Search Results: "faw"

22 April 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: The Stars, Like Dust

Review: The Stars, Like Dust, by Isaac Asimov
Series: Galactic Empire #2
Publisher: Fawcett Crest
Copyright: 1950, 1951
Printing: June 1972
Format: Mass market
Pages: 192
The Stars, Like Dust is usually listed as the first book in Asimov's lesser-known Galactic Empire Trilogy since it takes place before Pebble in the Sky. Pebble in the Sky was published first, though, so I count it as the second book. It is very early science fiction with a few mystery overtones. Buying books produces about 5% of the pleasure of reading them while taking much less than 5% of the time. There was a time in my life when I thoroughly enjoyed methodically working through a used book store, list in hand, tracking down cheap copies to fill in holes in series. This means that I own a lot of books that I thought at some point that I would want to read but never got around to, often because, at the time, I was feeling completionist about some series or piece of world-building. From time to time, I get the urge to try to read some of them. Sometimes this is a poor use of my time. The Galactic Empire series is from Asimov's first science fiction period, after the Foundation series but contemporaneous with their collection into novels. They're set long, long before Foundation, but after humans have inhabited numerous star systems and Earth has become something of a backwater. That process is just starting in The Stars, Like Dust: Earth is still somewhere where an upper-class son might be sent for an education, but it has been devastated by nuclear wars and is well on its way to becoming an inward-looking relic on the edge of galactic society. Biron Farrill is the son of the Lord Rancher of Widemos, a wealthy noble whose world is one of those conquered by the Tyranni. In many other SF novels, the Tyranni would be an alien race; here, it's a hierarchical and authoritarian human civilization. The book opens with Biron discovering a radiation bomb planted in his dorm room. Shortly after, he learns that his father had been arrested. One of his fellow students claims to be on Biron's side against the Tyranni and gives him false papers to travel to Rhodia, a wealthy world run by a Tyranni sycophant. Like most books of this era, The Stars, Like Dust is a short novel full of plot twists. Unlike some of its contemporaries, it's not devoid of characterization, but I might have liked it better if it were. Biron behaves like an obnoxious teenager when he's not being an arrogant ass. There is a female character who does a few plot-relevant things and at no point is sexually assaulted, so I'll give Asimov that much, but the gender stereotypes are ironclad and there is an entire subplot focused on what I can only describe as seduction via petty jealousy. The writing... well, let me quote a typical passage:
There was no way of telling when the threshold would be reached. Perhaps not for hours, and perhaps the next moment. Biron remained standing helplessly, flashlight held loosely in his damp hands. Half an hour before, the visiphone had awakened him, and he had been at peace then. Now he knew he was going to die. Biron didn't want to die, but he was penned in hopelessly, and there was no place to hide.
Needless to say, Biron doesn't die. Even if your tolerance for pulp melodrama is high, 192 small-print pages of this sort of thing is wearying. Like a lot of Asimov plots, The Stars, Like Dust has some of the shape of a mystery novel. Biron, with the aid of some newfound companions on Rhodia, learns of a secret rebellion against the Tyranni and attempts to track down its base to join them. There are false leads, disguised identities, clues that are difficult to interpret, and similar classic mystery trappings, all covered with a patina of early 1950s imaginary science. To me, it felt constructed and artificial in ways that made the strings Asimov was pulling obvious. I don't know if someone who likes mystery construction would feel differently about it. The worst part of the plot thankfully doesn't come up much. We learn early in the story that Biron was on Earth to search for a long-lost document believed to be vital to defeating the Tyranni. The nature of that document is revealed on the final page, so I won't spoil it, but if you try to think of the stupidest possible document someone could have built this plot around, I suspect you will only need one guess. (In Asimov's defense, he blamed Galaxy editor H.L. Gold for persuading him to include this plot, and disavowed it a few years later.) The Stars, Like Dust is one of the worst books I have ever read. The characters are overwrought, the politics are slapdash and build on broad stereotypes, the romantic subplot is dire and plays out mainly via Biron egregiously manipulating his petulant love interest, and the writing is annoying. Sometimes pulp fiction makes up for those common flaws through larger-than-life feats of daring, sweeping visions of future societies, and ever-escalating stakes. There is little to none of that here. Asimov instead provides tedious political maneuvering among a class of elitist bankers and land owners who consider themselves natural leaders. The only places where the power structures of this future government make sense are where Asimov blatantly steals them from either the Roman Empire or the Doge of Venice. The one thing this book has going for it the thing, apart from bloody-minded completionism, that kept me reading is that the technology is hilariously weird in that way that only 1940s and 1950s science fiction can be. The characters have access to communication via some sort of interstellar telepathy (messages coded to a specific person's "brain waves") and can travel between stars through hyperspace jumps, but each jump is manually calculated by referring to the pilot's (paper!) volumes of the Standard Galactic Ephemeris. Communication between ships (via "etheric radio") requires manually aiming a radio beam at the area in space where one thinks the other ship is. It's an unintentionally entertaining combination of technology that now looks absurdly primitive and science that is so advanced and hand-waved that it's obviously made up. I also have to give Asimov some points for using spherical coordinates. It's a small thing, but the coordinate systems in most SF novels and TV shows are obviously not fit for purpose. I spent about a month and a half of this year barely reading, and while some of that is because I finally tackled a few projects I'd been putting off for years, a lot of it was because of this book. It was only 192 pages, and I'm still curious about the glue between Asimov's Foundation and Robot series, both of which I devoured as a teenager. But every time I picked it up to finally finish it and start another book, I made it about ten pages and then couldn't take any more. Learn from my error: don't try this at home, or at least give up if the same thing starts happening to you. Followed by The Currents of Space. Rating: 2 out of 10

12 March 2024

Russell Coker: Android vs FOSS Phones

To achieve my aims regarding Convergence of mobile phone and PC [1] I need something a big bigger than the 4G of RAM that s in the PinePhone Pro [2]. The PinePhonePro was released at the end of 2021 but has a SoC that was first released in 2016. That SoC seems to compare well to the ones used in the Pixel and Pixel 2 phones that were released in the same time period so it s not a bad SoC, but it doesn t compare well to more recent Android devices and it also isn t a great fit for the non-Android things I want to do. Also the PinePhonePro and Librem5 have relatively short battery life so reusing Android functionality for power saving could provide a real benefit. So I want a phone designed for the mass market that I can use for running Debian. PostmarketOS One thing I m definitely not going to do is attempt a full port of Linux to a different platform or support of kernel etc. So I need to choose a device that already has support from a somewhat free Linux system. The PostmarketOS system is the first I considered, the PostmarketOS Wiki page of supported devices [3] was the first place I looked. The main supported devices are the PinePhone (not Pro) and the Librem5, both of which are under-powered. For the community devices there seems to be nothing that supports calls, SMS, mobile data, and USB-OTG and which also has 4G of RAM or more. If I skip USB-OTG (which presumably means I d have to get dock functionality via wifi not impossible but not great) then I m left with the SHIFT6mq which was never sold in Australia and the Xiomi POCO F1 which doesn t appear to be available on ebay. LineageOS The libhybris libraries are a compatibility layer between Android and glibc programs [4]. Which includes running Wayland with Android display drivers. So running a somewhat standard Linux desktop on top of an Android kernel should be possible. Here is a table of the LineageOS supported devices that seem to have a useful feature set and are available in Australia and which could be used for running Debian with firmware and drivers copied from Android. I only checked LineageOS as it seems to be the main free Android build.
Phone RAM External Display Price
Edge 20 Pro [5] 6-12G HDMI $500 not many on sale
Edge S aka moto G100 [6] 6-8G HDMI $500 to $600+
Fairphone 4 6-8G USBC-DP $1000+
Nubia Red Magic 5G 8-16G USBC-DP $600+
The LineageOS device search page [9] allows searching by kernel version. There are no phones with a 6.6 (2023) or 6.1 (2022) Linux kernel and only the Pixel 8/8Pro and the OnePlus 11 5G run 5.15 (2021). There are 8 Google devices (Pixel 6/7 and a tablet) running 5.10 (2020), 18 devices running 5.4 (2019), and 32 devices running 4.19 (2018). There are 186 devices running kernels older than 4.19 which aren t in the supported release list [10]. The Pixel 8 Pro with 12G of RAM and the OnePlus 11 5G with 16G of RAM are appealing as portable desktop computers, until recently my main laptop had 8G of RAM. But they cost over $1000 second hand compared to $359 for my latest laptop. Fosdem had an interesting lecture from two Fairphone employees about what they are doing to make phone production fairer for workers and less harmful for the environment [11]. But they don t have the market power that companies like Google have to tell SoC vendors what they want. IP Laws and Practices Bunnie wrote an insightful and informative blog post about the difference between intellectual property practices in China and US influenced countries and his efforts to reverse engineer a commonly used Chinese SoC [12]. This is a major factor in the lack of support for FOSS on phones and other devices. Droidian and Buying a Note 9 The FOSDEM 2023 has a lecture about the Droidian project which runs Debian with firmware and drivers from Android to make a usable mostly-FOSS system [13]. It s interesting how they use containers for the necessary Android apps. Here is the list of devices supported by Droidian [14]. Two notable entries in the list of supported devices are the Volla Phone and Volla Phone 22 from Volla a company dedicated to making open Android based devices [15]. But they don t seem to be available on ebay and the new price of the Volla Phone 22 is E452 ($AU750) which is more than I want to pay for a device that isn t as open as the Pine64 and Purism products. The Volla Phone 22 only has 4G of RAM.
Phone RAM Price Issues
Note 9 128G/512G 6G/8G <$300 Not supporting external display
Galaxy S9+ 6G <$300 Not supporting external display
Xperia 5 6G >$300 Hotspot partly working
OnePlus 3T 6G $200 $400+ photos not working
I just bought a Note 9 with 128G of storage and 6G of RAM for $109 to try out Droidian, it has some screen burn but that s OK for a test system and if I end up using it seriously I ll just buy another that s in as-new condition. With no support for an external display I ll need to setup a software dock to do Convergence, but that s not a serious problem. If I end up making a Note 9 with Droidian my daily driver then I ll use the 512G/8G model for that and use the cheap one for testing. Mobian I should have checked the Mobian list first as it s the main Debian variant for phones. From the Mobian Devices list [16] the OnePlus 6T has 8G of RAM or more but isn t available in Australia and costs more than $400 when imported. The PocoPhone F1 doesn t seem to be available on ebay. The Shift6mq is made by a German company with similar aims to the Fairphone [17], it looks nice but costs E577 which is more than I want to spend and isn t on the officially supported list. Smart Watches The same issues apply to smart watches. AstereoidOS is a free smart phone OS designed for closed hardware [18]. I don t have time to get involved in this sort of thing though, I can t hack on every device I use.

9 August 2023

Antoine Beaupr : OpenPGP key transition

This is a short announcement to say that I have changed my main OpenPGP key. A signed statement is available with the cryptographic details but, in short, the reason is that I stopped using my old YubiKey NEO that I have worn on my keyring since 2015. I now have a YubiKey 5 which supports ED25519 which features much shorter keys and faster decryption. It allowed me to move all my secret subkeys on the key (including encryption keys) while retaining reasonable performance. I have written extensive documentation on how to do that OpenPGP key rotation and also YubiKey OpenPGP operations.

Warning on storing encryption keys on a YubiKey People wishing to move their private encryption keys to such a security token should be very careful as there are special precautions to take for disaster recovery. I am toying with the idea of writing an article specifically about disaster recovery for secrets and backups, dealing specifically with cases of death or disabilities.

Autocrypt changes One nice change is the impact on Autocrypt headers, which are considerably shorter. Before, the header didn't even fit on a single line in an email, it overflowed to five lines:
Autocrypt:; prefer-encrypt=nopreference;
After the change, the entire key fits on a single line, neat!
Autocrypt:; prefer-encrypt=nopreference;
Note that I have implemented my own kind of ridiculous Autocrypt support for the Notmuch Emacs email client I use, see this elisp code. To import keys, I pipe the message into this script which is basically just:
sq autocrypt decode   gpg --import
... thanks to Sequoia best-of-class Autocrypt support.

Note on OpenPGP usage While some have claimed OpenPGP's death, I believe those are overstated. Maybe it's just me, but I still use OpenPGP for my password management, to authenticate users and messages, and it's the interface to my YubiKey for authenticating with SSH servers. I understand people feel that OpenPGP is possibly insecure, counter-intuitive and full of problems, but I think most of those problems should instead be attributed to its current flagship implementation, GnuPG. I have tried to work with GnuPG for years, and it keeps surprising me with evilness and oddities. I have high hopes that the Sequoia project can bring some sanity into this space, and I also hope that RFC4880bis can eventually get somewhere so we have a more solid specification with more robust crypto. It's kind of a shame that this has dragged on for so long, but Update: there's a separate draft called openpgp-crypto-refresh that might actually be adopted as the "OpenPGP RFC" soon! And it doesn't keep real work from happening in Sequoia and other implementations. Thunderbird rewrote their OpenPGP implementation with RNP (which was, granted, a bumpy road because it lost compatibility with GnuPG) and Sequoia now has a certificate store with trust management (but still no secret storage), preliminary OpenPGP card support and even a basic GnuPG compatibility layer. I'm also curious to try out the OpenPGP CA capabilities. So maybe it's just because I'm becoming an old fart that doesn't want to change tools, but so far I haven't seen a good incentive in switching away from OpenPGP, and haven't found a good set of tools that completely replace it. Maybe OpenSSH's keys and CA can eventually replace it, but I suspect they will end up rebuilding most of OpenPGP anyway, just more slowly. If they do, let's hope they avoid the mistakes our community has done in the past at least...

21 May 2022

Dirk Eddelbuettel: #37: Introducing r2u with 2 x 19k CRAN binaries for Ubuntu 22.04 and 20.04

One month ago I started work on a new side project which is now up and running, and deserving on an introductory blog post: r2u. It was announced in two earlier tweets (first, second) which contained the two (wicked) demos below also found at the documentation site. So what is this about? It brings full and complete CRAN installability to Ubuntu LTS, both the focal release 20.04 and the recent jammy release 22.04. It is unique in resolving all R and CRAN packages with the system package manager. So whenever you install something it is guaranteed to run as its dependencies are resolved and co-installed as needed. Equally important, no shared library will be updated or removed by the system as the possible dependency of the R package is known and declared. No other package management system for R does that as only apt on Debian or Ubuntu can and this project integrates all CRAN packages (plus 200+ BioConductor packages). It will work with any Ubuntu installation on laptop, desktop, server, cloud, container, or in WSL2 (but is limited to Intel/AMD chips, sorry Raspberry Pi or M1 laptop). It covers all of CRAN (or nearly 19k packages), all the BioConductor packages depended-upon (currently over 200), and only excludes less than a handful of CRAN packages that cannot be built.

Usage Setup instructions approaches described concisely in the repo and documentation site. It consists of just five (or fewer) simple steps, and scripts are provided too for focal (20.04) and jammy (22.04).

Demos Check out these two demos (also at the r2u site):

Installing the full tidyverse in one command and 18 seconds

Installing brms and its depends in one command and 13 seconds (and show

Integration via bspm The r2u setup can be used directly with apt (or dpkg or any other frontend to the package management system). Once installed apt update; apt upgrade will take care of new packages. For this to work, all CRAN packages (and all BioConductor packages depended upon) are mapped to names like r-cran-rcpp and r-bioc-s4vectors: an r prefix, the repo, and the package name, all lower-cased. That works but thanks to the wonderful bspm package by I aki car we can do much better. It connects R s own install.packages() and update.packages() to apt. So we can just say (as the demos above show) install.packages("tidyverse") or install.packages("brms") and binaries are installed via apt which is fantastic and it connects R to the system package manager. The setup is really only two lines and described at the r2u site as part of the setup.

History and Motivation Turning CRAN packages into .deb binaries is not a new idea. Albrecht Gebhardt was the first to realize this about twenty years ago (!!) and implemented it with a single Perl script. Next, Albrecht, Stefan Moeller, David Vernazobres and I built on top of this which is described in this useR! 2007 paper. A most excellent generalization and rewrite was provided by Charles Blundell in an superb Google Summer of Code contribution in 2008 which I mentored. Charles and I described it in this talk at useR! 2009. I ran that setup for a while afterwards, but it died via an internal database corruption in 2010 right when I tried to demo it at CRAN headquarters in Vienna. This peaked at, if memory serves, about 5k packages: all of CRAN at the time. Don Armstrong took it one step further in a full reimplemenation which, if I recall correctly, coverd all of CRAN and BioConductor for what may have been 8k or 9k packages. Don had a stronger system (with full RAID-5) but it also died in a crash and was never rebuilt even though he and I could have relied on Debian resources (as all these approaches focused on Debian). During that time, Michael Rutter created a variant that cleverly used an Ubuntu-only setup utilizing Launchpad. This repo is still going strong, used and relied-upon by many, and about 5k packages (per distribution) strong. At one point, a group consisting of Don, Michael, G bor Cs rdi and myself (as lead/PI) had financial support from the RConsortium ISC for a more general re-implementation , but that support was withdrawn when we did not have time to deliver. We should also note other long-standing approaches. Detlef Steuer has been using the openSUSE Build Service to provide nearly all of CRAN for openSUSE for many years. I aki car built a similar system for Fedora described in this blog post. I aki and I also have a arXiv paper describing all this.

Details Please see the the r2u site for all details on using r2u.

Acknowledgements The help of everybody who has worked on this is greatly appreciated. So a huge Thank you! to Albrecht, David, Stefan, Charles, Don, Michael, Detlef, G bor, I aki and whoever I may have omitted. Similarly, thanks to everybody working on R, CRAN, Debian, or Ubuntu it all makes for a superb system. And another big Thank you! goes to my GitHub sponsors whose continued support is greatly appreciated.

This post by Dirk Eddelbuettel originated on his Thinking inside the box blog. Please report excessive re-aggregation in third-party for-profit settings.

26 January 2022

Timo Jyrinki: Unboxing Dell XPS 13 - openSUSE Tumbleweed alongside preinstalled Ubuntu

A look at the 2021 model of Dell XPS 13 - available with Linux pre-installed
I received a new laptop for work - a Dell XPS 13. Dell has been long famous for offering certain models with pre-installed Linux as a supported option, and opting for those is nice for moving some euros/dollars from certain PC desktop OS monopoly towards Linux desktop engineering costs. Notably Lenovo also offers Ubuntu and Fedora options on many models these days (like Carbon X1 and P15 Gen 2).
black box

opened box

accessories and a leaflet about Linux support

laptop lifted from the box, closed

laptop with lid open

Ubuntu running

openSUSE runnin
Obviously a smooth, ready-to-rock Ubuntu installation is nice for most people already, but I need openSUSE, so after checking everything is fine with Ubuntu, I continued to install openSUSE Tumbleweed as a dual boot option. As I m a funny little tinkerer, I obviously went with some special things. I wanted:
  • Ubuntu to remain as the reference supported OS on a small(ish) partition, useful to compare to if trying out new development versions of software on openSUSE and finding oddities.
  • openSUSE as the OS consuming most of the space.
  • LUKS encryption for openSUSE without LVM.
  • ext4 s new fancy fast_commit feature in use during filesystem creation.
  • As a result of all that, I ended up juggling back and forth installation screens a couple of times (even more than shown below, and also because I forgot I wanted to use encryption the first time around).
First boots to pre-installed Ubuntu and installation of openSUSE Tumbleweed as the dual-boot option:
(if the embedded video is not shown, use a direct link)
Some notes from the openSUSE installation:
  • openSUSE installer s partition editor apparently does not support resizing or automatically installing side-by-side another Linux distribution, so I did part of the setup completely on my own.
  • Installation package download hanged a couple of times, only passed when I entered a mirror manually. On my TW I ve also noticed download problems recently, there might be a problem with some mirror I need to escalate.
  • The installer doesn t very clearly show encryption status of the target installation - it took me a couple of attempts before I even noticed the small encrypted column and icon (well, very small, see below), which also did not spell out the device mapper name but only the main partition name. In the end it was going to do the right thing right away and use my pre-created encrypted target partition as I wanted, but it could be a better UX. Then again I was doing my very own tweaks anyway.
  • Let s not go to the details why I m so old-fashioned and use ext4 :)
  • openSUSE s installer does not work fine with HiDPI screen. Funnily the tty consoles seem to be fine and with a big font.
  • At the end of the video I install the two GNOME extensions I can t live without, Dash to Dock and Sound Input & Output Device Chooser.

2 March 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
Illustrator: Pauline Baynes
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #1
Publisher: Collier Books
Copyright: 1950
Printing: 1978
ISBN: 0-02-044220-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 186
Although it's been more than 20 years since I last read it, I believe I have read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe more times than any other book. The count is certainly in double digits. As you might guess, I also have strong opinions about it, some of which are unorthodox, and I've been threatening to write this review for years. It seemed a fitting choice for my 1000th review. There is quite a lot that can and has been said about this book and this series, and this review is already going to be much too long, so I'm only going to say a fraction of it. I'm going to focus on my personal reactions as someone raised a white evangelical Christian but no longer part of that faith, and the role this book played in my religion. I'm not going to talk much about some of its flaws, particularly Lewis's treatment of race and gender. This is not because I don't agree they're there, but only that I don't have much to say that isn't covered far better in other places. Unlike my other reviews, this one will contain major spoilers. If you have managed to remain unspoiled for a 70-year-old novel that spawned multiple movies and became part of the shared culture of evangelical Christianity, and want to stay that way, I'll warn you in ALL CAPS when it's time to go. But first, a few non-spoiler notes. First, reading order. Most modern publications of The Chronicles of Narnia will list The Magician's Nephew as the first book. This follows internal chronological order and is at C.S. Lewis's request. However, I think Lewis was wrong. You should read this series in original publication order, starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (which I'm going to abbreviate as TLtWatW like everyone else who writes about it). I will caveat this by saying that I have a bias towards reading books in the order an author wrote them because I like seeing the development of the author's view of their work, and I love books that jump back in time and fill in background, so your experience may vary. But the problem I see with the revised publication order is that The Magician's Nephew explains the origins of Narnia and, thus, many of the odd mysteries of TLtWatW that Lewis intended to be mysterious. Reading it first damages both books, like watching a slow-motion how-to video for a magic trick before ever seeing it performed. The reader is not primed to care about the things The Magician's Nephew is explaining, which makes it less interesting. And the bits of unexpected magic and mystery in TLtWatW that give it so much charm (and which it needs, given the thinness of the plot) are already explained away and lose appeal because of it. I have read this series repeatedly in both internal chronological order and in original publication order. I have even read it in strict chronological order, wherein one pauses halfway through the last chapter of TLtWatW to read The Horse and His Boy before returning. I think original publication order is the best. (The Horse and His Boy is a side story and it doesn't matter that much where you read it as long as you read it after TLtWatW. For this re-read, I will follow original publication order and read it fifth.) Second, allegory. The common understanding of TLtWatW is that it's a Christian allegory for children, often provoking irritated reactions from readers who enjoyed the story on its own terms and later discovered all of the religion beneath it. I think this view partly misunderstands how Lewis thought about the world and there is a more interesting way of looking at the book. I'm not as dogmatic about this as I used to be; if you want to read it as an allegory, there are plenty of carefully crafted parallels to the gospels to support that reading. But here's my pitch for a different reading. To C.S. Lewis, the redemption of the world through the death of Jesus Christ is as foundational a part of reality as gravity. He spent much of his life writing about religion and Christianity in both fiction and non-fiction, and this was the sort of thing he constantly thought about. If somewhere there is another group of sentient creatures, Lewis's theology says that they must fit into that narrative in some way. Either they would have to be unfallen and thus not need redemption (roughly the position taken by The Space Trilogy), or they would need their own version of redemption. So yes, there are close parallels in Narnia to events of the Christian Bible, but I think they can be read as speculating how Christian salvation would play out in a separate creation with talking animals, rather than an attempt to disguise Christianity in an allegory for children. It's a subtle difference, but I think Narnia more an answer to "how would Christ appear in this fantasy world?" than to "how do I get children interested in the themes of Christianity?", although certainly both are in play. Put more bluntly, where other people see allegory, I see the further adventures of Jesus Christ as an anthropomorphic lion, which in my opinion is an altogether more delightful way to read the books. So much for the preamble; on to the book. The Pevensie kids, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, have been evacuated to a huge old house in the country due to the air raids (setting this book during World War II, something that is passed over with barely a mention and not a hint of trauma in a way that a modern book would never do). While exploring this house, which despite the scant description is still stuck in my mind as the canonical huge country home, Lucy steps into a wardrobe because she wants to feel the fur of the coats. Much to her surprise, the wardrobe appears not to have a back, and she finds herself eventually stepping into a snow-covered pine forest where she meets a Fawn named Mr. Tumnus by an unlikely lamp-post. MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW, so if you don't want to see those, here's your cue to stop reading. Two things surprised me when re-reading TLtWatW. The first, which I remember surprising me every time I read it, is how far into this (very short) book one has to go before the plot kicks into gear. It's not until "What Happened After Dinner" more than a third in that we learn much of substance about Narnia, and not until "The Spell Begins to Break" halfway through the book that things start to happen. The early chapters are concerned primarily with the unreliability of the wardrobe portal, with a couple of early and brief excursions by Edmund and Lucy, and with Edmund being absolutely awful to Lucy. The second thing that surprised me is how little of what happens is driven by the kids. The second half of TLtWatW is about the fight between Aslan and the White Witch, but this fight was not set off by the children and their decisions don't shape it in any significant way. They're primarily bystanders; the few times they take action, it's either off-camera or they're told explicitly what to do. The arguable exception is Edmund, who provides the justification for the final conflict, but he functions more as plot device than as a character with much agency. When that is combined with how much of the story is also on rails via its need to recapitulate part of the gospels (more on that in a moment), it makes the plot feel astonishingly thin and simple. Edmund is the one protagonist who gets to make some decisions, all of them bad. As a kid, I hated reading these parts because Edmund is an ass, the White Witch is obviously evil, and everyone knows not to eat the food. Re-reading now, I have more appreciation for how Lewis shows Edmund's slide into treachery. He starts teasing Lucy because he thinks it's funny (even though it's not), has a moment when he realizes he was wrong and almost apologizes, but then decides to blame his discomfort on the victim. From that point, he is caught, with some help from the White Witch's magic, in a spiral of doubling down on his previous cruelty and then feeling unfairly attacked. Breaking the cycle is beyond him because it would require admitting just how badly he behaved and, worse, that he was wrong and his little sister was right. He instead tries to justify himself by spreading poisonous bits of doubt, and looks for reasons to believe the friends of the other children are untrustworthy. It's simplistic, to be sure, but it's such a good model of how people slide into believing conspiracy theories and joining hate groups. The Republican Party is currently drowning in Edmunds. That said, Lewis does one disturbing thing with Edmund that leaped out on re-reading. Everyone in this book has a reaction when Aslan's name is mentioned. For the other three kids, that reaction is awe or delight. For Edmund, it's mysterious horror. I know where Lewis is getting this from, but this is a nasty theological trap. One of the problems that religion should confront directly is criticism that questions the moral foundations of that religion. If one postulates that those who have thrown in with some version of the Devil have an instinctual revulsion for God, it's a free intellectual dodge. Valid moral criticism can be hand-waved away as Edmund's horrified reaction to Aslan: a sign of Edmund's guilt, rather than a possible flaw to consider seriously. It's also, needless to say, not the effect you would expect from a god who wants universal salvation! But this is only an odd side note, and once Edmund is rescued it's never mentioned again. This brings us to Aslan himself, the Great Lion, and to the heart of why I think this book and series are so popular. In reinterpreting Christianity for the world of Narnia, Lewis created a far more satisfying and relatable god than Jesus Christ, particularly for kids. I'm not sure I can describe, for someone who didn't grow up in that faith, how central the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus is to evangelical Christianity. It's more than a theological principle; it's the standard by which one's faith is judged. And it is very difficult for a kid to mentally bootstrap themselves into a feeling of a personal relationship with a radical preacher from 2000 years ago who spoke in gnomic parables about subtle points of adult theology. It's hard enough for adults with theological training to understand what that phrase is intended to mean. For kids, you may as well tell them they have a personal relationship with Aristotle. But a giant, awe-inspiring lion with understanding eyes, a roar like thunder, and a warm mane that you can bury your fingers into? A lion who sacrifices himself for your brother, who can be comforted and who comforts you in turn, and who makes a glorious surprise return? That's the kind of god with which one can imagine having a personal relationship. Aslan felt physical and embodied and present in the imagination in a way that Jesus never did. I am certain I was not the only Christian kid for whom Aslan was much more viscerally real than Jesus, and who had a tendency to mentally substitute Aslan for Jesus in most thoughts about religion. I am getting ahead of myself a bit because this is a review of TLtWatW and not of the whole series, and Aslan in this book is still a partly unformed idea. He's much more mundanely present here than he is later, more of a field general than a god, and there are some bits that are just wrong (like him clapping his paws together). But the scenes with Susan and Lucy, the night at the Stone Table and the rescue of the statues afterwards, remain my absolute favorite parts of this book and some of the best bits of the whole series. They strike just the right balance of sadness, awe, despair, and delight. The image of a lion also lets Lewis show joy in a relatable way. Aslan plays, he runs, he wrestles with the kids, he thrills in the victory over evil just as much as Susan and Lucy do, and he is clearly having the time of his life turning people back to flesh from stone. The combination of translation, different conventions, and historical distance means the Bible has none of this for the modern reader, and while people have tried to layer it on with Bible stories for kids, none of them (and I read a lot of them) capture anything close to the sheer joy of this story. The trade-off Lewis makes for that immediacy is that Aslan is a wonderful god, but TLtWatW has very little religion. Lewis can have his characters interact with Aslan directly, which reduces the need for abstract theology and difficult questions of how to know God's will. But even when theology is unavoidable, this book doesn't ask for the type of belief that Christianity demands. For example, there is a crucifixion parallel, because in Lewis's world view there would have to be. That means Lewis has to deal with substitutionary atonement (the belief that Christ died for the sins of the world), which is one of the hardest parts of Christianity to justify. How he does this is fascinating. The Narnian equivalent is the Deep Magic, which says that the lives of all traitors belong to the White Witch. If she is ever denied a life, Narnia will be destroyed by fire and water. The Witch demands Edmund's life, which sets up Aslan to volunteer to be sacrificed in Edmund's place. This triggers the Deeper Magic that she did not know about, freeing Narnia from her power. You may have noticed the card that Lewis is palming, and to give him credit, so do the kids, leading to this exchange when the White Witch is still demanding Edmund:
"Oh, Aslan!" whispered Susan in the Lion's ear, "can't we I mean, you won't, will you? Can't we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn't there something you can work against it?" "Work against the Emperor's magic?" said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.
The problem with substitutionary atonement is why would a supposedly benevolent god create such a morally abhorrent rule in the first place? And Lewis totally punts. Susan is simply not allowed to ask the question. Lewis does try to tackle this problem elsewhere in his apologetics for adults (without, in my opinion, much success). But here it's just a part of the laws of this universe, which all of the characters, including Aslan, have to work within. That leads to another interesting point of theology, which is that if you didn't already know about the Christian doctrine of the trinity, you would never guess it from this book. The Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea and Aslan are clearly separate characters, with Aslan below the Emperor in the pantheon. This makes rules like the above work out more smoothly than they do in Christianity because Aslan is bound by the Emperor's rules and the Emperor is inscrutable and not present in the story. (The Holy Spirit is Deity Not-appearing-in-this-book, but to be fair to Lewis, that's largely true of the Bible as well.) What all this means is that Aslan's death is presented straightforwardly as a magic spell. It works because Aslan has the deepest understanding of the fixed laws of the Emperor's magic, and it looks nothing like what we normally think of as religion. Faith is not that important in this book because Aslan is physically present, so it doesn't require any faith for the children to believe he exists. (The Beavers, who believed in him from prophecy without having seen him, are another matter, but this book never talks about that.) The structure of religion is therefore remarkably absent despite the story's Christian parallels. All that's expected of the kids is the normal moral virtues of loyalty and courage and opposition to cruelty. I have read this book so many times that I've scrutinized every word, so I have to resist the temptation to dig into every nook and cranny: the beautiful description of spring, the weird insertion of Lilith as Adam's first wife, how the controversial appearance of Santa Claus in this book reveals Lewis's love of Platonic ideals... the list is endless, and the review is already much longer than normal. But I never get to talk about book endings in reviews, so one more indulgence. The best thing that can be said about the ending of TLtWatW is that it is partly redeemed by the start of Prince Caspian. Other than that, the last chapter of this book has always been one of my least favorite parts of The Chronicles of Narnia. For those who haven't read it (and who by this point clearly don't mind spoilers), the four kids are immediately and improbably crowned Kings and Queens of Narnia. Apparently, to answer the Professor from earlier in the book, ruling magical kingdoms is what they were teaching in those schools? They then spend years in Narnia, never apparently giving a second thought to their parents (you know, the ones who are caught up in World War II, which prompted the evacuation of the kids to the country in the first place). This, for some reason, leaves them talking like medieval literature, which may be moderately funny if you read their dialogue in silly voices to a five-year-old and is otherwise kind of tedious. Finally, in a hunt for the white stag, they stumble across the wardrobe and tumble back into their own world, where they are children again and not a moment has passed. I will give Lewis credit for not doing a full reset and having the kids not remember anything, which is possibly my least favorite trope in fiction. But this is almost as bad. If the kids returned immediately, that would make sense. If they stayed in Narnia until they died, that arguably would also make sense (their poor parents!). But growing up in Narnia and then returning as if nothing happened doesn't work. Do they remember all of their skills? How do you readjust to going to school after you've lived a life as a medieval Queen? Do they remember any of their friends after fifteen years in Narnia? Argh. It's a very "adventures are over, now time for bed" sort of ending, although the next book does try to patch some of this up. As a single book taken on its own terms, TLtWatW is weirdly slight, disjointed, and hits almost none of the beats that one would expect from a children's novel. What saves it is a sense of delight and joy that suffuses the descriptions of Narnia, even when locked in endless winter, and Aslan. The plot is full of holes, the role of the children in that plot makes no sense, and Santa Claus literally shows up in the middle of the story to hand out plot devices and make an incredibly sexist statement about war. And yet, I memorized every gift the children received as a kid, I can still feel the coziness of the Beaver's home while Mr. Beaver is explaining prophecy, and the night at the Stone Table remains ten times more emotionally effective for me than the description of the analogous event in the Bible. And, of course, there's Aslan.
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king, I tell you."
Aslan is not a tame lion, to use the phrase that echos through this series. That, I think, is the key to the god that I find the most memorable in all of fantasy literature, even in this awkward, flawed, and decidedly strange introduction. Followed by Prince Caspian, in which the children return to a much-changed Narnia. Lewis has gotten most of the obligatory cosmological beats out of the way in this book, so subsequent books can tell more conventional stories. Rating: 7 out of 10

4 February 2021

Ulrike Uhlig: On anger, misunderstandings, and hearing with different ears

Anger Anger is a feeling that is mostly taboo in our society. People tend to think that anger and rage are the same thing and reject anger. We are taught to suppress it. But: The suppression of anger can cause a lot of trouble, giving rise to virulent progeny such as malice, passive aggression, hostility, rage, sabotage, hate, blame, guilt, controlling behavior, shame, self-blame, and self-destruction. (Quoted from: Anne Katherine, Where to draw the line ). When we talk about anger, we need to distinguish between acting out anger, and feeling anger. In general, when you hear me talking about anger, I m talking about the feeling named anger in English. Anger is a normal feeling with a super power: it gives us the energy to change a situation that we consider to be unsustainable. We can express the feeling of anger verbally by saying for example: That thing makes me really angry , I can t talk right now, I am very angry about what I just heard . Let s also note that there may be other feelings lying below anger, such as sadness, frustration, grief, fear, etc. Mixing emotions This is a page from the wonderful Making Comics by Scott McCloud. (Yes, emotions are complex! See some more of Scott McCloud s pages about emotion in comics)

Bottling up feelings Most of the time, people don t get angry suddenly, even though it might seem like that from the outside. Instead, they ve been bottling up feelings for a while, and at some point, a small trigger is enough to make the bottle overflow. The reasons for bottling up feelings can be as diverse as people:
  • Low self-esteem: not thinking one has the right and the capacity to express unpleasant feelings
  • Not knowing how to express unpleasant feelings. For example not having learnt to say: I am not comfortable, I ll leave now, I ll get back to you once I know what s going on / if this is about me / if I feel like it.
  • Not trusting one s own feelings, specifically common in people who have been victims of gaslighting
  • Repressing emotions, specifically anger, sometimes to the point of not being able to feel one s own feelings anymore
  • Not being able to express disagreement and instead applying the fawn response: trying to please the other in order to avoid further conflict. See: Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn
  • Not being able to express boundaries: stop , this is enough , I don t accept this , etc.
  • Not being in a situation or a space in which feelings can be expressed freely, for example a workplace or a hierarchical situation where this might be disadvantageous
These are just some examples I can come up with in 3 minutes, the list is non exhaustive. When someone s bottle overflows, their peers can be confused and not know how to react to what they perceive as a sudden outburst while what they are seeing might just be the other person s first time tentative of saying no or stop . Oftentimes, the responsibility for the situation is then put on the shoulders of the person who supposedly exploded : they have been behaving differently than usual or not within the expectations, right? Well, it s not that simple. Conflicts are relational. The other party might have ignored signs, requests, feelings, and needs of the angry person for a while. Maybe the relationship has been deteriorating since some time? Maybe there was a power imbalance, that has never been revisited, updated, questioned? Or maybe their bottle is being filled by something else in their life and getting too small to contain all the drops of suppressed emotions. People change, and relationships change. We cannot assume that because a person has accepted something for months or years, that they always will. I think that anger can be a sign of such change or need thereof.

A message has four sides and that creates misunderstandings Friedemann Schulz von Thun has created a theory, the four-sides model, that establishes four facets of a message:
  • Fact: What is the message about?
  • Self-disclosure: What does the speaker reveal about herself (with or without intention)?
  • Relation: What is the speaker s relationship towards the receiver of the message?
  • Appeal: What does the speaker want to obtain?
Let me adapt Schulz von Thun s example to a situation that happened to me once: I came to a friend s house and I smelled some unknown thing when I entered the apartment. I asked: what s that smell? I actually never bake, so I don t know anything about whatever it is people put into cakes. I wanted to say: I don t know what that smell is, tell me what it is? She replied: You never like anything I do, my furniture gets criticized, my cake s not right, and you criticize me all the time. We ended up in such a big misunderstanding that I left her house 5 minutes after I arrived. With Schulz von Thun s model we can understand what happened here: The speaker s question What s that smell in the kitchen? has four sides:
  1. Factual: There is a smell.
  2. Self-disclosure: I don t know what it is.
  3. Relational: You know what it is.
  4. Appeal: Tell me what it is!
The receiver can hear the question with 4 different ears:
  1. Factual part: There is a smell.
  2. Self-disclosure: I don t like the smell.
  3. Relationship: You re not good at baking cake.
  4. Appeal: Don t bake cake anymore.
At this point, the receiver will probably reply: Bake the cake yourself next time!

Behind the message Sometimes, we hear more strongly with one ear than with the other ears. For example, some people hear more on the relational side and they will always hear You re not good at . Other people hear more on the appeal side and will always try to guess into a message what the other person wants or expects of them.

Form and contents of a message Getting back to anger, I think that it s often not the contents i.e. the factual facet of a message that triggers our bottle to overflow, but the (perceived) intention of the speaker, i.e. the appeal facet. For example, a speaker might have an intention to silence us by using gaslighting, or tone policing. Or a speaker wants to explicitly hurt us because that s how they learnt to deal with their own feelings of hurt. The actual relation between speaker and receiver also seems to play a role in how anger can get triggered, when we hear with the relational ear. There are many nonverbal underlying layers to our communication:
  • The position of both speaker and receiver to each other: are they equals or is there any kind of power imbalance between them? A power imbalance can be a (perceived) dependency: For example, one person in a friendship has a kid and the other one regularly helps them so that the parent has some time to advance their work or career: this can create a feeling of not being good enough by oneself and having to rely on others. Or there is indeed a dependency in which the speaker is a team lead and the receiver a subordinate.
  • The needs of each person: a need to solve problems quickly for one person might conflict with the need to be involved in decision making of the other person. (See Taibi Kahler s drivers)
  • The inner beliefs of each person: in childhood we might have constructed the inner belief: You re okay, I m not okay , or Nobody cares about what I want , or I have to be nice (friendly, hardworking, strong, etc.) all the time otherwise nobody loves me - as some examples.
So, suppose person A offers to help person B, and what person B hears instead is their overprotective mother instead of their friend. Person A might be surprised to see B overreact or disappear for a while to get back their feelings of autonomy and integrity as an adult. Or person C expresses she d like to handle problem X like this while person D might well not hear this as a proposal to handle a problem, but as a decision made without involving her. Which might propel D back to her childhood in which she could also not take decisions autonomously. Then D might react like she would react as a child, slamming a door, shout, run away, freeze, or fawn.

Communication is complex! So, whenever we hear a message, not only do we hear the message with four ears, but also, we hear it with our position, our needs, and our inner beliefs. And sometimes, our bottle is already full, and then it overflows. At that point, I find it important that both sides reflect on the situation and stay in contact. Using empathy and compassion, we can try to better understand what s going on, where we might have hurt the other person, for example, or what was being misunderstood. Did we hear only one side of the message? Do our respective strategies conflict with each other? If we cannot hear each other anymore or always hear only one side of the message, we can try to do a mediation. Obviously, if at that point one side does not actually want to solve the problem, or thinks it s not their problem, then there s not much we can do, and mediation would not help. The examples above might sound familiar to you. I chose them because I ve seen them happen around me often, and I understand them as shared patterns. While all beings on this planets are unique, we share a common humanity, for example through such patterns and common experiences.

31 December 2020

Russ Allbery: Review: Billion Dollar Loser

Review: Billion Dollar Loser, by Reeves Wiedeman
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Copyright: October 2020
ISBN: 0-316-46134-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 315
WeWork was founded in 2010 by Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey as a successor company to their similar 2008 GreenDesk business. (Adam's wife Rebekah is now presented as a co-founder. This seems dubious in Wiedeman's account, although Rebekah's role in the company is murky, ever-changing, and hard to pin down.) Its business model in reality was to provide turn-key, pre-furnished and stocked co-working and small office space to individuals and businesses on flexible, short-term leases. Its business model in Neumann's speeches and dreams, and represented by the later renaming of the company to the We Corporation, was nothing less than to transform the way people worked, learned, and lived. Through aggressive, money-losing expansion, WeWork grew rapidly to over 500 locations in 29 countries and became the largest office tenant in New York City. Based primarily on massive financial support from Masayoshi Son, CEO of Japanese holding company SoftBank, WeWork's private valuation rose to $47 billion. In 2019, the company attempted to go public, but its IPO collapsed, in part due to deeper analysis of the company's books. Neumann was forced out of the company (with an individual payout valued at $1.7 billion), the IPO was withdrawn, SoftBank wrote down 90% of their investment in the company and took control of it, and WeWork laid off more than 20% of its workforce. This book is a detailed history of WeWork's rise and fall, joining a genre that includes The Smartest Guys in the Room (Enron), Bad Blood (Theranos), and Super Pumped (Uber). I believe it's the first full book on WeWork, although it was preceded by several long-form stories, including "The I In We" by Wiedeman for New York magazine. As the first history, it's a somewhat incomplete cut: litigation between Neumann and WeWork is still pending, WeWork staggered into 2020 and a world-wide pandemic that made cramped open-plan offices an epidemiological disaster, and there will doubtless be new revelations yet to come. The discovery process of lawsuits tends to be good for journalists. But despite being the first out of the gate, Billion Dollar Loser reaches a satisfying conclusion with the ouster of Neumann, who had defined WeWork both internally and externally. I'm fascinated by stories of failed venture capital start-ups in general, but the specific question about WeWork that interested me, and to which Wiedeman provides a partial answer, is why so many people gave Neumann money in the first place. Explaining that question requires a digression into why I thought WeWork's valuation was absurd. The basic problem WeWork had when justifying its sky-high valuation is competition. WeWork didn't own real estate; it rented properties from landlords with long-term leases and then re-rented them with short-term leases. If its business was so successful, why wouldn't the landlords cut out the middle man, do what WeWork was doing directly, and pocket all the profit? Or why wouldn't some other company simply copy WeWork and drive the profit margins down? Normally with startups the answer revolves around something proprietary: an app, a server technology, patents, a secret manufacturing technique, etc. But nothing WeWork was doing was different from what innumerable tech companies and partner landlords had been doing with their office space for a decade, and none of it was secret. There are two decent answers to that question. One is simple outsourcing: landlords like being passive rent collectors, so an opportunity to pay someone else to do the market research on office layouts, arrange all the remodeling, adapt to changing desires for how office space should be equipped and stocked, advertise for short-term tenants, and deal with the tenant churn is attractive. The landlord can sit back and pocket the stable long-term rent. The second answer is related: WeWork is essentially doing rental arbitrage between long-term and short-term rents and thus is taking on most of the risk of a commercial real estate downturn. If no one is renting office space, WeWork is still on the hook for the long-term rent. The landlord is outsourcing risk, at least unless WeWork goes bankrupt. (One infuriating tidbit from this book is that Neumann's explicit and often-stated goal was to make WeWork so large that its bankruptcy would be sufficiently devastating to the real estate industry that it would get a bailout.) There's a legitimate business here. But that business looks like a quietly profitable real estate company that builds very efficient systems for managing short-term leases, remodeling buildings, and handling the supply chain of stocking an office. That looks nothing like WeWork's business, has nothing to do with transforming the world of work, and certainly doesn't warrant sky-high valuations. WeWork didn't build an efficient anything. It relied on weekend labor from underpaid employees and an IT person who was still in high school. And WeWork actively resisted being called a real estate company and claimed it was a tech company or a lifestyle company on the basis of essentially nothing. Wiedeman seems almost as baffled by this as I am, but it's clear from the history he tells that part of the funding answer is the Ponzi scheme of start-up investing. People gave Neumann money because other people had previously given Neumann money, and the earlier investors cashed out at the expense of the later ones. Like any Ponzi scheme, it looks like a great investment until it doesn't, and then the last sucker is left holding the bag. That sucker was Masayoshi Son, who in Wiedeman's telling is an astonishingly casual and undisciplined investor who trusted knee-jerk personal reactions to founders over business model analysis and historically (mostly) got away with it by getting extremely lucky. (I now want to read one of these books about SoftBank, since both this book and Super Pumped make it look like a company that makes numerous wild gambles for the flimsiest of reasons, pushes for completely unsustainable growth, and relies on the sheer volume of investments catching some lucky jackpots and cashing out in IPOs. Unfortunately, the only book currently available seems to be a fawning hagiography of Son.) On one hand, the IPO process worked properly this time. The sheer madness of WeWork's valuation scared off enough institutional investors that it collapsed. On the other hand, it's startling how close it came to success. If WeWork had kept the Ponzi scheme going a bit longer, the last sucker could have been the general investing public. Another interesting question that Billion Dollar Loser answers is how Neumann got enough money to start his rapid growth strategy. The answer appears to be the oldest and most obvious explanation: He made friends with rich people. The initial connections appear to have been through his sister, Adi Neumann, who is a model and hosted parties in her New York apartment (and also started dating a Rothschild heir). Adam met his wealthy wife Rebekah, cousin to actress and "wellness" scam marketer Gwyneth Paltrow, via a connection at a party. He built social connections with other parts of the New York real estate scene and tapped them for investment money. The strong impression one gets from the book is that all of these people have way more money than sense and we should raise their taxes. It won't come as a surprise that Adam and Rebekah Neumann are good friends of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Those are the questions I was the most curious about, but there's much more here. Wiedeman's style is nearly straight chronological reporting with little analysis, but the story is so wild and absurd that it doesn't need much embellishment. Neumann is obviously a megalomaniac whose delusions of grandeur got worse and worse as WeWork was apparently succeeding. Rebekah Neumann is if anything even less in touch with reality than he is, although in her case that appears to stem from having so much money that reality is an inconvenient speed bump. Miguel McKelvey, Neumann's co-founder, is an odd and interesting side note to the story; he appears to have balanced Adam out a bit in the early going but then wisely started to cash out and pocket his winnings while letting Adam dominate the stage. There are some places where I don't think Wiedeman pushed hard enough, and which cut against the view of Neumann as a true believer in his impossible growth vision. Neumann took several investment opportunities to cash out large amounts of his stock even while WeWork employees were being underpaid and told their stock options would make up for it. He clearly used WeWork as a personal piggy bank on multiple occasions. And Wiedeman documents but doesn't, at least in my opinion, make nearly enough of Neumann's self-dealing: buying real estate that WeWork then rented as a tenant, or paying himself for a license for the name We Holdings (although there at least he later returned the money). I think a good argument could be made that Neumann was embezzling from WeWork, at least morally if not legally, and I wish Wiedeman would have pressed harder on that point. But that aside, this is a great first history of the company, told in a clean, readable, and engaging style, and with a lot more detail here than I've touched on (such as Rebekah Neumann's WeGrow school). It's not as good as Bad Blood (what is), but it's a respectable entry in the corporate collapse genre. If you like this sort of thing, recommended. Rating: 7 out of 10

7 December 2016

Shirish Agarwal: Day trip in Cape Town, part 2

Debconf16 logo The post continues from the last post shared. Let me get some interesting tit-bits not related to the day-trip out-of-the-way first I don t know whether we had full access to see all parts of fuller hall or not. Couple of days I was wondering around Fuller Hall, specifically next to where clothes were pressed. Came to know of the laundry service pretty late but still was useful. Umm next to where the ladies/gentleman pressed our clothes, there is a stairway which goes down. In fact even on the opposite side there is a stairway which goes down. I dunno if other people explored them or not. The jail inside and under UCT I was surprised and shocked to see bars in each room as well as connecting walkways etc. I felt a bit sad, confused and curious and went on to find more places like that. After a while I came up to the ground-level and enquired with some of the ladies therein. I was shocked to know that UCT some years ago (they were not specific) was a jail for people. I couldn t imagine that a place which has so much warmth (in people, not climate) could be evil in a sense. I was not able to get much information out of them about the nature of jail it was, maybe it is a dark past that nobody wants to open up, dunno. There were also two *important* aspects of UCT which Bernelle either forgot, didn t share or I just came to know via the Wikipedia page then but nothing else. 1. MeerKAT Apparently quite a bit of the technology was built-in UCT itself. This would have been interesting for geeks and wanna-be geeks like me 2. The OpenContent Initiative by UCT This would have been also something worth exploring. One more interesting thing which I saw was the French council in Cape Town from outside The French Council in cape town from outside I would urge to look at the picture in the gallery as the picture I shared doesn t really show all the details. For e.g. the typical large french windows which are the hall-mark of French architecture doesn t show its glory but if you look at 1306 2322 original picture instead of the 202 360 reproduction you will see that. You will also the insignia of the French Imperial Eagle whose history I came to know only after I looked it up on the Wikipedia page on that day. It seemed fascinating and probably would have the same pride as the State Emblem of India has for Indians with the four Asiatic Lions standing in a circle protecting each other. I also like the palm tree and the way the French Council seemed little and yet had character around all the big buildings. What also was interesting that there wasn t any scare/fear-build and we could take photos from outside unlike what I had seen and experienced in Doha, Qatar as far as photography near Western Embassies/Councils were concerned. One of the very eye-opening moments for me was also while I was researching flights from India to South Africa. While perhaps unconsciously I might have known that Middle East is close to India, in reality, it was only during the search I became aware that most places in Middle East by flight are only an hour or two away. This was shocking as there is virtually no mention of one of our neighbours when they are source of large-scale remittances every year. I mean this should have been in our history and geography books but most do not dwell on the subject. It was only during and after that I could understand Mr. Modi s interactions and trade policies with the Middle East. Another interesting bit was seeing a bar in a Sprinbok bus spingbok atlas bar in bus While admittedly it is not the best picture of the bar, I was surprised to find a bar at the back of a bus. By bar I mean a machine which can serve anything from juices to alcoholic drinks depending upon what is stocked. What was also interesting in the same bus is that the bus also had a middle entrance-and-exit. The middle door in springbok atlas This is something I hadn t seen in most Indian buses. Some of the Volvo buses have but it is rarely used (only except emergencies) . An exhaustive showcase of local buses can be seen here . I find the hand-drawn/cad depictions of all the buses by Amit Pense near to the T. Axe which can be used to break windows Emergency exit window This is also something which I have not observed in Indian inter-city buses (axe to break the window in case of accident and breakable glass which doesn t hurt anyone I presume), whether they are State-Transport or the high-end Volvo s . Either it s part of South African Roads Regulations or something that Springbok buses do for their customers. All of these queries about the different facets I wanted to ask the bus-driver and the attendant/controller but in the excitement of seeing, recording new things couldn t ask In fact one of the more interesting things I looked at and could look day and night is the variety of vehicles on display in Cape Town. In hindsight, I should have bought a couple of 128 GB MMC cards for my mobile rather than the 64 GB one. It was just plain inadequate to capture all that was new and interesting. Auditorum chair truck seen near Auditorium This truck I had seen about some 100 metres near the Auditorium on Upper Campus. The truck s design, paint was something I had never seen before. It is/was similar to casket trucks seen in movies but the way it was painted and everything made it special. What was interesting is to see the gamut of different vehicles. For instance, there were no bicycles that I saw in most places. There were mostly Japanese/Italian bikes and all sorts of trucks. If I had known before, I would definitely have bought an SD specifically to take snaps of all the different types of trucks, cars etc. that I saw therein. The adage/phrase I should stop in any one place and the whole world will pass me by seemed true on quite a few South African Roads. While the roads were on par or a shade better than India, many of those were wide roads. Seeing those, I was left imagining how the Autobahn in Germany and other high-speed Expressways would look n feel. India has also been doing that with the Pune-Mumbai Expressway and projects like Yamuna Expressway and now the extension Agra Lucknow Expressway but doing this all over India would take probably a decade or more. We have been doing it since a decade and a half. NHDP and PMGSY are two projects which are still ongoing to better the roads. We have been having issues as to should we have toll or no toll issues but that is a discussion for some other time. One of the more interesting sights I saw was the high-arched gothic-styled church from outside. This is near Longstreet as well. high arch gothic-styled church I have seen something similar in Goa, Pondicherry but not such high-arches. I did try couple of times to gain entry but one time it was closed, the other time some repairing/construction work was going on or something. I would loved to see it from inside and hopefully they would have had an organ (music) as well. I could imagine to some extent the sort of music that would have come out. Now that Goa has come in the conversation I can t help but state that Seafood enthusiasts/lover/aficionado, or/and Pescatarianism would have a ball of a time in Goa. Goa is on the Konkan coast and while I m eggie, ones who enjoy seafood really have a ball of a time in Goa. Fouthama s Festival which happens in February is particularly attractive as Goan homes are thrown open for people to come and sample their food, exchange recipes and alike. This happens around 2 weeks before the Goan Carnival and is very much a part of the mish-mashed Konkani-Bengali-Parsi-Portugese culture. I better stop here about the Goa otherwise I ll get into reminiscing mode. To put the story and event back on track from where we left of (no fiction hereon), Nicholas was in constant communication with base, i.e. UCT as well as another group who was hiking from UCT to Table Mountain. We waited for the other group to join us till 13:00 hrs. We came to know that they were lost and were trying to come up and hence would take more time. As Bernelle was with them, who was a local and she had two dogs who knew the hills quite well, it was decided to go ahead without them. We came down the same cable-car and then ventured on towards Houtbay. Houtbay has it all, a fisherman s wharf, actual boats with tough-mean looking men with tattoos working on boats puffing cigars/pipes, gaggle of sea-gulls, the whole scene. Sharing a few pictures of the way in-between. the view en-route to Houtbay western style car paint and repair shop Tajmahal Indian Restaurant, Houtbay I just now had a quick look at the restaurant and it seems they had options for veggies too. Unfortunately, the rating leaves a bit to be desired but then dunno as Indian flavoring is something that takes time to get used too. Zomato doesn t give any idea of from when a restaurant is in business and has too few reviews so not easy to know how the experience would have been. Chinese noodles and small houses Notice the pattern, the pattern of small houses I saw all the way till Houtbay and back. I do vaguely remember starting a discussion about it on the bus but don t really remember. I have seen (on TV) cities like Miami, Dubai or/and Hong Kong who have big buildings on the beach but both in Konkan as well as Houtbay there were small buildings. I guess a combination of zoning regulations, feel of community, fear of being flooded all play into beaches being the way they are. Also, this probably is good as less stress on the environment. Miamiboyz from Wikimedia Commons The above picture is taken from Wikipedia from the article Miami Beach, Florida for comparison. Audi rare car to be seen in India The Audi rare car to be seen in India. This car has been associated with Ravi Shastri when he won it in 1985. I was young but still get goosebumps remembering those days. first-glance-Houtbay-and-pier First glance of Houtbay beach and pier. Notice how clean and white the beach is. Wharf-Grill-Restaurant-from-side-and-Hop-on-Hop-off-bus You can see the wharf grill restaurant in the distance (side-view), see the back of the hop on and hop off bus (a concept which was unknown to me till then). Once I came back and explored on the web came to know this concept is prevalent in many a touristy places around the world. Umm also By sheer happenchance also captured a beautiful looking Indian female . So many things happening all at once In Hindi, we would call this picture virodabhas or contradiction . this is in afternoon, around 1430 hrs. You have the sun, the clouds, the Mountains, the x number of boats, the pier, the houses, the cars, the shops. It was all crazy and beautiful at the same time. The Biggest Contradiction is seeing the Mountain, the beach and the Sea in the same Picture. Baffled the mind. Konkan though is a bit similar there as well. You have all the three things in some places but that s a different experience altogether as ours is a more tropical weather although is one of the most romantic places in the rains. We were supposed to go on a short cruise to seal/dolphin island but as we were late (as had been waiting for the other group) didn t go and instead just loitered there. Fake-real lookout bar-restaurant IIRC the lookout bar is situated just next to Houtbay Search and Rescue. Although was curious if the Lookout tower was used in case of disappearance. lost people, boats etc. Seal in action Seal jumping over water, what a miracle ! One of the boats on which we possibly could have been on. It looked like the boat we could have been on. I clicked as I especially liked the name Calypso and Calypso . I shared the two links as the mythologies, interpretation differ a bit between Greek and Hollywood culture Debian folks and the area around Can see few Debian folks in the foreground, next to the Pole and the area around. Also can see a bit of the area around. Alone boy trying to surf I don t know anything about water sports and after sometime he came out. I was left wondering though, how safe he was in that water. While he was close to the pier and he was just paddling, there weren t big waves still felt a bit of concern. Mr. Seal - the actor and his handler While the act was not to the level we see in the movies, still for the time I hung around, I saw him showing attitude for his younger audiences, eating out of their hands, making funny sounds. Btw he farted a few times, whether that was a put-on or not can t really say but produced a few guffaws from his audience. A family feeding Mr. Seal I dunno why the birds came down for. Mr. Seal was being fed oily small fish parts, dunno if the oil was secreted by the fish themselves or whatever, it just looked oily from distance. Bird-Man-Bird Bird taking necessary sun bath typical equipment on a boat to catch fish-lot of nets boats-nets-and-ropes People working on disentangling a net There wasn t much activity on the time we went. It probably would have been different on sunrise and would be on sunset. The only activity I saw was on this boat where they were busy fixing and disentangling the lines. I came up with 5-15 different ideas for a story but rejected them as a. Probably all of them have been tried. People have been fishing since the beginning of time and modern fishing probably 200 odd years or so. I have read accounts of fishing companies in early 1800s onwards, so probably all must have been tried. b. More dangerous one, if there is a unique idea, then it becomes more dangerous as writing is an all-consuming process. Writing a blog post (bad or good) takes lots of time. I constantly read, re-read, try and improvise till I can or my patience loses out. In book you simply can t have such luxuries. hout-bay-search-and-rescue-no-parking-zone No parking/tow zone in/near the Houtbay search and rescue. Probably to take out emergency vehicles once something untoward happens. hout-bay-sea-rescue-with-stats Saved 54 lives, boats towed 154 Salut! Houtbay sea rescue. The different springbok atlas bus that we were on kraal-kraft The only small criticism is for Houtbay there wasn t a single public toilet. We had to ask favor at kraal kraft to use their toilets and there could have been accidents, it wasn t lighted well and water was spilled around. Road sign telling that we are near to UCT For us, because we were late we missed both the boat-cruise as well as some street shops selling trinkets. Other than that it was all well. We should have stayed till sunset, I am sure the view would have been breath-taking but we hadn t booked the bus till evening. Back at UCT Overall it was an interesting day as we had explored part of Table Mountain, seen the somewhat outrageously priced trinkets there as well as explored Houtbay sea-side as well.
Filed under: Miscellenous Tagged: #Audi, #Cape Town, #Cruises, #Debconf16, #French Council, #Geography, #Houtbay Sea Rescue, #Jail, #Middle East, #Springbok Atlas, #Vehicles

6 November 2016

Russ Allbery: Review: Digger

Review: Digger, by Ursula Vernon
Publisher: Sofawolf
Copyright: October 2013
ISBN: 1-936689-32-4
Format: Graphic novel
Pages: 837
As Digger opens, the eponymous wombat is digging a tunnel. She's not sure why, or where to, since she hit a bad patch of dirt. It happens sometimes, underground: pockets of cave gas and dead air that leave one confused and hallucinating. But this one was particularly bad, it's been days, she broke into a huge cave system, and she's thoroughly lost. Tripping on an ammonite while running from voices in the dark finally helps her come mostly to her senses and start tunneling up, only to break out at the feet of an enormous statue of Ganesh. A talking statue of Ganesh. Digger is a web comic that ran from 2005 to 2011. The archives are still on the web, so you can read the entire saga for free. Reviewed here is the complete omnibus edition, which collects the entire strip (previously published in six separate graphic novels containing two chapters each), a short story, a bonus story that was published in volume one, a bunch of random illustrated bits about the world background, author's notes from the web version, and all of the full-color covers of the series chapters (the rest of the work is in black and white). Publication of the omnibus was originally funded by a Kickstarter, but it's still available for regular sale. (I bought it normally via Amazon long after the Kickstarter finished.) It's a beautiful and durable printing, and I recommend it if you have the money to buy things you can read for free. This was a very long-running web comic, but Digger is a single story. It has digressions, of course, but it's a single coherent work with a beginning, middle, and end. That's one of the impressive things about it. Another is that it's a fantasy work involving gods, magic, oracles, and prophecies, but it's not about a chosen one, and it's not a coming of age story. Digger (Digger-of-Needlessly-Convoluted-Tunnels, actually, but Digger will do) is an utterly pragmatic wombat who considers magic to be in poor taste (as do all right-thinking wombats), gods to be irritating underground obstacles that require care and extra bracing, and prophecies to not be worth the time spent listening to them. It's a bit like the famous Middle Earth contrast between the concerns of the hobbits and the affairs of the broader world, if the hobbits were well aware of the broader world, able to deal with it, but just thought all the magic was tacky and irritating. Magic and gods do not, of course, go away just because one is irritated by them, and Digger eventually has to deal with quite a lot of magic and mythology while trying to figure out where home is and how to get back to it. However, she is drawn into the plot less by any grand danger to the world and more because she keeps managing to make friends with everyone, even people who hate each other. It's not really an explicit goal, but Digger is kind-hearted, sensible, tries hard to do the right thing, and doesn't believe in walking away from problems. In this world, that's a recipe for eventual alliances from everything from warrior hyenas to former pirate shrews, not to mention a warrior cult, a pair of trolls, and a very confused shadow... something. All for a wombat who would rather be digging out a good root cellar. (She does, at least, get a chance to dig out a good root cellar.) The characters are the best part, but I love everything about this story. Vernon's black and white artwork isn't as detailed as, say, Dave Sim at his best, and some of the panels (particularly mostly dark ones) seemed a bit scribbly. But it's mostly large-panel artwork with plenty of room for small touches and Easter eggs (watch for the snail, and the cave fish graffiti that I missed until it was pointed out by the author's notes), and it does the job of telling the story. Honestly, I like the black and white panels better than the color chapter covers reproduced in the back. And the plot is solid and meaty, with a satisfying ending and some fantastic detours (particularly the ghosts). I think my favorite bits, though, are the dialogue.
"Do you have any idea how long twelve thousand years is?"
"I know it's not long enough to make a good rock."
Digger is snarky in all the right ways, and sees the world in terms of tunnels, digging, and geology. Vernon is endlessly creative in how she uses that to create comebacks, sayings, analysis, and an entire culture. This is one of the best long-form comics I've read: a solid fantasy story with great characters, reliably good artwork, a coherent plot arc, wonderful dialogue, a hard-working and pragmatic protagonist (who happens to be female), and a wonderfully practical sense of morality and ethics. I'm sorry it's over. If you've not already read it, I highly recommend it. Remember tunnel 17! Rating: 9 out of 10

1 July 2016

Elena 'valhalla' Grandi: Busy/idle status indicator

Busy/idle status indicator

About one year ago, during my first, I've felt the need for some way to tell people whether I was busy on my laptop doing stuff that required concentration or just passing some time between talks etc. and available for interruptions, socialization or context switches.

One easily available method of course would have been to ping me on IRC (and then probably go on chatting on it while being in the same room, of course :) ), but I wanted to try something that allowed for less planning and worked even in places with less connectivity.

My first idea was a base laptop sticker with two statuses and then a removable one used to cover the wrong status and point to the correct one, and I still think it would be nice, but having it printed is probably going to be somewhat expensive, so I shelved the project for the time being.


Lately, however, I've been playing with hexagonal stickers and decided to design something on this topic, whith the result in the figure above, with the hacking sticker being my first choice, and the concentrating alternative probably useful while surrounded by people who may misunderstand the term hacking .

While idly looking around for sticker printing prices I realized that it didn't necessarly have to be a sticker and started to consider alternatives.

One format I'm trying is inspired by "do not disturb" door signs: I've used some laminating pouches I already had around which are slightly bigger than credit-card format (but credit-card size would also work of course ) and cut a notch so that they can be attached to the open lid of a laptop.


They seem to fit well on my laptop lid, and apart from a bad tendency to attract every bit of lint in a radius of a few meters the form factor looks good. I'll try to use them at the next conference to see if they actually work for their intended purpose.

SVG sources (and a PDF) are available on my website under the CC-BY-SA license.

15 November 2015

Manuel A. Fernandez Montecelo: Work on aptitude

Midsummer for me is also known as Noite do Lume Novo (literally New Fire Night ), one of the big calendar events of the year, marking the end of the school year and the beginning of summer. On this day, there are celebrations not very unlike the bonfires in the Guy Fawkes Night in England or Britain [1]. It is a bit different in that it is not a single event for the masses, more of a friends and neighbours thing, and that it lasts for a big chunk of the night (sometimes until morning). Perhaps for some people, or outside bigger towns or cities, Guy Fawkes Night is also celebrated in that way and that's why during the first days of November there are fireworks rocketing and cracking in the neighbourhoods all around. Like many other celebrations around the world involving bonfires, many of them also happening around the summer solstice, it is supposed to be a time of renewal of cycles, purification and keeping the evil spirits away; with rituals to that effect like jumping over the fire when the flames are not high and it is safe enough. So it was fitting that, in the middle of June (almost Midsummer in the northern hemisphere), I learnt that I was about to leave my now-previous job, which is a pretty big signal and precursor for renewal (and it might have something to do with purifying and keeping the evil away as well ;-) ). Whatever... But what does all of this have to do with aptitude or Debian, anyway? For one, it was a question of timing. While looking for a new job (and I am still at it), I had more spare time than usual. DebConf 15 @ Heidelberg was within sight, and for the first time circumstances allowed me to attend this event. It also coincided with the time when I re-gained access to commit to aptitude on the 19th of June. Which means Renewal. End of June was also the time of the announcement of the colossal GCC-5/C++11 ABI transition in Debian, that was scheduled to start on the 1st of August, just before the DebConf. Between 2 and 3 thousand source packages in Debian were affected by this transition, which a few months later is not yet finished (although the most important parts were completed by mid-end September). aptitude itself is written in C++, and depends on several libraries written in C++, like Boost, Xapian and SigC++. All of them had to be compiled with the new C++11 ABI of GCC-5, in unison and in a particular order, for aptitude to continue to work (and for minimal breakage). aptitude and some dependencies did not even compile straight away, so this transition meant that aptitude needed attention just to keep working. Having recently being awarded again with the Aptitude Hat, attending DebConf for the first time and sailing towards the Transition Maelstrom, it was a clear sign that Something Had to Be Done (to avoid the sideways looks and consequent shame at DebConf, if nothing else). Happily (or a bit unhappily for me, but let's pretend...), with the unexpected free time in my hands, I changed the plans that I had before re-gaining the Aptitude Hat (some of them involving Debian, but in other ways maybe I will post about that soon). In July I worked to fix the problems before the transition started, so aptitude would be (mostly) ready, or in the worst case broken only for a few days, while the chain of dependencies was rebuilt. But apart from the changes needed for the new GCC-5, it was decided at the last minute that Boost 1.55 would not be rebuilt with the new ABI, and that the only version with the new ABI would be 1.58 (which caused further breakage in aptitude, was added to experimental only a few days before, and was moved to unstable after the transition had started). Later, in the first days of the transition, aptitude was affected for a few days by breakage in the dependencies, due to not being compiled in sequence according to the transition levels (so with a mix of old and new ABI). With the critical intervention of Axel Beckert (abe / XTaran), things were not so bad as they could have been. He was busy testing and uploading in the critical days when I was enjoying a small holiday on my way to DebConf, with minimal internet access and communicating almost exclusively with him; and he promptly tended the complaints arriving in the Bug Tracking System and asked for rebuilds of the dependencies with the new ABI. He also brought the packaging up to shape, which had decayed a bit in the last few years. Gruesome Challenges But not all was solved yet, more storms were brewing and started to appear in the horizon, in the form of clouds of fire coming from nearby realms. The APT Deities, which had long ago spilled out their secret, inner challenge (just the initial paragraphs), were relentless. Moreover, they were present at Heidelberg in full force, in or close to their home grounds, and they were Marching Decidedly towards Victory: apt BTS Graph, 2015-11-15 In the talk @ DebConf This APT has Super Cow Powers (video available), by David Kalnischkies, they told us about the niceties of apt 1.1 (still in experimental but hopefully coming to unstable soon), and they boasted about getting the lead in our arms race (should I say bugs race?) by a few open bug reports. This act of provocation further escalated the tensions. The fierce competition which had been going on for some time gained new heights. So much so that APT Deities and our team had to sit together in the outdoor areas of the venue and have many a weissbier together, while discussing and fixing bugs. But beneath the calm on the surface, and while pretending to keep good diplomatic relations, I knew that Something Had to Be Done, again. So I could only do one thing jump over the bonfire and Keep the Evil away, be that Keep Evil bugs Away or Keep Evil APT Deities Away from winning the challenge, or both. After returning from DebConf I continued to dedicate time to the project, more than a full time job in some weeks, and this is what happened in the last few months, summarised in another graph, showing the evolution of the BTS for aptitude: aptitude BTS Graph, 2015-11-15 The numbers for apt right now (15th November 2015) are: The numbers for aptitude right now are: The Aftermath As we can see, for the time being I could keep the Evil at bay, both in terms of bugs themselves and re-gaining the lead in the bugs race the Evil APT Deities were thwarted again in their efforts. ... More seriously, as most of you suspected, the graph above is not the whole truth, so I don't want to boast too much. A big part of the reduction in the number of bugs is because of merging duplicates, closing obsolete bugs, applying translations coming from multiple contributors, or simple fixes like typos and useful suggestions needing minor changes. Many of remaining problems are comparatively more difficult or time consuming that the ones addressed so far (except perhaps avoiding the immediate breakage of the transition, that took weeks to solve), and there are many important problems still there, chief among those is aptitude offering very poor solutions to resolve conflicts. Still, even the simplest of the changes takes effort, and triaging hundreds of bugs is not fun at all and mostly a thankless effort althought there is the occasionally kind soul that thanks you for handling a decade-old bug. If being subjected to the rigours of the BTS and reading and solving hundreds of bug reports is not Purification, I don't know what it is. Apart from the triaging, there were 118 bugs closed (or pending) due to changes made in the upstream part or the packaging in the last few months, and there are many changes that are not reflected in bugs closed (like most of the changes needed due to the C++11 ABI transition, bugs and problems fixed that had no report, and general rejuvenation or improvement of some parts of the code). How long this will last, I cannot know. I hope to find a job at some point, which obviously will reduce the time available to work on this. But in the meantime, for all aptitude users: Enjoy the fixes and new features! Notes [1] ^ Some visitors of the recent mini-DebConf @ Cambridge perhaps thought that the fireworks and throngs gathered were in honour of our mighty Universal Operating System, but sadly they were not. They might be, some day. In any case, the reports say that the visitors enjoyed the fireworks.

6 November 2015

Andrew Cater: MiniDebconf Cambridge ARM, Cambridge 1020 6 November

Back here. Now a silent room - seven people on laptops in the Video Sprint rooom. A couple of low-key mutterings as various "stuff" is attempted to be ported.

Last night most folk watched the fireworks - November 5th is the celebration in UK which involves fireworks. [Obligatory Wikipedia link ]

Cambridge has a huge free public display and it was apparently well worth watching.

A side conversation on keyboards - Belgians, UK English, Germans - but most of us have US English layout in our touch typing fingers, I suspect. Changing keyboards is fun :)

I may have been talked into packaging something for Debian for the first time in a very long time :)

22 December 2014

Michael Prokop: Ten years of Grml

* On 22nd of October 2004 an event called OS04 took place in Seifenfabrik Graz/Austria and it marked the first official release of the Grml project. Grml was initially started by myself in 2003 I registered the domain on September 16, 2003 (so technically it would be 11 years already :)). It started with a boot-disk, first created by hand and then based on yard. On 4th of October 2004 we had a first presentation of grml 0.09 Codename Bughunter at Kunstlabor in Graz. I managed to talk a good friend and fellow student Martin Hecher into joining me. Soon after Michael Gebetsroither and Andreas Gredler joined and throughout the upcoming years further team members (Nico Golde, Daniel K. Gebhart, Mario Lang, Gerfried Fuchs, Matthias Kopfermann, Wolfgang Scheicher, Julius Plenz, Tobias Klauser, Marcel Wichern, Alexander Wirt, Timo Boettcher, Ulrich Dangel, Frank Terbeck, Alexander Steinb ck, Christian Hofstaedtler) and contributors (Hermann Thomas, Andreas Krennmair, Sven Guckes, Jogi Hofm ller, Moritz Augsburger, ) joined our efforts. Back in those days most efforts went into hardware detection, loading and setting up the according drivers and configurations, packaging software and fighting bugs with lots of reboots (working on our custom /linuxrc for the initrd wasn t always fun). Throughout the years virtualization became more broadly available, which is especially great for most of the testing you need to do when working on your own (meta) distribution. Once upon a time udev became available and solved most of the hardware detection issues for us. Nowadays doesn t even need a xorg.conf file anymore (at least by default). We have to acknowledge that Linux grew up over the years quite a bit (and I m wondering how we ll look back at the systemd discussions in a few years). By having Debian Developers within the team we managed to push quite some work of us back to Debian (the distribution Grml was and still is based on), years before the Debian Derivatives initiative appeared. We never stopped contributing to Debian though and we also still benefit from the Debian Derivatives initiative, like sharing issues and ideas on DebConf meetings. On 28th of May 2009 I myself became an official Debian Developer. Over the years we moved from private self-hosted infrastructure to company-sponsored systems, migrated from Subversion (brr) to Mercurial (2006) to Git (2008). Our Zsh-related work became widely known as grml-zshrc. managed to become a continuous integration/deployment/delivery home e.g. for the dpkg, fai, initramfs-tools, screen and zsh Debian packages. The underlying software for creating Debian packages in a CI/CD way became its own project known as jenkins-debian-glue in August 2011. In 2006 I started grml-debootstrap, which grew into a reliable method for installing plain Debian (nowadays even supporting installation as VM, and one of my customers does tens of deployments per day with grml-debootstrap in a fully automated fashion). So one of the biggest achievements of Grml is from my point of view that it managed to grow several active and successful sub-projects under its umbrella. Nowadays the Grml team consists of 3 Debian Developers Alexander Wirt (formorer), Evgeni Golov (Zhenech) and myself. We couldn t talk Frank Terbeck (ft) into becoming a DM/DD (yet?), but he s an active part of our Grml team nonetheless and does a terrific job with maintaining grml-zshrc as well as helping out in Debian s Zsh packaging (and being a Zsh upstream committer at the same time makes all of that even better :)). My personal conclusion for 10 years of Grml? Back in the days when I was a student Grml was my main personal pet and hobby. Grml grew into an open source project which wasn t known just in Graz/Austria, but especially throughout the German system administration scene. Since 2008 I m working self-employed and mainly working on open source stuff, so I m kind of living a dream, which I didn t even have when I started with Grml in 2003. Nowadays with running my own business and having my own family it s getting harder for me to consider it still a hobby though, instead it s more integrated and part of my business which I personally consider both good and bad at the same time (for various reasons). Thanks so much to anyone of you, who was (and possibly still is) part of the Grml journey! Let s hope for another 10 successful years! Thanks to Max Amanshauser and Christian Hofstaedtler for reading drafts of this.

24 September 2012

Felipe Augusto van de Wiel: 24 Sep 2012

A new journey ahead
Changing jobs and moving to a new country... it's just the beginning.

On September 30th, 2012 I'm moving to Menlo Park, CA, USA because back in December 2011 I accepted a job offer as a sysadmin (the name is fancier: Operations Engineer) in Silicon Valley. Since then I'm working on the required documentation, so far everything had worked out. I'm starting at the new work on October 8th, and as I'm arriving on October 1st, I'll have a week to take a look around and get to know a tiny bit of San Francisco Bay Area.

In different levels and aspects it is a big opportunity for me, and I'm confident it'll be an unique experience, not only professional, which of course involves working in a bigger company with more complex scenarios and bigger challenges, and on the personal side, I'll live abroad, be an expat.

As you may imagine, I'm working on this process for more or less 10 months, but in the last 30 days it got more intense. Quitting my jobs, organizing my stuff, cleaning part of backlog (and finding out a have a huge to-do list awaiting for me). Spending quality time with family and friends, and also saying goodbye to them. Finishing some aspects of the move (travel tickets, temporary living).

It's new, it's different! I'm super excited and I do want to change a few things to make it easier for family and friends to keep up, make it easier to follow the news, which might help with the distance.
And now for something completely different! See you all pretty soon! :-)

15 April 2012

Richard Hartmann: All aboard the Choo Choo train!

All aboard the Choo Choo train! As some of you know, we are planning our trip on the Trans-Siberian (well, Trans-Mongolian to be exact) railway, at the moment. Given the wall of text my post about Svalbard turned out to be, I am trying to split early and often. The plan Our three-week itinerary is pretty much fixed, by now: Visa issues Not wanting to just book any random package with any random travel agent, we are picking and mixing our own, as usual. Given visa requirements, language barriers and things that are plain weird, it's been an interesting ride before we even pack our bags a month or two from now. Being European, visas are something that do not concern us a lot, normally. I am starting to realize how incredibly lucky we are... barring India, we never needed to do much to be allowed to enter any foreign country. Not so on this trip... While Mongolia has rather lax, or let's just say reasonable, terms, China and Russia are different. To get a visa for Russia, you need: For China, you need to provide a night-to-night itinerary of hotel stays. This may be a remnant of Mao's philosophy of restricting free movement of the population within China, I don't know. On the plus side, they don't require an invitation, health insurance or means of industrial espionage. With processing times ranging from one to four weeks per visa, you will wait one to two months until your passports are back with you and properly visa'ed by everyone. Tickets, please Purchasing tickets in advance, but not through a travel agent, is turning out to be rather complicated. As you can not book train tickets with RZD, the Russian rail company, more than 45 days in advance, you end up with nice circular dependencies. We could pay a premium for faster processing of our visas and buy via travel agencies which sell train tickets from their special contingents, but that's kinda boring, innit? Also, offers Russian order forms, only. With the help of Google translate, ##russian on, and a lot of guess-work, we were able to hammer out the connections from Moscow to Novosibirsk and from there on to Irkutsk. Yet, it's quite a different experience not to not be able to fall back to English. No matter where we went in the past, English was the lingua franca, at least to some extent. That's not the case in any of our three intended destinations so those phrase books will get used a lot, I suspect... We are still not sure if the 4-people cabins in second class have a door, let alone one that can be locked, but we decided that this is not too much of an issue. Generally speaking, people are nice and there are train attendants so crime should not be an issue. And even if things do disappear, as long as we stay healthy and I still have one of my several copies of all photos I will take, I will be reasonably happy. As to getting from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator... even a Russian travel agent we contacted claimed you can only purchase tickets on site, not online. From Ulan Bator to Beijing, it's a different booking system. And from Beijing to Shanghai, it's yet another one. This is the most fragmented booking process we ever went through. Other than a few moments of stress and frustration, the hunting for information, cross-referencing and having the occasional eureka moment is tons of fun, though; no complaints here. When in Rome... According to Lonely Planet, the Trans-Siberian is more or less one large picnic where everyone shares whatever they have with them with everyone else. I poked a few Russians about what typically German food they like and they came up with Frankfurters, mustard, and beer. Guess that's what we will be stuffing our backpack with once everything else is packed. And snuff; apparently it's common courtesy to offer your snuff to other men you meet in Mongolia and then snuff from their bottle. When in Rome... German snuff tends to be mixed with menthol, I suspect that will raise some eyebrows ;) No idea if there is any non-obvious social grease to bring to China; still working on that. Initially, we wanted to tour Mongolia's main attractions, but we would either have to sit in a car for days on end or go by plane. Driving for days in between a solid week(!) spent on trains is not very appealing and neither is breaking our personal ground travel record by cheating flying. Thus, we decided to take the eco-tourism route: After a two-hour orientation course in Mongolian behaviour and manners, we will travel a few hundred kilometers by public bus, be picked up by a local, driven out into the outback and ride from ger to ger by camel and horse before returning to Ulan Bator by bus. The stays at the gers are immersive, if short; we will live with the families, help them do their daily chores, and visit local places of interest in between. Oddly enough, I am looking to forward to the bus ride even more than to the gers. At the gers, at least one person is able to speak basic English. Not so with the local bus. People on the various trains will be used to strangers, as are the families at the gers. People on the bus are, most likely, not. Communicating with hand, foot, phrasebook, and a smile will, hopefully, be a lasting experience. If time permits, we will try to visit borrowers while in Ulan Bator; this is something we never had a chance to do before and it's been on the bucket list for some time, now. As an aside, the local agent in Mongolia asked us if our sleeping bags are rated down to -26 degrees Celsius. I do hope he was joking... On the privileges of living in a first-world country... Travelling by horse means travelling light. Not a problem for us as we pack light by default and still manage to bring everything from Swiss Tool to water bottles, zip ties, medkit, and everything in between. Still, there's one major thing I have been taking for granted all my life: electricity. Being without any source of power for four to five days is... challenging. Even more so as every single gadget I rely on uses a different type of battery. Flashlight: CR123A and AA; GPS: Ni-MH AA rechargeables and Lithium AAA primaries respectively; Laptop, cameras, cell phone, ebook reader, Nintendo DS and MP3 player: proprietary. I am starting to truly understand why NATO has a hard rule of allowing AA-powered devices, only; planning spares is a pain. Obviously, I am focusing on flashlights, GPS, and, above all, cameras. Battery grips with AA adapters to the rescue! Another even more unsettling realization came when I asked if it would be possible to have boodog (vegetarians/vegans: don't click). Mongolians do not usually prepare boodog in spring as the animals which survived the harsh winter need to fatten and breed before being killed for food. All my life, I have never even once considered the remote possibility of not being able to slaughter domesticated animals due to outside constraints. Mongolian nomads need their animals. This is not about wanting to do things one way or another; this is about survival. Quite fascinating, and humbling, to think about. I am incredibly privileged and, as you are reading this, so are you. An exercise for the reader If you have any information regarding: please let me know. As usual, but just a little bit more than usual, comments are appreciated.

7 February 2012

MJ Ray: Stop ACTA Marches Map

Further to last week s blog post that mentioned this Saturday s (11 Feb) London Stop ACTA march, there s a map of anti-ACTA marches on Google s website (thanks to Martin Houston for the link). There s also been a new Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement factsheet from European Digital RIghts (EDRI), as apparently there are a lot of misconceptions about ACTA. I don t feel that has been helped by some spectacular misdirection from the European Commission in its latest 10 Myths paper (linked from the EDRI factsheet) which is almost as interesting for what it doesn t mention (like sneaking ACTA through the parliament fisheries committee), what it misunderstands (like the near-uselessness of a non-commercial exemption to Free and Open Source Software or Creative Commons users), and the way it fails to rebut the final point that ACTA was done this way to avoid the oversight of the World Trade Organisation! I mean, if they can t even get it past the usually very pro-enforcement WTO, surely that should tell you something? If you can, would you please go along and join your nearest march? Recent marchers seem to have been wearing stylised Guy Fawkes masks, but how would that be viewed in London?

19 December 2011

Felipe Augusto van de Wiel: 19 Dec 2011

29 and counting
Time flies... and very fast.

There are so many things I'd like to share and tell you about but that would make a long and boring post, so I'll divide it in future entries, so I can keep this diary alive, keep people informed and tell a little bit about my story. Eventually, I may split this diary into a technical and a non-technical blog, but for now, I will stick around mixing topics. :-) Last time I wrote was back in 2009 at DebConf9 in Spain and a lot of things happened that year. Not only for Debian, but also for me.

My last year studying Computer Science was 2009 and that same year I was working full time, I helped organizing a large event for Computer Students (ENECOMP 2009), we had some troubles and side effects with Influenza A (H1N1) in my city (Curitiba, PR) and towards the end of the year I got really sick (not from Influenza) and it took a while to know what was going, during this process I did hurt some people I really love and I'm truly sorry. The past, 2010 went on as busy and unstable as 2009, my laptop's hard disk broke twice (January and October) and I survived thanks to backup and recovery procedures. I took some wrong decisions but fixed it later and learned a lot from my mistakes, decisions and choices.

Then 2011 came, my laptop's hard disk broke again and I lost almost 6 months of emails, I find out that after the second crash in 2010 part of my backup got b0rk3d. Fine, I didn't die, everything seems to be fine, but I'm still catching up with a lot of work and backlog. At different times one of my parents also got really sick and I learned quite a bit on how to deal with it.

Due to the laptop and the different things going on in my life I didn't work for Debian as much as I want and I still feel guilty. :-( But that's fine, this is a kind of public apologize for my peers in Debian (i18n, mirrors, release), I still want to help all of you, but I still have quite a bit of backlog to clean and quite a few things to learn in the process. And in general, I'm really sorry if I didn't (or I couldn't) work for Debian as much as I want.

Although I'm taking the chance to apologize in this post, I still want to make clear that I'm quite happy. This last year was pretty good, I had the opportunity to attend DebConf again and also got to know Sarajevo and Zagreb. New lessons were learned, better work cycles, nicer solutions. Today I'm completing 29 years old. 29. This is quite some time, not a long ride, but for one reason or another, I have high hopes for 2012 and what awaits me. And I do plan to learn more, to help more and whenever possible, to contribute back.

Last time I wrote here I mentioned about my graduation and another post to talk about that, I'll write about it as soon as I get my diploma (because of different printing problems it was delayed for almost 2 years). And I do plan to write more frequently. :-)

7 October 2011

Matthew Garrett: Margaret Dayhoff

It's become kind of a clich for me to claim that the reason I'm happy working on ACPI and UEFI and similarly arcane pieces of convoluted functionality is that no matter how bad things are there's at least some form of documentation and there's a well-understood language at the heart of them. My PhD was in biology, working on fruitflies. They're a poorly documented set of layering violations which only work because of side-effects at the quantum level, and they tend to die at inconvenient times. They're made up of 165 million bases of a byte code language that's almost impossible to bootstrap[1] and which passes through an intermediate representations before it does anything useful[2]. It's an awful field to try to do rigorous work in because your attempts to impose any kind of meaningful order on what you're looking at are pretty much guaranteed to be sufficiently naive that your results bear a resemblance to reality more by accident than design.

The field of bioinformatics is a fairly young one, and because of that it's very easy to be ignorant of its history. Crick and Watson (and those other people) determined the structure of DNA. Sanger worked out how to sequence proteins and nucleic acids. Some other people made all of these things faster and better and now we have huge sequence databases that mean we can get hold of an intractable quantity of data faster than we could ever plausibly need to, and what else is there to know?

Margaret Dayhoff graduated with a PhD in quantum chemistry from Columbia, where she'd performed computational analysis of various molecules to calculate their resonance energies[3]. The next few years involved plenty of worthwhile research that aren't relevant to the story, so we'll (entirely unfairly) skip forward to the early 60s and the problem of turning a set of sequence fragments into a single sequence. Dayhoff worked on a suite of applications called "Comprotein". The original paper can be downloaded here, and it's a charming look back at a rigorous analysis of a problem that anyone in the field would take for granted these days. Modern fragment assembly involves taking millions of DNA sequence reads and assembling them into an entire genome. In 1960, we were still at the point where it was only just getting impractical to do everything by hand.

This single piece of software was arguably the birth of modern bioinformatics, the creation of a computational method for taking sequence data and turning it into something more useful. But Dayhoff didn't stop there. The 60s brought a growing realisation that small sequence differences between the same protein in related species could give insight into their evolutionary past. In 1965 Dayhoff released the first edition of the Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure, containing all 65 protein sequences that had been determined by then. Around the same time she developed computational methods for analysing the evolutionary relationship of these sequences, helping produce the first computationally generated phylogenetic tree. Her single-letter representation of amino acids was born of necessity[4] but remains the standard for protein sequences. And the atlas of 65 protein sequences developed into the Protein Information Resource, a dial-up database that allowed researchers to download the sequences they were interested in. It's now part of UniProt, the world's largest protein database.

Her contributions to the field were immense. Every aspect of her work on bioinformatics is present in the modern day larger, faster and more capable, but still very much tied to the techniques and concepts she pioneered. And so it still puzzles me that I only heard of her for the first time when I went back to write the introduction to my thesis. She's remembered today in the form of the Margaret Oakley Dayhoff award for women showing high promise in biophysics, having died of a heart attack at only 57.

I don't work on fruitflies any more, and to be honest I'm not terribly upset by that. But it's still somewhat disconcerting that I spent almost 10 years working in a field so defined by one person that I knew so little about. So my contribution to Ada Lovelace day is to highlight a pivotal woman in science who heavily influenced my life without me even knowing.

[1] You think it's difficult bringing up a compiler on a new architecture? Try bringing up a fruitfly from scratch.
[2] Except for the cases where the low-level language itself is functionally significant, and the cases where the intermediate representation is functionally significant.
[3] Something that seems to have involved a lot of putting punch cards through a set of machines, getting new cards out, and repeating. I'm glad I live in the future.
[4] The three-letter representation took up too much space on punch cards

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12 September 2010

Christian Perrier: Release team...

(update: yesterday's version was using as reference, while is the one that's up-to-date. Those watching the current traffic in debian-release can probably realize the huge *thank you* deserved by the entire release team for the work they're doing. So, how about spamming the release team members with (private!) "thank you" messages when they unblock a package of yours? And (even more difficult) also one when they don't unblock your package...but spent time reviewing it and more time to explain you why they prefer not unblocking it... In any case, thank you, Neil Maulkin, Adam adsb, Dann dannf, Felipe faw, Jurij trave11er, Luk luk, Mehdi mehdi, Pierre MadCoder, Julien jcristau (doh, French Cabal!)...and Martin zobel (who's apparently forgotten on the page). Not to forget Adam adsb and Phil phil for managing stable releases....and the Wise Release Wizards (vorlon, aba, luk, HE). Hat off, guys (only guys there, yet another place for d-w to show up).