfigured. So I didn t need the rescue image after all, nor to go to the datacentre. Fixing all the things Then I had to deal with all the inevitable fallout from an upgrade. Notable incidents: exim4 has a new tainting system This is to try to help the sysadmin avoid writing unsafe string interpolations. ( Little Bobby Tables. ) This was done by Exim upstream in a great hurry as part of a security response process. The new checks meant that the mail configuration did not work at all. I had to turn off the taint check completely. I m fairly confident that this is correct, because I am hyper-aware of quoting issues and all of my configuration is written to avoid the problems that tainting is supposed to avoid. One particular annoyance is that the approach taken for sqlite lookups makes it totally impossible to use more than one sqlite database. I think the sqlite quoting operator which one uses to interpolate values produces tainted output? I need to investigate this properly. LVM now ignores PVs which are directly contained within LVs by default chiark has LVM-on-RAID-on-LVM. This generally works really well. However, there was one edge case where I ended up without the intermediate RAID layer. The result is LVM-on-LVM. But recent versions of the LVM tools do not look at PVs inside LVs, by default. This is to help you avoid corrupting the state of any VMs you have on your system. I didn t know that at the time, though. All I knew was that LVM was claiming my PV was unusable , and wouldn t explain why. I was about to start on a thorough reading of the 15,000-word essay that is the commentary in the default /etc/lvm/lvm.conf to try to see if anything was relevant, when I received a helpful tipoff on IRC pointing me to the scan_lvs option. I need to file a bug asking for the LVM tools to explain why they have declared a PV unuseable. apache2 s default config no longer read one of my config files I had to do a merge (of my changes vs the maintainers changes) for /etc/apache2/apache2.conf. When doing this merge I failed to notice that the file /etc/apache2/conf.d/httpd.conf was no longer included by default. My merge dropped that line. There were some important things in there, and until I found this the webserver was broken. dpkg --skip-same-version DTWT during a crossgrade (This is not a fix all the things - I found it when developing my upgrade process.) When doing a crossgrade, one often wants to say to dpkg install all these things, but don t reinstall things that have already been done . That s what --skip-same-version is for. However, the logic had not been updated as part of the work to support multiarch, so it was wrong. I prepared a patched version of dpkg, and inserted it in the appropriate point in my prepared crossgrade plan. The patch is now filed as bug #1014476 against dpkg upstream Mailman Mailman is no longer in bullseye. It s only available in the previous release, buster. bullseye has Mailman 3 which is a totally different system - requiring basically, a completely new install and configuration. To even preserve existing archive links (a very important requirement) is decidedly nontrivial. I decided to punt on this whole situation. Currently chiark is running buster s version of Mailman. I will have to deal with this at some point and I m not looking forward to it. Python Of course that Mailman is Python 2. The Python project s extremely badly handled transition includes a recommendation to change the meaning of #!/usr/bin/python from Python 2, to Python 3. But Python 3 is a new language, barely compatible with Python 2 even in the most recent iterations of both, and it is usual to need to coinstall them. Happily Debian have provided the python-is-python2 package to make things work sensibly, albeit with unpleasant imprecations in the package summary description. USENET news Oh my god. INN uses many non-portable data formats, which just depend on your C types. And there are complicated daemons, statically linked libraries which cache on-disk data, and much to go wrong. I had numerous problems with this, and several outages and malfunctions. I may write about that on a future occasion.
(edited 2022-07-20 11:36 +01:00 and 2022-07-30 12:28+01:00 to fix typos)

comment count unavailable comments

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

13 July 2022

Reproducible Builds: Reproducible Builds in June 2022

Welcome to the June 2022 report from the Reproducible Builds project. In these reports, we outline the most important things that we have been up to over the past month. As a quick recap, whilst anyone may inspect the source code of free software for malicious flaws, almost all software is distributed to end users as pre-compiled binaries.

Save the date! Despite several delays, we are pleased to announce dates for our in-person summit this year: November 1st 2022 November 3rd 2022
The event will happen in/around Venice (Italy), and we intend to pick a venue reachable via the train station and an international airport. However, the precise venue will depend on the number of attendees. Please see the announcement mail from Mattia Rizzolo, and do keep an eye on the mailing list for further announcements as it will hopefully include registration instructions.

News David Wheeler filed an issue against the Rust programming language to report that builds are not reproducible because full path to the source code is in the panic and debug strings . Luckily, as one of the responses mentions: the --remap-path-prefix solves this problem and has been used to great effect in build systems that rely on reproducibility (Bazel, Nix) to work at all and that there are efforts to teach cargo about it here .
The Python Security team announced that:
The ctx hosted project on PyPI was taken over via user account compromise and replaced with a malicious project which contained runtime code which collected the content of os.environ.items() when instantiating Ctx objects. The captured environment variables were sent as a base64 encoded query parameter to a Heroku application [ ]
As their announcement later goes onto state, version-pinning using hash-checking mode can prevent this attack, although this does depend on specific installations using this mode, rather than a prevention that can be applied systematically.
Developer vanitasvitae published an interesting and entertaining blog post detailing the blow-by-blow steps of debugging a reproducibility issue in PGPainless, a library which aims to make using OpenPGP in Java projects as simple as possible . Whilst their in-depth research into the internals of the .jar may have been unnecessary given that diffoscope would have identified the, it must be said that there is something to be said with occasionally delving into seemingly low-level details, as well describing any debugging process. Indeed, as vanitasvitae writes:
Yes, this would have spared me from 3h of debugging But I probably would also not have gone onto this little dive into the JAR/ZIP format, so in the end I m not mad.

Kees Cook published a short and practical blog post detailing how he uses reproducibility properties to aid work to replace one-element arrays in the Linux kernel. Kees approach is based on the principle that if a (small) proposed change is considered equivalent by the compiler, then the generated output will be identical but only if no other arbitrary or unrelated changes are introduced. Kees mentions the fantastic diffoscope tool, as well as various kernel-specific build options (eg. KBUILD_BUILD_TIMESTAMP) in order to prepare my build with the known to disrupt code layout options disabled .
Stefano Zacchiroli gave a presentation at GDR S curit Informatique based in part on a paper co-written with Chris Lamb titled Increasing the Integrity of Software Supply Chains. (Tweet)

Debian In Debian in this month, 28 reviews of Debian packages were added, 35 were updated and 27 were removed this month adding to our knowledge about identified issues. Two issue types were added: nondeterministic_checksum_generated_by_coq and nondetermistic_js_output_from_webpack. After Holger Levsen found hundreds of packages in the bookworm distribution that lack .buildinfo files, he uploaded 404 source packages to the archive (with no meaningful source changes). Currently bookworm now shows only 8 packages without .buildinfo files, and those 8 are fixed in unstable and should migrate shortly. By contrast, Debian unstable will always have packages without .buildinfo files, as this is how they come through the NEW queue. However, as these packages were not built on the official build servers (ie. they were uploaded by the maintainer) they will never migrate to Debian testing. In the future, therefore, testing should never have packages without .buildinfo files again. Roland Clobus posted yet another in-depth status report about his progress making the Debian Live images build reproducibly to our mailing list. In this update, Roland mentions that all major desktops build reproducibly with bullseye, bookworm and sid but also goes on to outline the progress made with automated testing of the generated images using openQA.

GNU Guix Vagrant Cascadian made a significant number of contributions to GNU Guix: Elsewhere in GNU Guix, Ludovic Court s published a paper in the journal The Art, Science, and Engineering of Programming called Building a Secure Software Supply Chain with GNU Guix:
This paper focuses on one research question: how can [Guix](( and similar systems allow users to securely update their software? [ ] Our main contribution is a model and tool to authenticate new Git revisions. We further show how, building on Git semantics, we build protections against downgrade attacks and related threats. We explain implementation choices. This work has been deployed in production two years ago, giving us insight on its actual use at scale every day. The Git checkout authentication at its core is applicable beyond the specific use case of Guix, and we think it could benefit to developer teams that use Git.
A full PDF of the text is available.

openSUSE In the world of openSUSE, SUSE announced at SUSECon that they are preparing to meet SLSA level 4. (SLSA (Supply chain Levels for Software Artifacts) is a new industry-led standardisation effort that aims to protect the integrity of the software supply chain.) However, at the time of writing, timestamps within RPM archives are not normalised, so bit-for-bit identical reproducible builds are not possible. Some in-toto provenance files published for SUSE s SLE-15-SP4 as one result of the SLSA level 4 effort. Old binaries are not rebuilt, so only new builds (e.g. maintenance updates) have this metadata added. Lastly, Bernhard M. Wiedemann posted his usual monthly openSUSE reproducible builds status report.

diffoscope diffoscope is our in-depth and content-aware diff utility. Not only can it locate and diagnose reproducibility issues, it can provide human-readable diffs from many kinds of binary formats. This month, Chris Lamb prepared and uploaded versions 215, 216 and 217 to Debian unstable. Chris Lamb also made the following changes:
  • New features:
    • Print profile output if we were called with --profile and we were killed via a TERM signal. This should help in situations where diffoscope is terminated due to some sort of timeout. [ ]
    • Support both PyPDF 1.x and 2.x. [ ]
  • Bug fixes:
    • Also catch IndexError exceptions (in addition to ValueError) when parsing .pyc files. (#1012258)
    • Correct the logic for supporting different versions of the argcomplete module. [ ]
  • Output improvements:
    • Don t leak the (likely-temporary) pathname when comparing PDF documents. [ ]
  • Logging improvements:
    • Update test fixtures for GNU readelf 2.38 (now in Debian unstable). [ ][ ]
    • Be more specific about the minimum required version of readelf (ie. binutils), as it appears that this patch level version change resulted in a change of output, not the minor version. [ ]
    • Use our @skip_unless_tool_is_at_least decorator (NB. at_least) over @skip_if_tool_version_is (NB. is) to fix tests under Debian stable. [ ]
    • Emit a warning if/when we are handling a UNIX TERM signal. [ ]
  • Codebase improvements:
    • Clarify in what situations the main finally block gets called with respect to TERM signal handling. [ ]
    • Clarify control flow in the diffoscope.profiling module. [ ]
    • Correctly package the scripts/ directory. [ ]
In addition, Edward Betts updated a broken link to the RSS on the diffoscope homepage and Vagrant Cascadian updated the diffoscope package in GNU Guix [ ][ ][ ].

Upstream patches The Reproducible Builds project detects, dissects and attempts to fix as many currently-unreproducible packages as possible. We endeavour to send all of our patches upstream where appropriate. This month, we wrote a large number of such patches, including:

Testing framework The Reproducible Builds project runs a significant testing framework at, to check packages and other artifacts for reproducibility. This month, the following changes were made:
  • Holger Levsen:
    • Add a package set for packages that use the R programming language [ ] as well as one for Rust [ ].
    • Improve package set matching for Python [ ] and font-related [ ] packages.
    • Install the lz4, lzop and xz-utils packages on all nodes in order to detect running kernels. [ ]
    • Improve the cleanup mechanisms when testing the reproducibility of Debian Live images. [ ][ ]
    • In the automated node health checks, deprioritise the generic kernel warning . [ ]
  • Roland Clobus (Debian Live image reproducibility):
    • Add various maintenance jobs to the Jenkins view. [ ]
    • Cleanup old workspaces after 24 hours. [ ]
    • Cleanup temporary workspace and resulting directories. [ ]
    • Implement a number of fixes and improvements around publishing files. [ ][ ][ ]
    • Don t attempt to preserve the file timestamps when copying artifacts. [ ]
And finally, node maintenance was also performed by Mattia Rizzolo [ ].

Mailing list and website On our mailing list this month: Lastly, Chris Lamb updated the main Reproducible Builds website and documentation in a number of small ways, but primarily published an interview with Hans-Christoph Steiner of the F-Droid project. Chris Lamb also added a Coffeescript example for parsing and using the SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH environment variable [ ]. In addition, Sebastian Crane very-helpfully updated the screenshot of s request access button on the How to join the Salsa group. [ ]

Contact If you are interested in contributing to the Reproducible Builds project, please visit our Contribute page on our website. However, you can get in touch with us via:

29 June 2022

Russell Coker: Philips 438P1 43 4K Monitor

I have just returned a Philips 438P1 43 4K Monitor [1] and gone back to my Samsung 28 4K monitor model LU28E590DS/XY AKA UE590. The main listed differences are the size and the fact that the Samsung is TN but the Philips is IPS. Here s a comparison of TN and IPS technologies [2]. Generally I think that TN is probably best for a monitor but in theory IPS shouldn t be far behind. The Philips monitor has a screen with a shiny surface which may be good for a TV but isn t good for a monitor. Also it seemed to blur the pixels a bit which again is probably OK for a TV that is trying to emulate curved images but not good for a monitor where it s all artificial straight lines. The most important thing for me in a monitor is how well it displays text in small fonts, for that I don t really want the round parts of the letters to look genuinely round as a clear octagon or rectangle is better than a fuzzy circle. There is some controversy about the ideal size for monitors. Some people think that nothing larger than 28 is needed and some people think that a 43 is totally usable. After testing I determined that 43 is really too big, I had to move to see it all. Also for my use it s convenient to be able to turn a monitor slightly to allow someone else to get a good view and a 43 monitor is too large to move much (maybe future technology for lighter monitors will change this). Previously I had been unable to get my Samsung monitor to work at 4K resolution with 60Hz and had believed it was due to cheap video cards. I got the Philips monitor to work with HDMI so it s apparent that the Samsung monitor doesn t do 4K@60Hz on HDMI. This isn t a real problem as the Samsung monitor doesn t have built in speakers. The Philips monitor has built in speakers for HDMI sound which means one less cable to my PC and no desk space taken by speakers. I bought the Philips monitor on eBay in opened unused condition. Inside the box was a sheet with a printout stating that the monitor blanks the screen periodically, so the seller knew that it wasn t in unused condition, it was tested and failed the test. If the Philips monitor had been as minimally broken as described then I might have kept it. However it seems that certain patterns of input caused it to reboot. For example I could be watching Netflix and have it drop out, I would press the left arrow to watch that bit again and have it drop out again. On one occasion I did a test and found that a 5 second section of Netflix content caused the monitor to reboot on 6/8 times I viewed it. The workaround I discovered was to switch between maximised window and full-screen mode when it had a dropout. So I just press left-arrow and then F and I can keep watching. That s not what I expect from a $700 monitor! I considered checking for Philips firmware updates but decided against it because I didn t want to risk voiding the warranty if it didn t work correctly and I decided I just didn t like the monitor that much. Ideally for my next monitor I ll get a 4K screen of about 35 , TN, and a screen that s not shiny. At the moment there doesn t seem to be many monitors between 32 and 43 in size, so 32 may do. I am quite happy with the Samsung monitor so getting the same but slightly larger is fine. It s a pity they stopped making 5K displays.

31 May 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Maskerade

Review: Maskerade, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #18
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 1995
Printing: February 2014
ISBN: 0-06-227552-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 360
Maskerade is the 18th book of the Discworld series, but you probably could start here. You'd miss the introduction of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, which might be a bit confusing, but I suspect you could pick it up as you went if you wanted. This is a sequel of sorts to Lords and Ladies, but not in a very immediate sense. Granny is getting distracted and less interested in day-to-day witching in Lancre. This is not good; Granny is incredibly powerful, and bored and distracted witches can go to dark places. Nanny is concerned. Granny needs something to do, and their coven needs a third. It's not been the same since they lost their maiden member. Nanny's solution to this problem is two-pronged. First, they'd had their eye on a local girl named Agnes, who had magic but who wasn't interested in being a witch. Perhaps it was time to recruit her anyway, even though she'd left Lancre for Ankh-Morpork. And second, Granny needs something to light a fire under her, something that will get her outraged and ready to engage with the world. Something like a cookbook of aphrodisiac recipes attributed to the Witch of Lancre. Agnes, meanwhile, is auditioning for the opera. She's a sensible person, cursed her whole life by having a wonderful personality, but a part of her deep inside wants to be called Perdita X. Dream and have a dramatic life. Having a wonderful personality can be very frustrating, but no one in Lancre took either that desire or her name seriously. Perhaps the opera is somewhere where she can find the life she's looking for, along with another opportunity to try on the Perdita name. One thing she can do is sing; that's where all of her magic went. The Ankh-Morpork opera is indeed dramatic. It's also losing an astounding amount of money for its new owner, who foolishly thought owning an opera would be a good retirement project after running a cheese business. And it's haunted by a ghost, a very tangible ghost who has started killing people. I think this is my favorite Discworld novel to date (although with a caveat about the ending that I'll get to in a moment). It's certainly the one that had me laughing out loud the most. Agnes (including her Perdita personality aspect) shot to the top of my list of favorite Discworld characters, in part because I found her sensible personality so utterly relatable. She is fascinated by drama, she wants to be in the middle of it and let her inner Perdita goth character revel in it, and yet she cannot help being practical and unflappable even when surrounded by people who use far too many exclamation points. It's one thing to want drama in the abstract; it's quite another to be heedlessly dramatic in the moment, when there's an obviously reasonable thing to do instead. Pratchett writes this wonderfully. The other half of the story follows Granny and Nanny, who are unstoppable forces of nature and a wonderful team. They have the sort of long-standing, unshakable adult friendship between very unlike people that's full of banter and minor irritations layered on top of a deep mutual understanding and respect. Once they decide to start investigating this supposed opera ghost, they divvy up the investigative work with hardly a word exchanged. Planning isn't necessary; they both know each other's strengths. We've gotten a lot of Granny's skills in previous books. Maskerade gives Nanny a chance to show off her skills, and it's a delight. She effortlessly becomes the sort of friendly grandmother who blends in so well that no one questions why she's there, and thus manages to be in the middle of every important event. Granny watches and thinks and theorizes; Nanny simply gets into the middle of everything and talks to everyone until people tell her what she wants to know. There's no real doubt that the two of them are going to get to the bottom of anything they want to get to the bottom of, but watching how they get there is a delight. I love how Pratchett handles that sort of magical power from a world-building perspective. Ankh-Morpork is the Big City, the center of political power in most of the Discworld books, and Granny and Nanny are from the boondocks. By convention, that means they should either be awed or confused by the city, or gain power in the city by transforming it in some way to match their area of power. This isn't how Pratchett writes witches at all. Their magic is in understanding people, and the people in Ankh-Morpork are just as much people as the people in Lancre. The differences of the city may warrant an occasional grumpy aside, but the witches are fully as capable of navigating the city as they are their home town. Maskerade is, of course, a parody of opera and musicals, with Phantom of the Opera playing the central role in much the same way that Macbeth did in Wyrd Sisters. Agnes ends up doing the singing for a beautiful, thin actress named Christine, who can't sing at all despite being an opera star, uses a truly astonishing excess of exclamation points, and strategically faints at the first sign of danger. (And, despite all of this, is still likable in that way that it's impossible to be really upset at a puppy.) She is the special chosen focus of the ghost, whose murderous taunting is a direct parody of the Phantom. That was a sufficiently obvious reference that even I picked up on it, despite being familiar with Phantom of the Opera only via the soundtrack. Apart from that, though, the references were lost on me, since I'm neither a musical nor an opera fan. That didn't hurt my enjoyment of the book in the slightest; in fact, I suspect it's part of why it's in my top tier of Discworld books. One of my complaints about Discworld to date is that Pratchett often overdoes the parody to the extent that it gets in the way of his own (excellent) characters and story. Maybe it's better to read Discworld novels where one doesn't recognize the material being parodied and thus doesn't keep getting distracted by references. It's probably worth mentioning that Agnes is a large woman and there are several jokes about her weight in Maskerade. I think they're the good sort of jokes, about how absurd human bodies can be, not the mean sort? Pratchett never implies her weight is any sort of moral failing or something she should change; quite the contrary, Nanny considers it a sign of solid Lancre genes. But there is some fat discrimination in the opera itself, since one of the things Pratchett is commenting on is the switch from full-bodied female opera singers to thin actresses matching an idealized beauty standard. Christine is the latter, but she can't sing, and the solution is for Agnes to sing for her from behind, something that was also done in real opera. I'm not a good judge of how well this plot line was handled; be aware, going in, if this may bother you. What did bother me was the ending, and more generally the degree to which Granny and Nanny felt comfortable making decisions about Agnes's life without consulting her or appearing to care what she thought of their conclusions. Pratchett seemed to be on their side, emphasizing how well they know people. But Agnes left Lancre and avoided the witches for a reason, and that reason is not honored in much the same way that Lancre refused to honor her desire to go by Perdita. This doesn't seem to be malicious, and Agnes herself is a little uncertain about her choice of identity, but it still rubbed me the wrong way. I felt like Agnes got steamrolled by both the other characters and by Pratchett, and it's the one thing about this book that I didn't like. Hopefully future Discworld books about these characters revisit Agnes's agency. Overall, though, this was great, and a huge improvement over Interesting Times. I'm excited for the next witches book. Followed in publication order by Feet of Clay, and later by Carpe Jugulum in the thematic sense. Rating: 8 out of 10

22 May 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: On a Sunbeam

Review: On a Sunbeam, by Tillie Walden
Publisher: Tillie Walden
Copyright: 2016-2017
Format: Online graphic novel
Pages: 544
On a Sunbeam is a web comic that was published in installments between Fall 2016 and Spring 2017, and then later published in dead tree form. I read the on-line version, which is still available for free from its web site. It was nominated for an Eisner Award and won a ton of other awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Mia is a new high school graduate who has taken a job with a construction crew that repairs old buildings (that are floating in space, but I'll get to that in a moment). Alma, Elliot, and Charlotte have been together for a long time; Jules is closer to Mia's age and has been with them for a year. This is not the sort of job one commutes to: they live together on a spaceship that travels to the job sites, share meals together, and are more of an extended family than a group of coworkers. It's all a bit intimidating for Mia, but Jules provides a very enthusiastic welcome and some orientation. The story of Mia's new job is interleaved with Mia's school experience from five years earlier. As a new frosh at a boarding school, Mia is obsessed with Lux, a school sport that involves building and piloting ships through a maze to capture orbs. Sent to the principal's office on the first day of school for sneaking into the Lux tower when she's supposed to be at assembly, she meets Grace, a shy girl with sparkly shoes and an unheard-of single room. Mia (a bit like Jules in the present timeline) overcomes Grace's reticence by being persistently outgoing and determinedly friendly, while trying to get on the Lux team and dealing with the typical school problems of bullies and in-groups. On a Sunbeam is science fiction in the sense that it seems to take place in space and school kids build flying ships. It is not science fiction in the sense of caring about technological extrapolation or making any scientific sense whatsoever. The buildings that Mia and the crew repair appear to be hanging in empty space, but there's gravity. No one wears any protective clothing or air masks. The spaceships look (and move) like giant tropical fish. If you need realism in your science fiction graphical novels, it's probably best not to think of this as science fiction at all, or even science fantasy despite the later appearance of some apparently magical or divine elements. That may sound surrealistic or dream-like, but On a Sunbeam isn't that either. It's a story about human relationships, found family, and diversity of personalities, all of which are realistically portrayed. The characters find their world coherent, consistent, and predictable, even if it sometimes makes no sense to the reader. On a Sunbeam is simply set in its own universe, with internal logic but without explanation or revealed rules. I kind of liked this approach? It takes some getting used to, but it's an excuse for some dramatic and beautiful backgrounds, and it's oddly freeing to have unremarked train tracks in outer space. There's no way that an explanation would have worked; if one were offered, my brain would have tried to nitpick it to the detriment of the story. There's something delightful about a setting that follows imaginary physical laws this unapologetically and without showing the author's work. I was, sadly, not as much of a fan of the art, although I am certain this will be a matter of taste. Walden mixes simple story-telling panels with sweeping vistas, free-floating domes, and strange, wild asteroids, but she uses a very limited color palette. Most panels are only a few steps away from monochrome, and the colors are chosen more for mood or orientation in the story (Mia's school days are all blue, the Staircase is orange) than for any consistent realism. There is often a lot of detail in the panels, but I found it hard to appreciate because the coloring confused my eye. I'm old enough to have been a comics reader during the revolution in digital coloring and improved printing, and I loved the subsequent dramatic improvement in vivid colors and shading. I know the coloring style here is an intentional artistic choice, but to me it felt like a throwback to the days of muddy printing on cheap paper. I have a similar complaint about the lettering: On a Sunbeam is either hand-lettered or closely simulates hand lettering, and I often found the dialogue hard to read due to inconsistent intra- and interword spacing or ambiguous letters. Here too I'm sure this was an artistic choice, but as a reader I'd much prefer a readable comics font over hand lettering. The detail in the penciling is more to my liking. I had occasional trouble telling some of the characters apart, but they're clearly drawn and emotionally expressive. The scenery is wildly imaginative and often gorgeous, which increased my frustration with the coloring. I would love to see what some of these panels would have looked like after realistic coloring with a full palette. (It's worth noting again that I read the on-line version. It's possible that the art was touched up for the print version and would have been more to my liking.) But enough about the art. The draw of On a Sunbeam for me is the story. It's not very dramatic or event-filled at first, starting as two stories of burgeoning friendships with a fairly young main character. (They are closely linked, but it's not obvious how until well into the story.) But it's the sort of story that I started reading, thought was mildly interesting, and then kept reading just one more chapter until I had somehow read the whole thing. There are some interesting twists towards the end, but it's otherwise not a very dramatic or surprising story. What it is instead is open-hearted, quiet, charming, and deeper than it looks. The characters are wildly different and can be abrasive, but they invest time and effort into understanding each other and adjusting for each other's preferences. Personal loss drives a lot of the plot, but the characters are also allowed to mature and be happy without resolving every bad thing that happened to them. These characters felt like people I would like and would want to get to know (even if Jules would be overwhelming). I enjoyed watching their lives. This reminded me a bit of a Becky Chambers novel, although it's less invested in being science fiction and sticks strictly to humans. There's a similar feeling that the relationships are the point of the story, and that nearly everyone is trying hard to be good, with differing backgrounds and differing conceptions of good. All of the characters are female or non-binary, which is left as entirely unexplained as the rest of the setting. It's that sort of book. I wouldn't say this is one of the best things I've ever read, but I found it delightful and charming, and it certainly sucked me in and kept me reading until the end. One also cannot argue with the price, although if I hadn't already read it, I would be tempted to buy a paper copy to support the author. This will not be to everyone's taste, and stay far away if you are looking for realistic science fiction, but recommended if you are in the mood for an understated queer character story full of good-hearted people. Rating: 7 out of 10

19 May 2022

Agathe Porte: Status update, May 2022

Boing, time for another status update.
Debian work I have finally found how to make my fonts-creep2 package work on my Debian machines. The solution was to not use the TTF file that contains the Bitmap glyphs, but instead generate an OTB file, which is an OpenType format for Bitmap fonts. Creep2 font used in htop command This means that I can close the fonts-creep ITP bug altogether and rely on this fonts-creep2 package instead. Hopefully it will be reviewed and uploaded soon by a certified Debian Developer. This font is too small for daily usage, but imagine the quantity of data you could display on an auxiliary screen with poor resolution (and poor pixel density eventually). Here is a meme I created for the occasion: Hide the pain Harold meme. First: Package software and its gazillion dependencies. Second: Popcon says I'm the only user. Checks out.
Rust work I have obsoleted my most popular Rust crate, gladis. Screenshot of the Gladis Github README Indeed, the GTK folks have managed to develop a similar solution named CompositeTemplate, that is available in both gtk3-macros and gtk4-macros crates. I did not investigate from how long this has been available before I created this crate. Hopefully it did not exist before I developed it. I have learnt a lot about Rust crates development with this crate, and managed to put in place a semi-automated release flow that I will surely use in other future crates. See ya.

14 April 2022

Jonathan Dowland: hledger

This year I've decided to bite the bullet and properly try out hledger for personal accounting. It seems I need to commit to it properly if I'm to figure out whether it will work for me or not. Up until now I'd been strictly separating my finances into two buckets: family and personal. I'd been using GNUCash for a couple of years for my personal finances, initially to evaluate it for use for the family, but I had not managed to adopt it for that. I set up a new git repository to track the ledger file, as well as a notes.txt "diary" that documents my planning around its structure and how to use it, and a import.txt which documents what account data I have imported and confirmed that the resulting balances match those reported on monthly statements. For this evaluation, I decided to bite the bullet and track both family and personal finances at the same time. I'm still keeping them conceptually very separate. To reflect that I've organised my account names around that: all accounts relating to family are prefixed family:, and likewise personal jon:.1 Some example accounts:
family:assets:shared    - shared bank account
family:dues:jon         - I owe to family
family:expenses:cat     - budget category for the cat
income                  - where money enters this universe
jon:assets:current      - my personal account
jon:dues:peter          - money Peter owes me
jon:expenses:snacks     - budget category for coffees etc
jon:liabilities:amex    - a personal credit card
I decided to make the calendar year a strict cut-over point: my personal opening balances in hledger are determined by what GNUCash reports. It's possible those will change over this year, as adjustments are made to last year's data: but it's easy enough to go in and update the opening balances in hledger to reflect that. Credit cards are a small exception. January's credit card bills are paid in January but cover transactions from mid-December. I import those transactions into hledger to balance the credit card payment. As a consequence, the "spend per month" view of my data is a bit skewed: All the transactions in December should be thought of as in January since that's when they were paid. I need to explore options to fix this. When I had family and personal managed separately, occasionally something would be paid for on the wrong card and end up in the wrong data. The solution I used last year was to keep an account dues:family to which I posted those and periodically I'd settle it with a real-world bank transfer. I've realised that this doesn't work so well when I manage both together: I can't track both dues and expense categorisation with just one posting. The solution I'm using for now is hledger's unbalanced virtual postings: a third posting for the transaction to the budget category, which is not balanced, e.g.:
2022-01-02 ZTL*RELISH
    family:liabilities:creditcard        -3.00
    family:dues:jon                       3.00
    (jon:expenses:snacks)                 3.00
This works, but it completely side-steps double-entry book keeping, which is the whole point of using a double-entry system. There's also no check and balance that the figure I put in the virtual posting ( 3) matches the figure in the rest of the transaction. I'm therefore open to other ideas.

  1. there are a couple of places in hledger where default account names are used, such as the default place that expenses are posted to during CSV imports: expenses:unknown, that obviously don't fit my family/jon: prefix scheme. The solution is to make sure I specify a default posting-to account in all my CSV import rules.

1 April 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower

Review: Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower, by Tamsyn Muir
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 1-59606-992-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 111
A witch put Princess Floralinda at the top of a forty-flight tower, but it wasn't personal. This is just what witches do, particularly with princesses with butter-coloured curls and sapphire-blue eyes. Princes would come from miles around to battle up the floors of the tower and rescue the princess. The witch even helpfully provided a golden sword, in case a prince didn't care that much about princesses. Floralinda was provided with water and milk, two loaves of bread, and an orange, all of them magically renewing, to sustain her while she waited. In retrospect, the dragon with diamond-encrusted scales on the first floor may have been a mistake. None of the princely endeavors ever saw the second floor. The diary that Floralinda found in her room indicated that she may not be the first princess to have failed to be rescued from this tower. Floralinda finally reaches the rather astonishing conclusion that she might have to venture down the tower herself, despite the goblins she was warned were on the 39th floor (not to mention all the other monsters). The result of that short adventure, after some fast thinking, a great deal of luck, and an unforeseen assist from her magical food, is a surprising number of dead goblins. Also seriously infected hand wounds, because it wouldn't be a Tamsyn Muir story without wasting illness and body horror. That probably would have been the end of Floralinda, except a storm blew a bottom-of-the-garden fairy in through the window, sufficiently injured that she and Floralinda were stuck with each other, at least temporarily. Cobweb, the fairy, is neither kind nor inclined to help Floralinda (particularly given that Floralinda is not a child whose mother is currently in hospital), but it is an amateur chemist and finds both Floralinda's tears and magical food intriguing. Cobweb's magic is also based on wishes, and after a few failed attempts, Floralinda manages to make a wish that takes hold. Whether she'll regret the results is another question. This is a fairly short novella by the same author as Gideon the Ninth, but it's in a different universe and quite different in tone. This summary doesn't capture the writing style, which is a hard-to-describe mix of fairy tale, children's story, and slightly archaic and long-winded sentence construction. This is probably easier to show with a quote:
"You are displaying a very small-minded attitude," said the fairy, who seemed genuinely grieved by this. "Consider the orange-peel, which by itself has many very nice properties. Now, if you had a more educated brain (I cannot consider myself educated; I have only attempted to better my situation) you would have immediately said, 'Why, if I had some liquor, or even very hot water, I could extract some oil from this orange-peel, which as everyone knows is antibacterial; that may well do my hands some good,' and you wouldn't be in such a stupid predicament."
On balance, I think this style worked. It occasionally annoyed me, but it has some charm. About halfway through, I was finding the story lightly entertaining, although I would have preferred a bit less grime, illness, and physical injury. Unfortunately, the rest of the story didn't work for me. The dynamic between Floralinda and Cobweb turns into a sort of D&D progression through monster fights, and while there are some creative twists to those fights, they become all of a sameness. And while I won't spoil the ending, it didn't work for me. I think I see what Muir was trying to do, and I have some intellectual appreciation for the idea, but it wasn't emotionally satisfying. I think my root problem with this story is that Muir sets up a rather interesting world, one in which witches artistically imprison princesses, and particularly bright princesses (with the help of amateur chemist fairies) can use the trappings of a magical tower in ways the witch never intended. I liked that; it has a lot of potential. But I didn't feel like that potential went anywhere satisfying. There is some relationship and characterization work, and it reached some resolution, but it didn't go as far as I wanted. And, most significantly, I found the end point the characters reached in relation to the world to be deeply unsatisfying and vaguely irritating. I wanted to like this more than I did. I think there's a story idea in here that I would have enjoyed more. Unfortunately, it's not the one that Muir wrote, and since so much of my problem is with the ending, I can't provide much guidance on whether someone else would like this story better (and why). But if the idea of taking apart a fairy-tale tower and repurposing the pieces sounds appealing, and if you get along better with Muir's illness motif than I do, you may enjoy this more than I did. Rating: 5 out of 10

23 February 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Elder Race

Review: Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: November 2021
ISBN: 1-250-76871-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 199
(It's a shame that a lot of people will be reading this novella on a black-and-white ebook reader, since the Emmanuel Shiu cover is absolutely spectacular. There's a larger image without the words at the bottom of that article.) When reports arrive at the court about demons deep in the forest that are taking over animals and humans and bending them to their will, the queen doesn't care. It's probably some unknown animal, and regardless, the forest kingdom is a rival anyway. Lynesse Fourth Daughter disagrees vehemently, but she has no power at court. Even apart from her lack of seniority, her love of stories and daring and adventures is a source of endless frustration to her mother. That is why this novella opens with her climbing the mountain path to the Tower of Nyrgoth Elder, the last of the ancient wizards, to seek his help. Nyr Illim Tevitch is an anthropologist second class of Earth's Explorer Corps, part of the second wave of Earth's outward expansion through the galaxy. In the first wave, colonies were seeded on habitable planets, only to be left stranded when Earth's civilization collapsed in an ecological crisis. Nyr was a member of a team of four, sent to make careful and limited contact with one of those lost colonies as part of Earth's second flourishing with more advanced technology. When the team lost contact with Earth, the other three went back while Nyr stayed to keep their field observations going. It's now 291 years of intermittent suspended animation later. Nyr's colleagues never came back, and there have been no messages from Earth. Elder Race is a Prime Directive anthropology story, a subgenre so long-standing that it has its own conventions and variations. Variations of the theme have been written by everyone from Eleanor Arnason to Iain M. Banks (linking to the book I have in mind is arguably a spoiler). Per the dedication, Tchaikovsky's take is based on Gene Wolfe's story "Trip, Trap," which I have not read but whose plot looks very similar. To that story structure, Tchaikovsky brings two major twists. First, Nyr is cut off from his advanced civilization, and has considerable reason to believe that civilization no longer exists. Do noninterference rules still have any meaning if Nyr is stranded and the civilization that made the rules is gone? Second, Nyr has already broken those rules rather spectacularly. More than a hundred years previously, he had ridden with Astresse Regent, a warrior queen and Lynesse's ancestor, to defeat a local warlord who had found control codes for abandoned advanced machinery and was using it as weaponry. In the process, he fell in love and made a rash promise to come to the aid of any of her descendants if he were needed. Lynesse has come to collect on the promise. Elder Race is told in alternating chapters between Nyr and Lynesse's viewpoints: first person for Nyr and tight third person for Lynesse. The core of the story is this doubled perspective, one from a young woman who wants to live in a fantasy novel and one from a deeply depressed anthropologist torn between wanting human contact, wanting to follow the rules of his profession, and wanting to explain to Lynesse that he is not a wizard. Nyr talks himself into helping with another misuse of advanced technology using the same logic he used a hundred years earlier: he's protecting Lynesse's pre-industrial society from interference rather than causing it. But the demons Lynesse wants him to fight are something entirely unexpected. This parallel understanding is a great story structure. What worked less for me was Tchaikovsky's reliance on linguistic barriers to prevent shared understanding. Whenever Nyr tries to explain something, Lynesse hears it in terms of magic and high fantasy, and often exactly backwards from how Nyr intended it. This is where my suspension of disbelief failed me, even though I normally don't have suspension of disbelief problems in SF stories. I was unable to map Lynesse's misunderstandings to any realistic linguistic model. Lynesse's language is highly complex (a realistic development within an isolated population), and Nyr complains about his inability to speak it properly given it's blizzard of complex modifiers. This is entirely believable. What is far less believable is that Lynesse perceives him as fluent in her language, but often saying the precise opposite of what he's trying to say. One chapter in the middle of the book gives Nyr's intended story side-by-side with Lynesse's understanding. This is a brilliant way to show the divide, but I found the translation errors unbelievable. If Nyr is failing that profoundly to communicate his meaning, he should be making more egregious sentence-level errors, occasionally saying something bizarre or entirely nonsensical, referring to a person as an animal or a baby, or otherwise not fluently telling a coherent story that's fundamentally different than the one he thinks he's telling. If you can put that aside, though, this is a fun story. Nyr has serious anxiety and depression made worse by his isolation, and copes by using an implanted device called a Dissociative Cognition System that lets him temporarily turn off his emotions at the cost of letting them snowball. He has a wealth of other augments and implants, including horns, which Lynesse sees as evidence that he's a different species of magical being and which he sees as occasionally irritating field equipment with annoying visual menus. The key to writing a story like this is for both perspectives to be correct given their own assumptions, and to offer insight that the other perspective is missing. I thought the linguistic part of that was unsuccessful, but the rest of it works. One of the best parts of novellas is that they don't wear out their welcome. This is a fun spin on well-trodden ground that tells a complete story in under 200 pages. I wish the ending had been a bit more satisfying and the linguistics had been more believable, but I enjoyed the time I spent in this world. Content warning for some body horror. Rating: 7 out of 10

22 February 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Children of Earth and Sky

Review: Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: New American Library
Copyright: 2016
ISBN: 0-698-18327-4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 572
Nine hundred years have passed since the events of Lord of Emperors. Twenty-five years ago, Sarantium, queen of cities, fell to the Osmanlis, who have renamed it Asharias in honor of their Asherite faith. The repercussions are still echoing through the western world, as the Osmanlis attempt each spring to push farther west and the forces of Rodolfo, Holy Emperor in Obravic and defender of the Jaddite faith, hold them back. Seressa and Dubrava are city-state republics built on the sea trade. Seressa is the larger and most renown, money-lenders to Rodolfo and notorious for their focus on business and profit, including willingness to trade with the Osmanlis. Dubrava has a more tenuous position: smaller, reliant on trade and other assistance from Seressa, but also holding a more-favored trading position with Asharias. Both are harassed by piracy from Senjan, a fiercely Jaddite raiding city north up the coast from Dubrava and renown for its bravery against the Asherites. The Senjani are bad for business. Seressa would love to wipe them out, but they have the favor of the Holy Emperor. They settled for attempting to starve the city with a blockade. As Children of Earth and Sky opens, Seressa is sending out new spies. One is a woman named Leonora Valeri, who will present herself as the wife of a doctor that Seressa is sending to Dubrava. She is neither his wife nor Seressani, but this assignment gets her out of the convent to which her noble father exiled her after an unapproved love affair. The other new spy is the young artist Pero Villani, a minor painter whose only notable work was destroyed by the woman who commissioned it for being too revealing. Pero's destination is farther east: Grand Khalif Gur u the Destroyer, the man whose forces took Sarantium, wants to be painted in the western style. Pero will do so, and observe all he can, and if the opportunity arises to do more than that, well, so much the better. Pero and Leonora are traveling on a ship owned by Marin Djivo, the younger son of a wealthy Dubravan merchant family, when their ship is captured by Senjani raiders. Among the raiders is Danica Gradek, the archer who broke the Seressani blockade of Senjan. This sort of piracy, while tense, should be an economic transaction: some theft, some bargaining, some ransom, and everyone goes on their way. That is not what happens. Moments later, two men lie dead, and Danica's life has become entangled with Dubravan merchants and Seressani spies. Children of Earth and Sky is in some sense a sequel to the Sarantine Mosaic, and knowing the events of that series adds some emotional depth and significant moments to this story, but you can easily read it as a stand-alone novel. (That said, I recommend the Sarantine Mosaic regardless.) As with nearly all of Kay's work, it's historical fiction with the names changed (less this time than in most of this books) and a bit of magic added. The setting is the middle of the 15th century. Seressa is, of course, Venice. The Osmanlis are the Ottoman Turks, and Asharias is Istanbul, the captured Constantinople. Rodolfo is a Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, holding court in an amalgam of northern cities that (per the afterward) is primarily Prague. Dubrava, which is central to much of this book, is Dubrovnik in Croatia. As usual with Kay's novels, you don't need to know this to enjoy the story, but it may spark some fun secondary reading. The touch of magic is present in several places, but comes primarily from Danica, whose grandfather resides as a voice in her head. He is the last of her family that she is in contact with. Her father and older brother were killed by Osmanli raiders, and her younger brother taken as a slave to be raised as a djanni warrior in the khalif's infantry. (Djannis are akin to Mamluks in our world.) Damaz, as he is now known, is the remaining major viewpoint character I've not mentioned. There are a couple of key events in the book that have magic at the center, generally involving Danica or Damaz, but most of the story is straight historical fiction (albeit with significant divergences from our world). I'd talked myself out of starting this novel several times before I finally picked it up. Like most of Kay's, it's a long book, and I wasn't sure if I was in the mood for epic narration and a huge cast. And indeed, I found it slow at the start. Once the story got underway, though, I was as enthralled as always. There is a bit of sag in the middle of the book, in part because Kay didn't follow up on some relationships that I wish were more central to the plot and in part because he overdoes the narrative weight in one scene, but the ending is exceptional. Guy Gavriel Kay is the master of a specific type of omniscient tight third person narration, one in which the reader sees what a character is thinking but also gets narrative commentary, foreshadowing, and emotional emphasis apart from the character's thoughts. It can feel heavy-handed; if something is important, Kay tells you, explicitly and sometimes repetitively, and the foreshadowing frequently can be described as portentous. But in return, Kay gets fine control of pacing and emphasis. The narrative commentary functions like a soundtrack in a movie. It tells you when to pay close attention and when you can relax, what moments are important, where to slow down, when to brace yourself, and when you can speed up. That in turn requires trust; if you're not in the mood for the author to dictate your reading pace to the degree Kay is attempting, it can be irritating. If you are in the mood, though, it makes his novels easy to relax into. The narrator will ensure that you don't miss anything important, and it's an effective way to build tension. Kay also strikes just the right balance between showing multiple perspectives on a single moment and spending too much time retelling the same story. He will often switch viewpoint characters in the middle of a scene, but he avoids the trap of replaying the scene and thus losing the reader's interest. There is instead just a moment of doubled perspective or retrospective commentary, just enough information for the reader to extrapolate the other character's experience backwards, and then the story moves on. Kay has an excellent feel for when I badly wanted to see another character's perspective on something that just happened. Some of Kay's novels revolve around a specific event or person. Children of Earth and Sky is not one of those. It's a braided novel following five main characters, each with their own story. Some of those stories converge; some of them touch for a while and then diverge again. About three-quarters of the way through, I wasn't sure how Kay would manage a satisfying conclusion for the numerous separate threads that didn't feel rushed, but I need not have worried. The ending had very little of the shape that I had expected, focused more on the small than the large (although there are some world-changing events here), but it was an absolute delight, with some beautiful moments of happiness that took the rest of the novel to set up. This is not the sort of novel with a clear theme, but insofar as it has one, it's a story about how much of the future shape and events of the world are unknowable. All we can control is our own choices, and we may never know their impact. Each individual must decide who they want to be and attempt to live their life in accordance with that decision, hopefully with some grace towards others in the world. The novel does, alas, still have some of Kay's standard weaknesses. There is (at last!) an important female friendship, and I had great hopes for a second one, but sadly it lasted only a scant handful of pages. Men interact with each other and with women; women interact almost exclusively with men. Kay does slightly less awarding of women to male characters than in some previous books (although it still happens), but this world is still weirdly obsessed with handing women to men for sex as a hospitality gesture. None of this is too belabored or central to the story, or I would be complaining more, but as soon as one sees how regressive the gender roles typically are in a Kay novel, it's hard to unsee. And, as always for Kay, the sex in this book is weirdly off-putting to me. I think this goes hand in hand with Kay's ability to write some of the best conversations in fantasy. Kay's characters spar and thrust with every line and read nuance into small details of wording. Frequently, the turn of the story rests on the outcome of a careful conversation. This is great reading; it's the part of Kay's writing I enjoy the most. But I'm not sure he knows how to turn it off between characters who love and trust each other. The characters never fully relax; sex feels like another move in ongoing chess games, which in turn makes it feel weirdly transactional or manipulative instead of open-hearted and intimate. It doesn't help that Kay appears to believe that arousal is a far more irresistible force for men than I do. Those problems did get in the way of my enjoyment occasionally, but I didn't think they ruined the book. The rest of the story is too good. Danica in particular is a wonderful character: thoughtful, brave, determined, and deeply honest with herself in that way that is typical of the best of Kay's characters. I wanted to read the book where Danica's and Leonora's stories stayed more entwined; alas, that's not the story Kay was writing. But I am in awe at Kay's ability to write characters who feel thoughtful and insightful even when working at cross purposes, in a world that mostly avoids simple villains, with a plot that never hinges on someone doing something stupid. I love reading about these people. Their triumphs, when they finally come, are deeply satisfying. Children of Earth and Sky is probably not in the top echelon of Kay's works with the Sarantine Mosaic and Under Heaven, but it's close. If you like his other writing, you will like this as well. Highly recommended. Rating: 9 out of 10