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13 April 2024

Paul Tagliamonte: Domo Arigato, Mr. debugfs

Years ago, at what I think I remember was DebConf 15, I hacked for a while on debhelper to write build-ids to debian binary control files, so that the build-id (more specifically, the ELF note wound up in the Debian apt archive metadata. I ve always thought this was super cool, and seeing as how Michael Stapelberg blogged some great pointers around the ecosystem, including the fancy new debuginfod service, and the find-dbgsym-packages helper, which uses these same headers, I don t think I m the only one. At work I ve been using a lot of rust, specifically, async rust using tokio. To try and work on my style, and to dig deeper into the how and why of the decisions made in these frameworks, I ve decided to hack up a project that I ve wanted to do ever since 2015 write a debug filesystem. Let s get to it.

Back to the Future Time to admit something. I really love Plan 9. It s just so good. So many ideas from Plan 9 are just so prescient, and everything just feels right. Not just right like, feels good like, correct. The bit that I ve always liked the most is 9p, the network protocol for serving a filesystem over a network. This leads to all sorts of fun programs, like the Plan 9 ftp client being a 9p server you mount the ftp server and access files like any other files. It s kinda like if fuse were more fully a part of how the operating system worked, but fuse is all running client-side. With 9p there s a single client, and different servers that you can connect to, which may be backed by a hard drive, remote resources over something like SFTP, FTP, HTTP or even purely synthetic. The interesting (maybe sad?) part here is that 9p wound up outliving Plan 9 in terms of adoption 9p is in all sorts of places folks don t usually expect. For instance, the Windows Subsystem for Linux uses the 9p protocol to share files between Windows and Linux. ChromeOS uses it to share files with Crostini, and qemu uses 9p (virtio-p9) to share files between guest and host. If you re noticing a pattern here, you d be right; for some reason 9p is the go-to protocol to exchange files between hypervisor and guest. Why? I have no idea, except maybe due to being designed well, simple to implement, and it s a lot easier to validate the data being shared and validate security boundaries. Simplicity has its value. As a result, there s a lot of lingering 9p support kicking around. Turns out Linux can even handle mounting 9p filesystems out of the box. This means that I can deploy a filesystem to my LAN or my localhost by running a process on top of a computer that needs nothing special, and mount it over the network on an unmodified machine unlike fuse, where you d need client-specific software to run in order to mount the directory. For instance, let s mount a 9p filesystem running on my localhost machine, serving requests on (tcp) that goes by the name mountpointname to /mnt.
$ mount -t 9p \
-o trans=tcp,port=564,version=9p2000.u,aname=mountpointname \ \
Linux will mount away, and attach to the filesystem as the root user, and by default, attach to that mountpoint again for each local user that attempts to use it. Nifty, right? I think so. The server is able to keep track of per-user access and authorization along with the host OS.

WHEREIN I STYX WITH IT Since I wanted to push myself a bit more with rust and tokio specifically, I opted to implement the whole stack myself, without third party libraries on the critical path where I could avoid it. The 9p protocol (sometimes called Styx, the original name for it) is incredibly simple. It s a series of client to server requests, which receive a server to client response. These are, respectively, T messages, which transmit a request to the server, which trigger an R message in response (Reply messages). These messages are TLV payload with a very straight forward structure so straight forward, in fact, that I was able to implement a working server off nothing more than a handful of man pages. Later on after the basics worked, I found a more complete spec page that contains more information about the unix specific variant that I opted to use (9P2000.u rather than 9P2000) due to the level of Linux specific support for the 9P2000.u variant over the 9P2000 protocol.

MR ROBOTO The backend stack over at zoo is rust and tokio running i/o for an HTTP and WebRTC server. I figured I d pick something fairly similar to write my filesystem with, since 9P can be implemented on basically anything with I/O. That means tokio tcp server bits, which construct and use a 9p server, which has an idiomatic Rusty API that partially abstracts the raw R and T messages, but not so much as to cause issues with hiding implementation possibilities. At each abstraction level, there s an escape hatch allowing someone to implement any of the layers if required. I called this framework arigato which can be found over on and
/// Simplified version of the arigato File trait; this isn't actually
/// the same trait; there's some small cosmetic differences. The
/// actual trait can be found at:
trait File  
/// OpenFile is the type returned by this File via an Open call.
 type OpenFile: OpenFile;
/// Return the 9p Qid for this file. A file is the same if the Qid is
 /// the same. A Qid contains information about the mode of the file,
 /// version of the file, and a unique 64 bit identifier.
 fn qid(&self) -> Qid;
/// Construct the 9p Stat struct with metadata about a file.
 async fn stat(&self) -> FileResult<Stat>;
/// Attempt to update the file metadata.
 async fn wstat(&mut self, s: &Stat) -> FileResult<()>;
/// Traverse the filesystem tree.
 async fn walk(&self, path: &[&str]) -> FileResult<(Option<Self>, Vec<Self>)>;
/// Request that a file's reference be removed from the file tree.
 async fn unlink(&mut self) -> FileResult<()>;
/// Create a file at a specific location in the file tree.
 async fn create(
&mut self,
name: &str,
perm: u16,
ty: FileType,
mode: OpenMode,
extension: &str,
) -> FileResult<Self>;
/// Open the File, returning a handle to the open file, which handles
 /// file i/o. This is split into a second type since it is genuinely
 /// unrelated -- and the fact that a file is Open or Closed can be
 /// handled by the  arigato  server for us.
 async fn open(&mut self, mode: OpenMode) -> FileResult<Self::OpenFile>;
/// Simplified version of the arigato OpenFile trait; this isn't actually
/// the same trait; there's some small cosmetic differences. The
/// actual trait can be found at:
trait OpenFile  
/// iounit to report for this file. The iounit reported is used for Read
 /// or Write operations to signal, if non-zero, the maximum size that is
 /// guaranteed to be transferred atomically.
 fn iounit(&self) -> u32;
/// Read some number of bytes up to  buf.len()  from the provided
 ///  offset  of the underlying file. The number of bytes read is
 /// returned.
 async fn read_at(
&mut self,
buf: &mut [u8],
offset: u64,
) -> FileResult<u32>;
/// Write some number of bytes up to  buf.len()  from the provided
 ///  offset  of the underlying file. The number of bytes written
 /// is returned.
 fn write_at(
&mut self,
buf: &mut [u8],
offset: u64,
) -> FileResult<u32>;

Thanks, decade ago paultag! Let s do it! Let s use arigato to implement a 9p filesystem we ll call debugfs that will serve all the debug files shipped according to the Packages metadata from the apt archive. We ll fetch the Packages file and construct a filesystem based on the reported Build-Id entries. For those who don t know much about how an apt repo works, here s the 2-second crash course on what we re doing. The first is to fetch the Packages file, which is specific to a binary architecture (such as amd64, arm64 or riscv64). That architecture is specific to a component (such as main, contrib or non-free). That component is specific to a suite, such as stable, unstable or any of its aliases (bullseye, bookworm, etc). Let s take a look at the Packages.xz file for the unstable-debug suite, main component, for all amd64 binaries.
$ curl \ \
This will return the Debian-style rfc2822-like headers, which is an export of the metadata contained inside each .deb file which apt (or other tools that can use the apt repo format) use to fetch information about debs. Let s take a look at the debug headers for the netlabel-tools package in unstable which is a package named netlabel-tools-dbgsym in unstable-debug.
Package: netlabel-tools-dbgsym
Source: netlabel-tools (0.30.0-1)
Version: 0.30.0-1+b1
Installed-Size: 79
Maintainer: Paul Tagliamonte <>
Architecture: amd64
Depends: netlabel-tools (= 0.30.0-1+b1)
Description: debug symbols for netlabel-tools
Auto-Built-Package: debug-symbols
Build-Ids: e59f81f6573dadd5d95a6e4474d9388ab2777e2a
Description-md5: a0e587a0cf730c88a4010f78562e6db7
Section: debug
Priority: optional
Filename: pool/main/n/netlabel-tools/netlabel-tools-dbgsym_0.30.0-1+b1_amd64.deb
Size: 62776
SHA256: 0e9bdb087617f0350995a84fb9aa84541bc4df45c6cd717f2157aa83711d0c60
So here, we can parse the package headers in the Packages.xz file, and store, for each Build-Id, the Filename where we can fetch the .deb at. Each .deb contains a number of files but we re only really interested in the files inside the .deb located at or under /usr/lib/debug/.build-id/, which you can find in debugfs under It s crude, and very single-purpose, but I m feeling a bit lazy.

Who needs dpkg?! For folks who haven t seen it yet, a .deb file is a special type of .ar file, that contains (usually) three files inside debian-binary, control.tar.xz and data.tar.xz. The core of an .ar file is a fixed size (60 byte) entry header, followed by the specified size number of bytes.
[8 byte .ar file magic]
[60 byte entry header]
[N bytes of data]
[60 byte entry header]
[N bytes of data]
[60 byte entry header]
[N bytes of data]
First up was to implement a basic ar parser in Before we get into using it to parse a deb, as a quick diversion, let s break apart a .deb file by hand something that is a bit of a rite of passage (or at least it used to be? I m getting old) during the Debian nm (new member) process, to take a look at where exactly the .debug file lives inside the .deb file.
$ ar x netlabel-tools-dbgsym_0.30.0-1+b1_amd64.deb
$ ls
control.tar.xz debian-binary
data.tar.xz netlabel-tools-dbgsym_0.30.0-1+b1_amd64.deb
$ tar --list -f data.tar.xz   grep '.debug$'
Since we know quite a bit about the structure of a .deb file, and I had to implement support from scratch anyway, I opted to implement a (very!) basic debfile parser using HTTP Range requests. HTTP Range requests, if supported by the server (denoted by a accept-ranges: bytes HTTP header in response to an HTTP HEAD request to that file) means that we can add a header such as range: bytes=8-68 to specifically request that the returned GET body be the byte range provided (in the above case, the bytes starting from byte offset 8 until byte offset 68). This means we can fetch just the ar file entry from the .deb file until we get to the file inside the .deb we are interested in (in our case, the data.tar.xz file) at which point we can request the body of that file with a final range request. I wound up writing a struct to handle a read_at-style API surface in, which we can pair with above and start to find our data in the .deb remotely without downloading and unpacking the .deb at all. After we have the body of the data.tar.xz coming back through the HTTP response, we get to pipe it through an xz decompressor (this kinda sucked in Rust, since a tokio AsyncRead is not the same as an http Body response is not the same as std::io::Read, is not the same as an async (or sync) Iterator is not the same as what the xz2 crate expects; leading me to read blocks of data to a buffer and stuff them through the decoder by looping over the buffer for each lzma2 packet in a loop), and tarfile parser (similarly troublesome). From there we get to iterate over all entries in the tarfile, stopping when we reach our file of interest. Since we can t seek, but gdb needs to, we ll pull it out of the stream into a Cursor<Vec<u8>> in-memory and pass a handle to it back to the user. From here on out its a matter of gluing together a File traited struct in debugfs, and serving the filesystem over TCP using arigato. Done deal!

A quick diversion about compression I was originally hoping to avoid transferring the whole tar file over the network (and therefore also reading the whole debug file into ram, which objectively sucks), but quickly hit issues with figuring out a way around seeking around an xz file. What s interesting is xz has a great primitive to solve this specific problem (specifically, use a block size that allows you to seek to the block as close to your desired seek position just before it, only discarding at most block size - 1 bytes), but data.tar.xz files generated by dpkg appear to have a single mega-huge block for the whole file. I don t know why I would have expected any different, in retrospect. That means that this now devolves into the base case of How do I seek around an lzma2 compressed data stream ; which is a lot more complex of a question. Thankfully, notoriously brilliant tianon was nice enough to introduce me to Jon Johnson who did something super similar adapted a technique to seek inside a compressed gzip file, which lets his service seek through Docker container images super fast based on some prior work such as soci-snapshotter, gztool, and zran.c. He also pulled this party trick off for apk based distros over at, which seems apropos. Jon was nice enough to publish a lot of his work on this specifically in a central place under the name targz on his GitHub, which has been a ton of fun to read through. The gist is that, by dumping the decompressor s state (window of previous bytes, in-memory data derived from the last N-1 bytes) at specific checkpoints along with the compressed data stream offset in bytes and decompressed offset in bytes, one can seek to that checkpoint in the compressed stream and pick up where you left off creating a similar block mechanism against the wishes of gzip. It means you d need to do an O(n) run over the file, but every request after that will be sped up according to the number of checkpoints you ve taken. Given the complexity of xz and lzma2, I don t think this is possible for me at the moment especially given most of the files I ll be requesting will not be loaded from again especially when I can just cache the debug header by Build-Id. I want to implement this (because I m generally curious and Jon has a way of getting someone excited about compression schemes, which is not a sentence I thought I d ever say out loud), but for now I m going to move on without this optimization. Such a shame, since it kills a lot of the work that went into seeking around the .deb file in the first place, given the debian-binary and control.tar.gz members are so small.

The Good First, the good news right? It works! That s pretty cool. I m positive my younger self would be amused and happy to see this working; as is current day paultag. Let s take debugfs out for a spin! First, we need to mount the filesystem. It even works on an entirely unmodified, stock Debian box on my LAN, which is huge. Let s take it for a spin:
$ mount \
-t 9p \
-o trans=tcp,version=9p2000.u,aname=unstable-debug \ \
And, let s prove to ourselves that this actually mounted before we go trying to use it:
$ mount   grep build-id on /usr/lib/debug/.build-id type 9p (rw,relatime,aname=unstable-debug,access=user,trans=tcp,version=9p2000.u,port=564)
Slick. We ve got an open connection to the server, where our host will keep a connection alive as root, attached to the filesystem provided in aname. Let s take a look at it.
$ ls /usr/lib/debug/.build-id/
00 0d 1a 27 34 41 4e 5b 68 75 82 8E 9b a8 b5 c2 CE db e7 f3
01 0e 1b 28 35 42 4f 5c 69 76 83 8f 9c a9 b6 c3 cf dc E7 f4
02 0f 1c 29 36 43 50 5d 6a 77 84 90 9d aa b7 c4 d0 dd e8 f5
03 10 1d 2a 37 44 51 5e 6b 78 85 91 9e ab b8 c5 d1 de e9 f6
04 11 1e 2b 38 45 52 5f 6c 79 86 92 9f ac b9 c6 d2 df ea f7
05 12 1f 2c 39 46 53 60 6d 7a 87 93 a0 ad ba c7 d3 e0 eb f8
06 13 20 2d 3a 47 54 61 6e 7b 88 94 a1 ae bb c8 d4 e1 ec f9
07 14 21 2e 3b 48 55 62 6f 7c 89 95 a2 af bc c9 d5 e2 ed fa
08 15 22 2f 3c 49 56 63 70 7d 8a 96 a3 b0 bd ca d6 e3 ee fb
09 16 23 30 3d 4a 57 64 71 7e 8b 97 a4 b1 be cb d7 e4 ef fc
0a 17 24 31 3e 4b 58 65 72 7f 8c 98 a5 b2 bf cc d8 E4 f0 fd
0b 18 25 32 3f 4c 59 66 73 80 8d 99 a6 b3 c0 cd d9 e5 f1 fe
0c 19 26 33 40 4d 5a 67 74 81 8e 9a a7 b4 c1 ce da e6 f2 ff
Outstanding. Let s try using gdb to debug a binary that was provided by the Debian archive, and see if it ll load the ELF by build-id from the right .deb in the unstable-debug suite:
$ gdb -q /usr/sbin/netlabelctl
Reading symbols from /usr/sbin/netlabelctl...
Reading symbols from /usr/lib/debug/.build-id/e5/9f81f6573dadd5d95a6e4474d9388ab2777e2a.debug...
Yes! Yes it will!
$ file /usr/lib/debug/.build-id/e5/9f81f6573dadd5d95a6e4474d9388ab2777e2a.debug
/usr/lib/debug/.build-id/e5/9f81f6573dadd5d95a6e4474d9388ab2777e2a.debug: ELF 64-bit LSB shared object, x86-64, version 1 (SYSV), dynamically linked, interpreter *empty*, BuildID[sha1]=e59f81f6573dadd5d95a6e4474d9388ab2777e2a, for GNU/Linux 3.2.0, with debug_info, not stripped

The Bad Linux s support for 9p is mainline, which is great, but it s not robust. Network issues or server restarts will wedge the mountpoint (Linux can t reconnect when the tcp connection breaks), and things that work fine on local filesystems get translated in a way that causes a lot of network chatter for instance, just due to the way the syscalls are translated, doing an ls, will result in a stat call for each file in the directory, even though linux had just got a stat entry for every file while it was resolving directory names. On top of that, Linux will serialize all I/O with the server, so there s no concurrent requests for file information, writes, or reads pending at the same time to the server; and read and write throughput will degrade as latency increases due to increasing round-trip time, even though there are offsets included in the read and write calls. It works well enough, but is frustrating to run up against, since there s not a lot you can do server-side to help with this beyond implementing the 9P2000.L variant (which, maybe is worth it).

The Ugly Unfortunately, we don t know the file size(s) until we ve actually opened the underlying tar file and found the correct member, so for most files, we don t know the real size to report when getting a stat. We can t parse the tarfiles for every stat call, since that d make ls even slower (bummer). Only hiccup is that when I report a filesize of zero, gdb throws a bit of a fit; let s try with a size of 0 to start:
$ ls -lah /usr/lib/debug/.build-id/e5/9f81f6573dadd5d95a6e4474d9388ab2777e2a.debug
-r--r--r-- 1 root root 0 Dec 31 1969 /usr/lib/debug/.build-id/e5/9f81f6573dadd5d95a6e4474d9388ab2777e2a.debug
$ gdb -q /usr/sbin/netlabelctl
Reading symbols from /usr/sbin/netlabelctl...
Reading symbols from /usr/lib/debug/.build-id/e5/9f81f6573dadd5d95a6e4474d9388ab2777e2a.debug...
warning: Discarding section which has a section size (24) larger than the file size [in module /usr/lib/debug/.build-id/e5/9f81f6573dadd5d95a6e4474d9388ab2777e2a.debug]
This obviously won t work since gdb will throw away all our hard work because of stat s output, and neither will loading the real size of the underlying file. That only leaves us with hardcoding a file size and hope nothing else breaks significantly as a result. Let s try it again:
$ ls -lah /usr/lib/debug/.build-id/e5/9f81f6573dadd5d95a6e4474d9388ab2777e2a.debug
-r--r--r-- 1 root root 954M Dec 31 1969 /usr/lib/debug/.build-id/e5/9f81f6573dadd5d95a6e4474d9388ab2777e2a.debug
$ gdb -q /usr/sbin/netlabelctl
Reading symbols from /usr/sbin/netlabelctl...
Reading symbols from /usr/lib/debug/.build-id/e5/9f81f6573dadd5d95a6e4474d9388ab2777e2a.debug...
Much better. I mean, terrible but better. Better for now, anyway.

Kilroy was here Do I think this is a particularly good idea? I mean; kinda. I m probably going to make some fun 9p arigato-based filesystems for use around my LAN, but I don t think I ll be moving to use debugfs until I can figure out how to ensure the connection is more resilient to changing networks, server restarts and fixes on i/o performance. I think it was a useful exercise and is a pretty great hack, but I don t think this ll be shipping anywhere anytime soon. Along with me publishing this post, I ve pushed up all my repos; so you should be able to play along at home! There s a lot more work to be done on arigato; but it does handshake and successfully export a working 9P2000.u filesystem. Check it out on on my github at arigato, debugfs and also on and At least I can say I was here and I got it working after all these years.

12 April 2024

Freexian Collaborators: Debian Contributions: SSO Authentication for, /usr-move updates, and more! (by Utkarsh Gupta)

Contributing to Debian is part of Freexian s mission. This article covers the latest achievements of Freexian and their collaborators. All of this is made possible by organizations subscribing to our Long Term Support contracts and consulting services. P.S. We ve completed over a year of writing these blogs. If you have any suggestions on how to make them better or what you d like us to cover, or any other opinions/reviews you might have, et al, please let us know by dropping an email to us. We d be happy to hear your thoughts. :)

SSO Authentication for, by Stefano Rivera s jitsi instance has been getting some abuse by (non-Debian) people sharing sexually explicit content on the service. After playing whack-a-mole with this for a month, and shutting the instance off for another month, we opened it up again and the abuse immediately re-started. Stefano sat down and wrote an SSO Implementation that hooks into Jitsi s existing JWT SSO support. This requires everyone using to have a Salsa account. With only a little bit of effort, we could change this in future, to only require an account to open a room, and allow guests to join the call.

/usr-move, by Helmut Grohne The biggest task this month was sending mitigation patches for all of the /usr-move issues arising from package renames due to the 2038 transition. As a result, we can now say that every affected package in unstable can either be converted with dh-sequence-movetousr or has an open bug report. The package set relevant to debootstrap except for the set that has to be uploaded concurrently has been moved to /usr and is awaiting migration. The move of coreutils happened to affect piuparts which hard codes the location of /bin/sync and received multiple updates as a result.

Miscellaneous contributions
  • Stefano Rivera uploaded a stable release update to python3.11 for bookworm, fixing a use-after-free crash.
  • Stefano uploaded a new version of python-html2text, and updated python3-defaults to build with it.
  • In support of Python 3.12, Stefano dropped distutils as a Build-Dependency from a few packages, and uploaded a complex set of patches to python-mitogen.
  • Stefano landed some merge requests to clean up dead code in dh-python, removed the flit plugin, and uploaded it.
  • Stefano uploaded new upstream versions of twisted, hatchling, python-flexmock, python-authlib, python mitogen, python-pipx, and xonsh.
  • Stefano requested removal of a few packages supporting the Opsis HDMI2USB hardware that DebConf Video team used to use for HDMI capture, as they are not being maintained upstream. They started to FTBFS, with recent sdcc changes.
  • DebConf 24 is getting ready to open registration, Stefano spent some time fixing bugs in the website, caused by infrastructure updates.
  • Stefano reviewed all the DebConf 23 travel reimbursements, filing requests for more information from SPI where our records mismatched.
  • Stefano spun up a Wafer website for the Berlin 2024 mini DebConf.
  • Roberto C. S nchez worked on facilitating the transfer of upstream maintenance responsibility for the dormant Shorewall project to a new team led by the current maintainer of the Shorewall packages in Debian.
  • Colin Watson fixed build failures in celery-haystack-ng, db1-compat, jsonpickle, libsdl-perl, kali, knews, openssh-ssh1, python-json-log-formatter, python-typing-extensions, trn4, vigor, and wcwidth. Some of these were related to the 64-bit time_t transition, since that involved enabling -Werror=implicit-function-declaration.
  • Colin fixed an off-by-one error in neovim, which was already causing a build failure in Ubuntu and would eventually have caused a build failure in Debian with stricter toolchain settings.
  • Colin added an sshd@.service template to openssh to help newer systemd versions make containers and VMs SSH-accessible over AF_VSOCK sockets.
  • Following the xz-utils backdoor, Colin spent some time testing and discussing OpenSSH upstream s proposed inline systemd notification patch, since the current implementation via libsystemd was part of the attack vector used by that backdoor.
  • Utkarsh reviewed and sponsored some Go packages for Lena Voytek and Rajudev.
  • Utkarsh also helped Mitchell Dzurick with the adoption of pyparted package.
  • Helmut sent 10 patches for cross build failures.
  • Helmut partially fixed architecture cross bootstrap tooling to deal with changes in linux-libc-dev and the recent gcc-for-host changes and also fixed a 64bit-time_t FTBFS in libtextwrap.
  • Thorsten Alteholz uploaded several packages from debian-printing: cjet, lprng, rlpr and epson-inkjet-printer-escpr were affected by the newly enabled compiler switch -Werror=implicit-function-declaration. Besides fixing these serious bugs, Thorsten also worked on other bugs and could fix one or the other.
  • Carles updated simplemonitor and python-ring-doorbell packages with new upstream versions.
  • Santiago is still working on the Salsa CI MRs to adapt the build jobs so they can rely on sbuild. Current work includes adapting the images used by the build job, implementing the basic sbuild support the related jobs, and adjusting the support for experimental and *-backports releases..
    Additionally, Santiago reviewed some MR such as Make timeout action explicit in the logs and the subsequent Implement conditional timeout verbosity, and the batch of MRs included in
  • Santiago also reviewed applications for the improving Salsa CI in Debian GSoC 2024 project. We received applications from four very talented candidates. The selection process is currently ongoing. A huge thanks to all of them!
  • As part of the DebConf 24 organization, Santiago has taken part in the Content team discussions.

9 April 2024

Matthew Palmer: How I Tripped Over the Debian Weak Keys Vulnerability

Those of you who haven t been in IT for far, far too long might not know that next month will be the 16th(!) anniversary of the disclosure of what was, at the time, a fairly earth-shattering revelation: that for about 18 months, the Debian OpenSSL package was generating entirely predictable private keys. The recent xz-stential threat (thanks to @nixCraft for making me aware of that one), has got me thinking about my own serendipitous interaction with a major vulnerability. Given that the statute of limitations has (probably) run out, I thought I d share it as a tale of how huh, that s weird can be a powerful threat-hunting tool but only if you ve got the time to keep pulling at the thread.

Prelude to an Adventure Our story begins back in March 2008. I was working at Engine Yard (EY), a now largely-forgotten Rails-focused hosting company, which pioneered several advances in Rails application deployment. Probably EY s greatest claim to lasting fame is that they helped launch a little code hosting platform you might have heard of, by providing them free infrastructure when they were little more than a glimmer in the Internet s eye. I am, of course, talking about everyone s favourite Microsoft product: GitHub. Since GitHub was in the right place, at the right time, with a compelling product offering, they quickly started to gain traction, and grow their userbase. With growth comes challenges, amongst them the one we re focusing on today: SSH login times. Then, as now, GitHub provided SSH access to the git repos they hosted, by SSHing to with publickey authentication. They were using the standard way that everyone manages SSH keys: the ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file, and that became a problem as the number of keys started to grow. The way that SSH uses this file is that, when a user connects and asks for publickey authentication, SSH opens the ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file and scans all of the keys listed in it, looking for a key which matches the key that the user presented. This linear search is normally not a huge problem, because nobody in their right mind puts more than a few keys in their ~/.ssh/authorized_keys, right?
2008-era GitHub giving monkey puppet side-eye to the idea that nobody stores many keys in an authorized_keys file
Of course, as a popular, rapidly-growing service, GitHub was gaining users at a fair clip, to the point that the one big file that stored all the SSH keys was starting to visibly impact SSH login times. This problem was also not going to get any better by itself. Something Had To Be Done. EY management was keen on making sure GitHub ran well, and so despite it not really being a hosting problem, they were willing to help fix this problem. For some reason, the late, great, Ezra Zygmuntowitz pointed GitHub in my direction, and let me take the time to really get into the problem with the GitHub team. After examining a variety of different possible solutions, we came to the conclusion that the least-worst option was to patch OpenSSH to lookup keys in a MySQL database, indexed on the key fingerprint. We didn t take this decision on a whim it wasn t a case of yeah, sure, let s just hack around with OpenSSH, what could possibly go wrong? . We knew it was potentially catastrophic if things went sideways, so you can imagine how much worse the other options available were. Ensuring that this wouldn t compromise security was a lot of the effort that went into the change. In the end, though, we rolled it out in early April, and lo! SSH logins were fast, and we were pretty sure we wouldn t have to worry about this problem for a long time to come. Normally, you d think patching OpenSSH to make mass SSH logins super fast would be a good story on its own. But no, this is just the opening scene.

Chekov s Gun Makes its Appearance Fast forward a little under a month, to the first few days of May 2008. I get a message from one of the GitHub team, saying that somehow users were able to access other users repos over SSH. Naturally, as we d recently rolled out the OpenSSH patch, which touched this very thing, the code I d written was suspect number one, so I was called in to help.
The lineup scene from the movie The Usual Suspects They're called The Usual Suspects for a reason, but sometimes, it really is Keyser S ze
Eventually, after more than a little debugging, we discovered that, somehow, there were two users with keys that had the same key fingerprint. This absolutely shouldn t happen it s a bit like winning the lottery twice in a row1 unless the users had somehow shared their keys with each other, of course. Still, it was worth investigating, just in case it was a web application bug, so the GitHub team reached out to the users impacted, to try and figure out what was going on. The users professed no knowledge of each other, neither admitted to publicising their key, and couldn t offer any explanation as to how the other person could possibly have gotten their key. Then things went from weird to what the ? . Because another pair of users showed up, sharing a key fingerprint but it was a different shared key fingerprint. The odds now have gone from winning the lottery multiple times in a row to as close to this literally cannot happen as makes no difference.
Milhouse from The Simpsons says that We're Through The Looking Glass Here, People
Once we were really, really confident that the OpenSSH patch wasn t the cause of the problem, my involvement in the problem basically ended. I wasn t a GitHub employee, and EY had plenty of other customers who needed my help, so I wasn t able to stay deeply involved in the on-going investigation of The Mystery of the Duplicate Keys. However, the GitHub team did keep talking to the users involved, and managed to determine the only apparent common factor was that all the users claimed to be using Debian or Ubuntu systems, which was where their SSH keys would have been generated. That was as far as the investigation had really gotten, when along came May 13, 2008.

Chekov s Gun Goes Off With the publication of DSA-1571-1, everything suddenly became clear. Through a well-meaning but ultimately disasterous cleanup of OpenSSL s randomness generation code, the Debian maintainer had inadvertently reduced the number of possible keys that could be generated by a given user from bazillions to a little over 32,000. With so many people signing up to GitHub some of them no doubt following best practice and freshly generating a separate key it s unsurprising that some collisions occurred. You can imagine the sense of oooooooh, so that s what s going on! that rippled out once the issue was understood. I was mostly glad that we had conclusive evidence that my OpenSSH patch wasn t at fault, little knowing how much more contact I was to have with Debian weak keys in the future, running a huge store of known-compromised keys and using them to find misbehaving Certificate Authorities, amongst other things.

Lessons Learned While I ve not found a description of exactly when and how Luciano Bello discovered the vulnerability that became CVE-2008-0166, I presume he first came across it some time before it was disclosed likely before GitHub tripped over it. The stable Debian release that included the vulnerable code had been released a year earlier, so there was plenty of time for Luciano to have discovered key collisions and go hmm, I wonder what s going on here? , then keep digging until the solution presented itself. The thought hmm, that s odd , followed by intense investigation, leading to the discovery of a major flaw is also what ultimately brought down the recent XZ backdoor. The critical part of that sequence is the ability to do that intense investigation, though. When I reflect on my brush with the Debian weak keys vulnerability, what sticks out to me is the fact that I didn t do the deep investigation. I wonder if Luciano hadn t found it, how long it might have been before it was found. The GitHub team would have continued investigating, presumably, and perhaps they (or I) would have eventually dug deep enough to find it. But we were all super busy myself, working support tickets at EY, and GitHub feverishly building features and fighting the fires in their rapidly-growing service. As it was, Luciano was able to take the time to dig in and find out what was happening, but just like the XZ backdoor, I feel like we, as an industry, got a bit lucky that someone with the skills, time, and energy was on hand at the right time to make a huge difference. It s a luxury to be able to take the time to really dig into a problem, and it s a luxury that most of us rarely have. Perhaps an understated takeaway is that somehow we all need to wrestle back some time to follow our hunches and really dig into the things that make us go hmm .

Support My Hunches If you d like to help me be able to do intense investigations of mysterious software phenomena, you can shout me a refreshing beverage on ko-fi.
  1. the odds are actually probably more like winning the lottery about twenty times in a row. The numbers involved are staggeringly huge, so it s easiest to just approximate it as really, really unlikely .

2 April 2024

Bits from Debian: Bits from the DPL

Dear Debianites This morning I decided to just start writing Bits from DPL and send whatever I have by 18:00 local time. Here it is, barely proof read, along with all it's warts and grammar mistakes! It's slightly long and doesn't contain any critical information, so if you're not in the mood, don't feel compelled to read it! Get ready for a new DPL! Soon, the voting period will start to elect our next DPL, and my time as DPL will come to an end. Reading the questions posted to the new candidates on debian-vote, it takes quite a bit of restraint to not answer all of them myself, I think I can see how that aspect contributed to me being reeled in to running for DPL! In total I've done so 5 times (the first time I ran, Sam was elected!). Good luck to both Andreas and Sruthi, our current DPL candidates! I've already started working on preparing handover, and there's multiple request from teams that have came in recently that will have to wait for the new term, so I hope they're both ready to hit the ground running! Things that I wish could have gone better Communication Recently, I saw a t-shirt that read:
Adulthood is saying, 'But after this week things will slow down a bit' over and over until you die.
I can relate! With every task, crisis or deadline that appears, I think that once this is over, I'll have some more breathing space to get back to non-urgent, but important tasks. "Bits from the DPL" was something I really wanted to get right this last term, and clearly failed spectacularly. I have two long Bits from the DPL drafts that I never finished, I tend to have prioritised problems of the day over communication. With all the hindsight I have, I'm not sure which is better to prioritise, I do rate communication and transparency very highly and this is really the top thing that I wish I could've done better over the last four years. On that note, thanks to people who provided me with some kind words when I've mentioned this to them before. They pointed out that there are many other ways to communicate and be in touch with the community, and they mentioned that they thought that I did a good job with that. Since I'm still on communication, I think we can all learn to be more effective at it, since it's really so important for the project. Every time I publicly spoke about us spending more money, we got more donations. People out there really like to see how we invest funds in to Debian, instead of just making it heap up. DSA just spent a nice chunk on money on hardware, but we don't have very good visibility on it. It's one thing having it on a public line item in SPI's reporting, but it would be much more exciting if DSA could provide a write-up on all the cool hardware they're buying and what impact it would have on developers, and post it somewhere prominent like debian-devel-announce, Planet Debian or Bits from Debian (from the publicity team). I don't want to single out DSA there, it's difficult and affects many other teams. The Salsa CI team also spent a lot of resources (time and money wise) to extend testing on AMD GPUs and other AMD hardware. It's fantastic and interesting work, and really more people within the project and in the outside world should know about it! I'm not going to push my agendas to the next DPL, but I hope that they continue to encourage people to write about their work, and hopefully at some point we'll build enough excitement in doing so that it becomes a more normal part of our daily work. Founding Debian as a standalone entity This was my number one goal for the project this last term, which was a carried over item from my previous terms. I'm tempted to write everything out here, including the problem statement and our current predicaments, what kind of ground work needs to happen, likely constitutional changes that need to happen, and the nature of the GR that would be needed to make such a thing happen, but if I start with that, I might not finish this mail. In short, I 100% believe that this is still a very high ranking issue for Debian, and perhaps after my term I'd be in a better position to spend more time on this (hmm, is this an instance of "The grass is always better on the other side", or "Next week will go better until I die?"). Anyway, I'm willing to work with any future DPL on this, and perhaps it can in itself be a delegation tasked to properly explore all the options, and write up a report for the project that can lead to a GR. Overall, I'd rather have us take another few years and do this properly, rather than rush into something that is again difficult to change afterwards. So while I very much wish this could've been achieved in the last term, I can't say that I have any regrets here either. My terms in a nutshell COVID-19 and Debian 11 era My first term in 2020 started just as the COVID-19 pandemic became known to spread globally. It was a tough year for everyone, and Debian wasn't immune against its effects either. Many of our contributors got sick, some have lost loved ones (my father passed away in March 2020 just after I became DPL), some have lost their jobs (or other earners in their household have) and the effects of social distancing took a mental and even physical health toll on many. In Debian, we tend to do really well when we get together in person to solve problems, and when DebConf20 got cancelled in person, we understood that that was necessary, but it was still more bad news in a year we had too much of it already. I can't remember if there was ever any kind of formal choice or discussion about this at any time, but the DebConf video team just kind of organically and spontaneously became the orga team for an online DebConf, and that lead to our first ever completely online DebConf. This was great on so many levels. We got to see each other's faces again, even though it was on screen. We had some teams talk to each other face to face for the first time in years, even though it was just on a Jitsi call. It had a lasting cultural change in Debian, some teams still have video meetings now, where they didn't do that before, and I think it's a good supplement to our other methods of communication. We also had a few online Mini-DebConfs that was fun, but DebConf21 was also online, and by then we all developed an online conference fatigue, and while it was another good online event overall, it did start to feel a bit like a zombieconf and after that, we had some really nice events from the Brazillians, but no big global online community events again. In my opinion online MiniDebConfs can be a great way to develop our community and we should spend some further energy into this, but hey! This isn't a platform so let me back out of talking about the future as I see it... Despite all the adversity that we faced together, the Debian 11 release ended up being quite good. It happened about a month or so later than what we ideally would've liked, but it was a solid release nonetheless. It turns out that for quite a few people, staying inside for a few months to focus on Debian bugs was quite productive, and Debian 11 ended up being a very polished release. During this time period we also had to deal with a previous Debian Developer that was expelled for his poor behaviour in Debian, who continued to harass members of the Debian project and in other free software communities after his expulsion. This ended up being quite a lot of work since we had to take legal action to protect our community, and eventually also get the police involved. I'm not going to give him the satisfaction by spending too much time talking about him, but you can read our official statement regarding Daniel Pocock here: In late 2021 and early 2022 we also discussed our general resolution process, and had two consequent votes to address some issues that have affected past votes: In my first term I addressed our delegations that were a bit behind, by the end of my last term all delegation requests are up to date. There's still some work to do, but I'm feeling good that I get to hand this over to the next DPL in a very decent state. Delegation updates can be very deceiving, sometimes a delegation is completely re-written and it was just 1 or 2 hours of work. Other times, a delegation updated can contain one line that has changed or a change in one team member that was the result of days worth of discussion and hashing out differences. I also received quite a few requests either to host a service, or to pay a third-party directly for hosting. This was quite an admin nightmare, it either meant we had to manually do monthly reimbursements to someone, or have our TOs create accounts/agreements at the multiple providers that people use. So, after talking to a few people about this, we founded the DebianNet team (we could've admittedly chosen a better name, but that can happen later on) for providing hosting at two different hosting providers that we have agreement with so that people who host things under have an easy way to host it, and then at the same time Debian also has more control if a site maintainer goes MIA. More info: You might notice some Openstack mentioned there, we had some intention to set up a Debian cloud for hosting these things, that could also be used for other additional Debiany things like archive rebuilds, but these have so far fallen through. We still consider it a good idea and hopefully it will work out some other time (if you're a large company who can sponsor few racks and servers, please get in touch!) DebConf22 and Debian 12 era DebConf22 was the first time we returned to an in-person DebConf. It was a bit smaller than our usual DebConf - understandably so, considering that there were still COVID risks and people who were at high risk or who had family with high risk factors did the sensible thing and stayed home. After watching many MiniDebConfs online, I also attended my first ever MiniDebConf in Hamburg. It still feels odd typing that, it feels like I should've been at one before, but my location makes attending them difficult (on a side-note, a few of us are working on bootstrapping a South African Debian community and hopefully we can pull off MiniDebConf in South Africa later this year). While I was at the MiniDebConf, I gave a talk where I covered the evolution of firmware, from the simple e-proms that you'd find in old printers to the complicated firmware in modern GPUs that basically contain complete operating systems- complete with drivers for the device their running on. I also showed my shiny new laptop, and explained that it's impossible to install that laptop without non-free firmware (you'd get a black display on d-i or Debian live). Also that you couldn't even use an accessibility mode with audio since even that depends on non-free firmware these days. Steve, from the image building team, has said for a while that we need to do a GR to vote for this, and after more discussion at DebConf, I kept nudging him to propose the GR, and we ended up voting in favour of it. I do believe that someone out there should be campaigning for more free firmware (unfortunately in Debian we just don't have the resources for this), but, I'm glad that we have the firmware included. In the end, the choice comes down to whether we still want Debian to be installable on mainstream bare-metal hardware. At this point, I'd like to give a special thanks to the ftpmasters, image building team and the installer team who worked really hard to get the changes done that were needed in order to make this happen for Debian 12, and for being really proactive for remaining niggles that was solved by the time Debian 12.1 was released. The included firmware contributed to Debian 12 being a huge success, but it wasn't the only factor. I had a list of personal peeves, and as the hard freeze hit, I lost hope that these would be fixed and made peace with the fact that Debian 12 would release with those bugs. I'm glad that lots of people proved me wrong and also proved that it's never to late to fix bugs, everything on my list got eliminated by the time final freeze hit, which was great! We usually aim to have a release ready about 2 years after the previous release, sometimes there are complications during a freeze and it can take a bit longer. But due to the excellent co-ordination of the release team and heavy lifting from many DDs, the Debian 12 release happened 21 months and 3 weeks after the Debian 11 release. I hope the work from the release team continues to pay off so that we can achieve their goals of having shorter and less painful freezes in the future! Even though many things were going well, the ongoing usr-merge effort highlighted some social problems within our processes. I started typing out the whole history of usrmerge here, but it's going to be too long for the purpose of this mail. Important questions that did come out of this is, should core Debian packages be team maintained? And also about how far the CTTE should really be able to override a maintainer. We had lots of discussion about this at DebConf22, but didn't make much concrete progress. I think that at some point we'll probably have a GR about package maintenance. Also, thank you to Guillem who very patiently explained a few things to me (after probably having have to done so many times to others before already) and to Helmut who have done the same during the MiniDebConf in Hamburg. I think all the technical and social issues here are fixable, it will just take some time and patience and I have lots of confidence in everyone involved. UsrMerge wiki page: DebConf 23 and Debian 13 era DebConf23 took place in Kochi, India. At the end of my Bits from the DPL talk there, someone asked me what the most difficult thing I had to do was during my terms as DPL. I answered that nothing particular stood out, and even the most difficult tasks ended up being rewarding to work on. Little did I know that my most difficult period of being DPL was just about to follow. During the day trip, one of our contributors, Abraham Raji, passed away in a tragic accident. There's really not anything anyone could've done to predict or stop it, but it was devastating to many of us, especially the people closest to him. Quite a number of DebConf attendees went to his funeral, wearing the DebConf t-shirts he designed as a tribute. It still haunts me when I saw his mother scream "He was my everything! He was my everything!", this was by a large margin the hardest day I've ever had in Debian, and I really wasn't ok for even a few weeks after that and I think the hurt will be with many of us for some time to come. So, a plea again to everyone, please take care of yourself! There's probably more people that love you than you realise. A special thanks to the DebConf23 team, who did a really good job despite all the uphills they faced (and there were many!). As DPL, I think that planning for a DebConf is near to impossible, all you can do is show up and just jump into things. I planned to work with Enrico to finish up something that will hopefully save future DPLs some time, and that is a web-based DD certificate creator instead of having the DPL do so manually using LaTeX. It already mostly works, you can see the work so far by visiting and replacing ACCOUNTNAME with your Debian account name, and if you're a DD, you should see your certificate. It still needs a few minor changes and a DPL signature, but at this point I think that will be finished up when the new DPL start. Thanks to Enrico for working on this! Since my first term, I've been trying to find ways to improve all our accounting/finance issues. Tracking what we spend on things, and getting an annual overview is hard, especially over 3 trusted organisations. The reimbursement process can also be really tedious, especially when you have to provide files in a certain order and combine them into a PDF. So, at DebConf22 we had a meeting along with the treasurer team and Stefano Rivera who said that it might be possible for him to work on a new system as part of his Freexian work. It worked out, and Freexian funded the development of the system since then, and after DebConf23 we handled the reimbursements for the conference via the new reimbursements site: It's still early days, but over time it should be linked to all our TOs and we'll use the same category codes across the board. So, overall, our reimbursement process becomes a lot simpler, and also we'll be able to get information like how much money we've spent on any category in any period. It will also help us to track how much money we have available or how much we spend on recurring costs. Right now that needs manual polling from our TOs. So I'm really glad that this is a big long-standing problem in the project that is being fixed. For Debian 13, we're waving goodbye to the KFreeBSD and mipsel ports. But we're also gaining riscv64 and loongarch64 as release architectures! I have 3 different RISC-V based machines on my desk here that I haven't had much time to work with yet, you can expect some blog posts about them soon after my DPL term ends! As Debian is a unix-like system, we're affected by the Year 2038 problem, where systems that uses 32 bit time in seconds since 1970 run out of available time and will wrap back to 1970 or have other undefined behaviour. A detailed wiki page explains how this works in Debian, and currently we're going through a rather large transition to make this possible. I believe this is the right time for Debian to be addressing this, we're still a bit more than a year away for the Debian 13 release, and this provides enough time to test the implementation before 2038 rolls along. Of course, big complicated transitions with dependency loops that causes chaos for everyone would still be too easy, so this past weekend (which is a holiday period in most of the west due to Easter weekend) has been filled with dealing with an upstream bug in xz-utils, where a backdoor was placed in this key piece of software. An Ars Technica covers it quite well, so I won't go into all the details here. I mention it because I want to give yet another special thanks to everyone involved in dealing with this on the Debian side. Everyone involved, from the ftpmasters to security team and others involved were super calm and professional and made quick, high quality decisions. This also lead to the archive being frozen on Saturday, this is the first time I've seen this happen since I've been a DD, but I'm sure next week will go better! Looking forward It's really been an honour for me to serve as DPL. It might well be my biggest achievement in my life. Previous DPLs range from prominent software engineers to game developers, or people who have done things like complete Iron Man, run other huge open source projects and are part of big consortiums. Ian Jackson even authored dpkg and is now working on the very interesting tag2upload service! I'm a relative nobody, just someone who grew up as a poor kid in South Africa, who just really cares about Debian a lot. And, above all, I'm really thankful that I didn't do anything major to screw up Debian for good. Not unlike learning how to use Debian, and also becoming a Debian Developer, I've learned a lot from this and it's been a really valuable growth experience for me. I know I can't possible give all the thanks to everyone who deserves it, so here's a big big thanks to everyone who have worked so hard and who have put in many, many hours to making Debian better, I consider you all heroes! -Jonathan

25 March 2024

Jonathan Dowland: a bug a day

I recently became a maintainer of/committer to IkiWiki, the software that powers my site. I also took over maintenance of the Debian package. Last week I cut a new upstream point release, 3.20200202.4, and a corresponding Debian package upload, consisting only of a handful of low-hanging-fruit patches from other people, largely to exercise both processes. I've been discussing IkiWiki's maintenance situation with some other users for a couple of years now. I've also weighed up the pros and cons of moving to a different static-site-generator (a term that describes what IkiWiki is, but was actually coined more recently). It turns out IkiWiki is exceptionally flexible and powerful: I estimate the cost of moving to something modern(er) and fashionable such as Jekyll, Hugo or Hakyll as unreasonably high, in part because they are surprisingly rigid and inflexible in some key places. Like most mature software, IkiWiki has a bug backlog. Over the past couple of weeks, as a sort-of "palate cleanser" around work pieces, I've tried to triage one IkiWiki bug per day: either upstream or in the Debian Bug Tracker. This is a really lightweight task: it can be as simple as "find a bug reported in Debian, copy it upstream, tag it upstream, mark it forwarded; perhaps taking 5-10 minutes. Often I'll stumble across something that has already been fixed but not recorded as such as I go. Despite this minimal level of work, I'm quite satisfied with the cumulative progress. It's notable to me how much my perspective has shifted by becoming a maintainer: I'm considering everything through a different lens to that of being just one user. Eventually I will put some time aside to scratch some of my own itches (html5 by default; support dark mode; duckduckgo plugin; use the details tag...) but for now this minimal exercise is of broader use.

24 March 2024

Marco d'Itri: CISPE's call for new regulations on VMware

A few days ago CISPE, a trade association of European cloud providers, published a press release complaining about the new VMware licensing scheme and asking for regulators and legislators to intervene. But VMware does not have a monopoly on virtualization software: I think that asking regulators to interfere is unnecessary and unwise, unless, of course, they wish to question the entire foundations of copyright. Which, on the other hand, could be an intriguing position that I would support... I believe that over-reliance on a single supplier is a typical enterprise risk: in the past decade some companies have invested in developing their own virtualization infrastructure using free software, while others have decided to rely entirely on a single proprietary software vendor. My only big concern is that many public sector organizations will continue to use VMware and pay the huge fees designed by Broadcom to extract the maximum amount of money from their customers. However, it is ultimately the citizens who pay these bills, and blaming the evil US corporation is a great way to avoid taking responsibility for these choices.
"Several CISPE members have stated that without the ability to license and use VMware products they will quickly go bankrupt and out of business."
Insert here the Jeremy Clarkson "Oh no! Anyway..." meme.

19 March 2024

Colin Watson: apt install everything?

On Mastodon, the question came up of how Ubuntu would deal with something like the npm install everything situation. I replied:
Ubuntu is curated, so it probably wouldn t get this far. If it did, then the worst case is that it would get in the way of CI allowing other packages to be removed (again from a curated system, so people are used to removal not being self-service); but the release team would have no hesitation in removing a package like this to fix that, and it certainly wouldn t cause this amount of angst. If you did this in a PPA, then I can t think of any particular negative effects.
OK, if you added lots of build-dependencies (as well as run-time dependencies) then you might be able to take out a builder. But Launchpad builders already run arbitrary user-submitted code by design and are therefore very carefully sandboxed and treated as ephemeral, so this is hardly novel. There s a lot to be said for the arrangement of having a curated system for the stuff people actually care about plus an ecosystem of add-on repositories. PPAs cover a wide range of levels of developer activity, from throwaway experiments to quasi-official distribution methods; there are certainly problems that arise from it being difficult to tell the difference between those extremes and from there being no systematic confinement, but for this particular kind of problem they re very nearly ideal. (Canonical has tried various other approaches to software distribution, and while they address some of the problems, they aren t obviously better at helping people make reliable social judgements about code they don t know.) For a hypothetical package with a huge number of dependencies, to even try to upload it directly to Ubuntu you d need to be an Ubuntu developer with upload rights (or to go via Debian, where you d have to clear a similar hurdle). If you have those, then the first upload has to pass manual review by an archive administrator. If your package passes that, then it still has to build and get through proposed-migration CI before it reaches anything that humans typically care about. On the other hand, if you were inclined to try this sort of experiment, you d almost certainly try it in a PPA, and that would trouble nobody but yourself.

13 March 2024

Freexian Collaborators: Debian Contributions: Upcoming Improvements to Salsa CI, /usr-move, packaging simplemonitor, and more! (by Utkarsh Gupta)

Contributing to Debian is part of Freexian s mission. This article covers the latest achievements of Freexian and their collaborators. All of this is made possible by organizations subscribing to our Long Term Support contracts and consulting services.

/usr-move, by Helmut Grohne Much of the work was spent on handling interaction with time time64 transition and sending patches for mitigating fallout. The set of packages relevant to debootstrap is mostly converted and the patches for glibc and base-files have been refined due to feedback from the upload to Ubuntu noble. Beyond this, he sent patches for all remaining packages that cannot move their files with dh-sequence-movetousr and packages using dpkg-divert in ways that dumat would not recognize.

Upcoming improvements to Salsa CI, by Santiago Ruano Rinc n Last month, Santiago Ruano Rinc n started the work on integrating sbuild into the Salsa CI pipeline. Initially, Santiago used sbuild with the unshare chroot mode. However, after discussion with josch, jochensp and helmut (thanks to them!), it turns out that the unshare mode is not the most suitable for the pipeline, since the level of isolation it provides is not needed, and some test suites would fail (eg: krb5). Additionally, one of the requirements of the build job is the use of ccache, since it is needed by some C/C++ large projects to reduce the compilation time. In the preliminary work with unshare last month, it was not possible to make ccache to work. Finally, Santiago changed the chroot mode, and now has a couple of POC (cf: 1 and 2) that rely on the schroot and sudo, respectively. And the good news is that ccache is successfully used by sbuild with schroot! The image here comes from an example of building grep. At the end of the build, ccache -s shows the statistics of the cache that it used, and so a little more than half of the calls of that job were cacheable. The most important pieces are in place to finish the integration of sbuild into the pipeline. Other than that, Santiago also reviewed the very useful merge request !346, made by IOhannes zm lnig to autodetect the release from debian/changelog. As agreed with IOhannes, Santiago is preparing a merge request to include the release autodetection use case in the very own Salsa CI s CI.

Packaging simplemonitor, by Carles Pina i Estany Carles started using simplemonitor in 2017, opened a WNPP bug in 2022 and started packaging simplemonitor dependencies in October 2023. After packaging five direct and indirect dependencies, Carles finally uploaded simplemonitor to unstable in February. During the packaging of simplemonitor, Carles reported a few issues to upstream. Some of these were to make the simplemonitor package build and run tests reproducibly. A reproducibility issue was reprotest overriding the timezone, which broke simplemonitor s tests. There have been discussions on resolving this upstream in simplemonitor and in reprotest, too. Carles also started upgrading or improving some of simplemonitor s dependencies.

Miscellaneous contributions
  • Stefano Rivera spent some time doing admin on infrastructure. Including dealing with a spike of abuse on the Jitsi server.
  • Stefano started to prepare a new release of dh-python, including cleaning out a lot of old Python 2.x related code. Thanks to Niels Thykier (outside Freexian) for spear-heading this work.
  • DebConf 24 planning is beginning. Stefano discussed venues and finances with the local team and remotely supported a site-visit by Nattie (outside Freexian).
  • Also in the DebConf 24 context, Santiago took part in discussions and preparations related to the Content Team.
  • A JIT bug was reported against pypy3 in Debian Bookworm. Stefano bisected the upstream history to find the patch (it was already resolved upstream) and released an update to pypy3 in bookworm.
  • Enrico participated in /usr-merge discussions with Helmut.
  • Colin Watson backported a python-channels-redis fix to bookworm, rediscovered while working on debusine.
  • Colin dug into a cluster of celery build failures and tracked the hardest bit down to a Python 3.12 regression, now fixed in unstable. celery should be back in testing once the 64-bit time_t migration is out of the way.
  • Thorsten Alteholz uploaded a new upstream version of cpdb-libs. Unfortunately upstream changed the naming of their release tags, so updating the watch file was a bit demanding. Anyway this version 2.0 is a huge step towards introduction of the new Common Print Dialog Backends.
  • Helmut send patches for 48 cross build failures.
  • Helmut changed debvm to use mkfs.ext4 instead of genext2fs.
  • Helmut sent a debci MR for improving collector robustness.
  • In preparation for DebConf 25, Santiago worked on the Brest Bid.

25 February 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: The Fund

Review: The Fund, by Rob Copeland
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Copyright: 2023
ISBN: 1-250-27694-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 310
I first became aware of Ray Dalio when either he or his publisher plastered advertisements for The Principles all over the San Francisco 4th and King Caltrain station. If I recall correctly, there were also constant radio commercials; it was a whole thing in 2017. My brain is very good at tuning out advertisements, so my only thought at the time was "some business guy wrote a self-help book." I think I vaguely assumed he was a CEO of some traditional business, since that's usually who writes heavily marketed books like this. I did not connect him with hedge funds or Bridgewater, which I have a bad habit of confusing with Blackwater. The Principles turns out to be more of a laundered cult manual than a self-help book. And therein lies a story. Rob Copeland is currently with The New York Times, but for many years he was the hedge fund reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He covered, among other things, Bridgewater Associates, the enormous hedge fund founded by Ray Dalio. The Fund is a biography of Ray Dalio and a history of Bridgewater from its founding as a vehicle for Dalio's advising business until 2022 when Dalio, after multiple false starts and title shuffles, finally retired from running the company. (Maybe. Based on the history recounted here, it wouldn't surprise me if he was back at the helm by the time you read this.) It is one of the wildest, creepiest, and most abusive business histories that I have ever read. It's probably worth mentioning, as Copeland does explicitly, that Ray Dalio and Bridgewater hate this book and claim it's a pack of lies. Copeland includes some of their denials (and many non-denials that sound as good as confirmations to me) in footnotes that I found increasingly amusing.
A lawyer for Dalio said he "treated all employees equally, giving people at all levels the same respect and extending them the same perks."
Uh-huh. Anyway, I personally know nothing about Bridgewater other than what I learned here and the occasional mention in Matt Levine's newsletter (which is where I got the recommendation for this book). I have no independent information whether anything Copeland describes here is true, but Copeland provides the typical extensive list of notes and sourcing one expects in a book like this, and Levine's comments indicated it's generally consistent with Bridgewater's industry reputation. I think this book is true, but since the clear implication is that the world's largest hedge fund was primarily a deranged cult whose employees mostly spied on and rated each other rather than doing any real investment work, I also have questions, not all of which Copeland answers to my satisfaction. But more on that later. The center of this book are the Principles. These were an ever-changing list of rules and maxims for how people should conduct themselves within Bridgewater. Per Copeland, although Dalio later published a book by that name, the version of the Principles that made it into the book was sanitized and significantly edited down from the version used inside the company. Dalio was constantly adding new ones and sometimes changing them, but the common theme was radical, confrontational "honesty": never being silent about problems, confronting people directly about anything that they did wrong, and telling people all of their faults so that they could "know themselves better." If this sounds like textbook abusive behavior, you have the right idea. This part Dalio admits to openly, describing Bridgewater as a firm that isn't for everyone but that achieves great results because of this culture. But the uncomfortably confrontational vibes are only the tip of the iceberg of dysfunction. Here are just a few of the ways this played out according to Copeland: In one of the common and all-too-disturbing connections between Wall Street finance and the United States' dysfunctional government, James Comey (yes, that James Comey) ran internal security for Bridgewater for three years, meaning that he was the one who pulled evidence from surveillance cameras for Dalio to use to confront employees during his trials. In case the cult vibes weren't strong enough already, Bridgewater developed its own idiosyncratic language worthy of Scientology. The trials were called "probings," firing someone was called "sorting" them, and rating them was called "dotting," among many other Bridgewater-specific terms. Needless to say, no one ever probed Dalio himself. You will also be completely unsurprised to learn that Copeland documents instances of sexual harassment and discrimination at Bridgewater, including some by Dalio himself, although that seems to be a relatively small part of the overall dysfunction. Dalio was happy to publicly humiliate anyone regardless of gender. If you're like me, at this point you're probably wondering how Bridgewater continued operating for so long in this environment. (Per Copeland, since Dalio's retirement in 2022, Bridgewater has drastically reduced the cult-like behaviors, deleted its archive of probings, and de-emphasized the Principles.) It was not actually a religious cult; it was a hedge fund that has to provide investment services to huge, sophisticated clients, and by all accounts it's a very successful one. Why did this bizarre nightmare of a workplace not interfere with Bridgewater's business? This, I think, is the weakest part of this book. Copeland makes a few gestures at answering this question, but none of them are very satisfying. First, it's clear from Copeland's account that almost none of the employees of Bridgewater had any control over Bridgewater's investments. Nearly everyone was working on other parts of the business (sales, investor relations) or on cult-related obsessions. Investment decisions (largely incorporated into algorithms) were made by a tiny core of people and often by Dalio himself. Bridgewater also appears to not trade frequently, unlike some other hedge funds, meaning that they probably stay clear of the more labor-intensive high-frequency parts of the business. Second, Bridgewater took off as a hedge fund just before the hedge fund boom in the 1990s. It transformed from Dalio's personal consulting business and investment newsletter to a hedge fund in 1990 (with an earlier investment from the World Bank in 1987), and the 1990s were a very good decade for hedge funds. Bridgewater, in part due to Dalio's connections and effective marketing via his newsletter, became one of the largest hedge funds in the world, which gave it a sort of institutional momentum. No one was questioned for putting money into Bridgewater even in years when it did poorly compared to its rivals. Third, Dalio used the tried and true method of getting free publicity from the financial press: constantly predict an upcoming downturn, and aggressively take credit whenever you were right. From nearly the start of his career, Dalio predicted economic downturns year after year. Bridgewater did very well in the 2000 to 2003 downturn, and again during the 2008 financial crisis. Dalio aggressively takes credit for predicting both of those downturns and positioning Bridgewater correctly going into them. This is correct; what he avoids mentioning is that he also predicted downturns in every other year, the majority of which never happened. These points together create a bit of an answer, but they don't feel like the whole picture and Copeland doesn't connect the pieces. It seems possible that Dalio may simply be good at investing; he reads obsessively and clearly enjoys thinking about markets, and being an abusive cult leader doesn't take up all of his time. It's also true that to some extent hedge funds are semi-free money machines, in that once you have a sufficient quantity of money and political connections you gain access to investment opportunities and mechanisms that are very likely to make money and that the typical investor simply cannot access. Dalio is clearly good at making personal connections, and invested a lot of effort into forming close ties with tricky clients such as pools of Chinese money. Perhaps the most compelling explanation isn't mentioned directly in this book but instead comes from Matt Levine. Bridgewater touts its algorithmic trading over humans making individual trades, and there is some reason to believe that consistently applying an algorithm without regard to human emotion is a solid trading strategy in at least some investment areas. Levine has asked in his newsletter, tongue firmly in cheek, whether the bizarre cult-like behavior and constant infighting is a strategy to distract all the humans and keep them from messing with the algorithm and thus making bad decisions. Copeland leaves this question unsettled. Instead, one comes away from this book with a clear vision of the most dysfunctional workplace I have ever heard of, and an endless litany of bizarre events each more astonishing than the last. If you like watching train wrecks, this is the book for you. The only drawback is that, unlike other entries in this genre such as Bad Blood or Billion Dollar Loser, Bridgewater is a wildly successful company, so you don't get the schadenfreude of seeing a house of cards collapse. You do, however, get a helpful mental model to apply to the next person who tries to talk to you about "radical honesty" and "idea meritocracy." The flaw in this book is that the existence of an organization like Bridgewater is pointing to systematic flaws in how our society works, which Copeland is largely uninterested in interrogating. "How could this have happened?" is a rather large question to leave unanswered. The sheer outrageousness of Dalio's behavior also gets a bit tiring by the end of the book, when you've seen the patterns and are hearing about the fourth variation. But this is still an astonishing book, and a worthy entry in the genre of capitalism disasters. Rating: 7 out of 10

18 February 2024

Iustin Pop: New skis , new fun!

As I wrote a bit back, I had a really, really bad fourth quarter in 2023. As new years approached, and we were getting ready to go on a ski trip, I wasn t even sure if and how much I ll be able to ski. And I felt so out of it that I didn t even buy a ski pass for the whole week, just bought one day to see if a) I still like, and b) my knee can deal with it. And, of course, it was good. It was good enough that I ended up skiing the entire week, and my knee got better during the week. WTH?! I don t understand this anymore, but it was good. Good enough that this early year trip put me back on track and I started doing sports again. But the main point is, that during this ski week, and talking to the teacher, I realised that my ski equipment is getting a bit old. I bought everything roughly ten years ago, and while they still hold up OK, my ski skills have improved since then. I said to myself, 10 years is a good run, I ll replace this year the skis, next year the boot & helmet, etc. I didn t expect much from new skis - I mean, yes, better skis, but what does better mean? Well, once I ve read enough forum posts, apparently the skis I selected are that good , which to me meant they re not bad. Oh my, how wrong I was! Double, triple wrong! Rather than fighting with the skis, it s enough to think what I wand to do, and the skis do it. I felt OK-ish, maybe 10% limited by my previous skis, but the new skis are really good and also I know that I m just at 30% or so of the new skis - so room to grow. For now, I am able to ski faster, longer, and I feel less tired than before. I ve actually compared and I can do twice the distance in a day and feel slightly less tired at the end. I ve moved from this black is cool but a bit difficult, I ll do another run later in the day when I ve recovered to how cool, this blacks is quite empty of people, let s stay here for 2-3 more rounds . The skis are new, and I haven t used them on all the places I m familiar with - but the upgrade is huge. The people on the ski forum were actually not exaggerating, I realise now. St ckli++, and they re also made in Switzerland. Can t wait to get back to Saas Fee and to the couple of slopes that were killing me before, to see how they feel now. So, very happy with this choice. I d be even happier if my legs were less damaged, but well, you can t win them all. And not last, the skis are also very cool looking

7 February 2024

Reproducible Builds: Reproducible Builds in January 2024

Welcome to the January 2024 report from the Reproducible Builds project. In these reports we outline the most important things that we have been up to over the past month. If you are interested in contributing to the project, please visit our Contribute page on our website.

How we executed a critical supply chain attack on PyTorch John Stawinski and Adnan Khan published a lengthy blog post detailing how they executed a supply-chain attack against PyTorch, a popular machine learning platform used by titans like Google, Meta, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin :
Our exploit path resulted in the ability to upload malicious PyTorch releases to GitHub, upload releases to [Amazon Web Services], potentially add code to the main repository branch, backdoor PyTorch dependencies the list goes on. In short, it was bad. Quite bad.
The attack pivoted on PyTorch s use of self-hosted runners as well as submitting a pull request to address a trivial typo in the project s README file to gain access to repository secrets and API keys that could subsequently be used for malicious purposes.

New Arch Linux forensic filesystem tool On our mailing list this month, long-time Reproducible Builds developer kpcyrd announced a new tool designed to forensically analyse Arch Linux filesystem images. Called archlinux-userland-fs-cmp, the tool is supposed to be used from a rescue image (any Linux) with an Arch install mounted to, [for example], /mnt. Crucially, however, at no point is any file from the mounted filesystem eval d or otherwise executed. Parsers are written in a memory safe language. More information about the tool can be found on their announcement message, as well as on the tool s homepage. A GIF of the tool in action is also available.

Issues with our SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH code? Chris Lamb started a thread on our mailing list summarising some potential problems with the source code snippet the Reproducible Builds project has been using to parse the SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH environment variable:
I m not 100% sure who originally wrote this code, but it was probably sometime in the ~2015 era, and it must be in a huge number of codebases by now. Anyway, Alejandro Colomar was working on the shadow security tool and pinged me regarding some potential issues with the code. You can see this conversation here.
Chris ends his message with a request that those with intimate or low-level knowledge of time_t, C types, overflows and the various parsing libraries in the C standard library (etc.) contribute with further info.

Distribution updates In Debian this month, Roland Clobus posted another detailed update of the status of reproducible ISO images on our mailing list. In particular, Roland helpfully summarised that all major desktops build reproducibly with bullseye, bookworm, trixie and sid provided they are built for a second time within the same DAK run (i.e. [within] 6 hours) . Additionally 7 of the 8 bookworm images from the official download link build reproducibly at any later time. In addition to this, three reviews of Debian packages were added, 17 were updated and 15 were removed this month adding to our knowledge about identified issues. Elsewhere, Bernhard posted another monthly update for his work elsewhere in openSUSE.

Community updates There were made a number of improvements to our website, including Bernhard M. Wiedemann fixing a number of typos of the term nondeterministic . [ ] and Jan Zerebecki adding a substantial and highly welcome section to our page about SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH to document its interaction with distribution rebuilds. [ ].
diffoscope is our in-depth and content-aware diff utility that can locate and diagnose reproducibility issues. This month, Chris Lamb made a number of changes such as uploading versions 254 and 255 to Debian but focusing on triaging and/or merging code from other contributors. This included adding support for comparing eXtensible ARchive (.XAR/.PKG) files courtesy of Seth Michael Larson [ ][ ], as well considerable work from Vekhir in order to fix compatibility between various and subtle incompatible versions of the progressbar libraries in Python [ ][ ][ ][ ]. Thanks!

Reproducibility testing framework The Reproducible Builds project operates a comprehensive testing framework (available at in order to check packages and other artifacts for reproducibility. In January, a number of changes were made by Holger Levsen:
  • Debian-related changes:
    • Reduce the number of arm64 architecture workers from 24 to 16. [ ]
    • Use diffoscope from the Debian release being tested again. [ ]
    • Improve the handling when killing unwanted processes [ ][ ][ ] and be more verbose about it, too [ ].
    • Don t mark a job as failed if process marked as to-be-killed is already gone. [ ]
    • Display the architecture of builds that have been running for more than 48 hours. [ ]
    • Reboot arm64 nodes when they hit an OOM (out of memory) state. [ ]
  • Package rescheduling changes:
    • Reduce IRC notifications to 1 when rescheduling due to package status changes. [ ]
    • Correctly set SUDO_USER when rescheduling packages. [ ]
    • Automatically reschedule packages regressing to FTBFS (build failure) or FTBR (build success, but unreproducible). [ ]
  • OpenWrt-related changes:
    • Install the python3-dev and python3-pyelftools packages as they are now needed for the sunxi target. [ ][ ]
    • Also install the libpam0g-dev which is needed by some OpenWrt hardware targets. [ ]
  • Misc:
    • As it s January, set the real_year variable to 2024 [ ] and bump various copyright years as well [ ].
    • Fix a large (!) number of spelling mistakes in various scripts. [ ][ ][ ]
    • Prevent Squid and Systemd processes from being killed by the kernel s OOM killer. [ ]
    • Install the iptables tool everywhere, else our custom rc.local script fails. [ ]
    • Cleanup the /srv/workspace/pbuilder directory on boot. [ ]
    • Automatically restart Squid if it fails. [ ]
    • Limit the execution of chroot-installation jobs to a maximum of 4 concurrent runs. [ ][ ]
Significant amounts of node maintenance was performed by Holger Levsen (eg. [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ] etc.) and Vagrant Cascadian (eg. [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]). Indeed, Vagrant Cascadian handled an extended power outage for the network running the Debian armhf architecture test infrastructure. This provided the incentive to replace the UPS batteries and consolidate infrastructure to reduce future UPS load. [ ] Elsewhere in our infrastructure, however, Holger Levsen also adjusted the email configuration for to deal with a new SMTP email attack. [ ]

Upstream patches The Reproducible Builds project tries to detects, dissects and fix as many (currently) unreproducible packages as possible. We endeavour to send all of our patches upstream where appropriate. This month, we wrote a large number of such patches, including: Separate to this, Vagrant Cascadian followed up with the relevant maintainers when reproducibility fixes were not included in newly-uploaded versions of the mm-common package in Debian this was quickly fixed, however. [ ]

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

26 January 2024

Bastian Venthur: Investigating popularity of Python build backends over time

Inspired by a Mastodon post by Fran oise Conil, who investigated the current popularity of build backends used in pyproject.toml files, I wanted to investigate how the popularity of build backends used in pyproject.toml files evolved over the years since the introduction of PEP-0517 in 2015. Getting the data Tom Forbes provides a huge dataset that contains information about every file within every release uploaded to PyPI. To get the current dataset, we can use:
curl -L --remote-name-all $(curl -L "")
This will download approximately 30GB of parquet files, providing detailed information about each file included in a PyPI upload, including:
  1. project name, version and release date
  2. file path, size and line count
  3. hash of the file
The dataset does not contain the actual files themselves though, more on that in a moment. Querying the dataset using duckdb We can now use duckdb to query the parquet files directly. Let s look into the schema first:
describe select * from '*.parquet';
    column_name     column_type    null    
      varchar         varchar     varchar  
  project_name      VARCHAR       YES      
  project_version   VARCHAR       YES      
  project_release   VARCHAR       YES      
  uploaded_on       TIMESTAMP     YES      
  path              VARCHAR       YES      
  archive_path      VARCHAR       YES      
  size              UBIGINT       YES      
  hash              BLOB          YES      
  skip_reason       VARCHAR       YES      
  lines             UBIGINT       YES      
  repository        UINTEGER      YES      
  11 rows                       6 columns  
From all files mentioned in the dataset, we only care about pyproject.toml files that are in the project s root directory. Since we ll still have to download the actual files, we need to get the path and the repository to construct the corresponding URL to the mirror that contains all files in a bunch of huge git repositories. Some files are not available on the mirrors; to skip these, we only take files where the skip_reason is empty. We also care about the timestamp of the upload (uploaded_on) and the hash to avoid processing identical files twice:
from '*.parquet'
    skip_reason == '' and
    lower(string_split(path, '/')[-1]) == 'pyproject.toml' and
    len(string_split(path, '/')) == 5
order by uploaded_on desc
This query runs for a few minutes on my laptop and returns ~1.2M rows. Getting the actual files Using the repository and path, we can now construct an URL from which we can fetch the actual file for further processing:
url = f" repository /code/ path "
We can download the individual pyproject.toml files and parse them to read the build-backend into a dictionary mapping the file-hash to the build backend. Downloads on GitHub are rate-limited, so downloading 1.2M files will take a couple of days. By skipping files with a hash we ve already processed, we can avoid downloading the same file more than once, cutting the required downloads by circa 50%. Results Assuming the data is complete and my analysis is sound, these are the findings: There is a surprising amount of build backends in use, but the overall amount of uploads per build backend decreases quickly, with a long tail of single uploads:
>>> results.backend.value_counts()
setuptools        701550
poetry            380830
hatchling          56917
flit               36223
pdm                11437
maturin             9796
jupyter             1707
mesonpy              625
scikit               556
postry                 1
tree                   1
setuptoos              1
neuron                 1
avalon                 1
maturimaturinn         1
jsonpath               1
ha                     1
pyo3                   1
Name: count, Length: 73, dtype: int64
We pick only the top 4 build backends, and group the remaining ones (including PDM and Maturin) into other so they are accounted for as well. The following plot shows the relative distribution of build backends over time. Each bin represents a time span of 28 days. I chose 28 days to reduce visual clutter. Within each bin, the height of the bars corresponds to the relative proportion of uploads during that time interval: Relative distribution of build backends over time Looking at the right side of the plot, we see the current distribution. It confirms Fran oise s findings about the current popularity of build backends: Between 2018 and 2020 the graph exhibits significant fluctuations, due to the relatively low amount uploads utizing pyproject.toml files. During that early period, Flit started as the most popular build backend, but was eventually displaced by Setuptools and Poetry. Between 2020 and 2020, the overall usage of pyproject.toml files increased significantly. By the end of 2022, the share of Setuptools peaked at 70%. After 2020, other build backends experienced a gradual rise in popularity. Amongh these, Hatch emerged as a notable contender, steadily gaining traction and ultimately stabilizing at 10%. We can also look into the absolute distribution of build backends over time: Absolute distribution of build backends over time The plot shows that Setuptools has the strongest growth trajectory, surpassing all other build backends. Poetry and Hatch are growing at a comparable rate, but since Hatch started roughly 4 years after Poetry, it s lagging behind in popularity. Despite not being among the most widely used backends anymore, Flit maintains a steady and consistent growth pattern, indicating its enduring relevance in the Python packaging landscape. The script for downloading and analyzing the data can be found in my GitHub repository. It contains the results of the duckb query (so you don t have to download the full dataset) and the pickled dictionary, mapping the file hashes to the build backends, saving you days for downloading and analyzing the pyproject.toml files yourself.

15 January 2024

Colin Watson: OpenUK New Year s Honours

Apparently I got an honour from OpenUK. There are a bunch of people I know on that list. Chris Lamb and Mark Brown are familiar names from Debian. Colin King and Jonathan Riddell are people I know from past work in Ubuntu. I ve admired David MacIver s work on Hypothesis and Richard Hughes work on firmware updates from afar. And there are a bunch of other excellent projects represented there: OpenStreetMap, Textualize, and my alma mater of Cambridge to name but a few. My friend Stuart Langridge wrote about being on a similar list a few years ago, and I can t do much better than to echo it: in particular he wrote about the way the open source development community is often at best unwelcoming to people who don t look like Stuart and I do. I can t tell a whole lot about demographic distribution just by looking at a list of names, but while these honours still seem to be skewed somewhat male, I m fairly sure they re doing a lot better in terms of gender balance than my home project of Debian is, for one. I hope this is a sign of improvement for the future, and I ll do what I can to pay it forward.

11 January 2024

Reproducible Builds: Reproducible Builds in December 2023

Welcome to the December 2023 report from the Reproducible Builds project! In these reports we outline the most important things that we have been up to over the past month. As a rather rapid recap, whilst anyone may inspect the source code of free software for malicious flaws, almost all software is distributed to end users as pre-compiled binaries (more).

Reproducible Builds: Increasing the Integrity of Software Supply Chains awarded IEEE Software Best Paper award In February 2022, we announced in these reports that a paper written by Chris Lamb and Stefano Zacchiroli was now available in the March/April 2022 issue of IEEE Software. Titled Reproducible Builds: Increasing the Integrity of Software Supply Chains (PDF). This month, however, IEEE Software announced that this paper has won their Best Paper award for 2022.

Reproducibility to affect package migration policy in Debian In a post summarising the activities of the Debian Release Team at a recent in-person Debian event in Cambridge, UK, Paul Gevers announced a change to the way packages are migrated into the staging area for the next stable Debian release based on its reproducibility status:
The folks from the Reproducibility Project have come a long way since they started working on it 10 years ago, and we believe it s time for the next step in Debian. Several weeks ago, we enabled a migration policy in our migration software that checks for regression in reproducibility. At this moment, that is presented as just for info, but we intend to change that to delays in the not so distant future. We eventually want all packages to be reproducible. To stimulate maintainers to make their packages reproducible now, we ll soon start to apply a bounty [speedup] for reproducible builds, like we ve done with passing autopkgtests for years. We ll reduce the bounty for successful autopkgtests at that moment in time.

Speranza: Usable, privacy-friendly software signing Kelsey Merrill, Karen Sollins, Santiago Torres-Arias and Zachary Newman have developed a new system called Speranza, which is aimed at reassuring software consumers that the product they are getting has not been tampered with and is coming directly from a source they trust. A write-up on goes into some more details:
What we have done, explains Sollins, is to develop, prove correct, and demonstrate the viability of an approach that allows the [software] maintainers to remain anonymous. Preserving anonymity is obviously important, given that almost everyone software developers included value their confidentiality. This new approach, Sollins adds, simultaneously allows [software] users to have confidence that the maintainers are, in fact, legitimate maintainers and, furthermore, that the code being downloaded is, in fact, the correct code of that maintainer. [ ]
The corresponding paper is published on the arXiv preprint server in various formats, and the announcement has also been covered in MIT News.

Nondeterministic Git bundles Paul Baecher published an interesting blog post on Reproducible git bundles. For those who are not familiar with them, Git bundles are used for the offline transfer of Git objects without an active server sitting on the other side of a network connection. Anyway, Paul wrote about writing a backup system for his entire system, but:
I noticed that a small but fixed subset of [Git] repositories are getting backed up despite having no changes made. That is odd because I would think that repeated bundling of the same repository state should create the exact same bundle. However [it] turns out that for some, repositories bundling is nondeterministic.
Paul goes on to to describe his solution, which involves forcing git to be single threaded makes the output deterministic . The article was also discussed on Hacker News.

Output from libxlst now deterministic libxslt is the XSLT C library developed for the GNOME project, where XSLT itself is an XML language to define transformations for XML files. This month, it was revealed that the result of the generate-id() XSLT function is now deterministic across multiple transformations, fixing many issues with reproducible builds. As the Git commit by Nick Wellnhofer describes:
Rework the generate-id() function to return deterministic values. We use
a simple incrementing counter and store ids in the 'psvi' member of
nodes which was freed up by previous commits. The presence of an id is
indicated by a new "source node" flag.
This fixes long-standing problems with reproducible builds, see
This also hardens security, as the old implementation leaked the
difference between a heap and a global pointer, see
The old implementation could also generate the same id for dynamically
created nodes which happened to reuse the same memory. Ids for namespace
nodes were completely broken. They now use the id of the parent element
together with the hex-encoded namespace prefix.

Community updates There were made a number of improvements to our website, including Chris Lamb fixing the generate-draft script to not blow up if the input files have been corrupted today or even in the past [ ], Holger Levsen updated the Hamburg 2023 summit to add a link to farewell post [ ] & to add a picture of a Post-It note. [ ], and Pol Dellaiera updated the paragraph about tar and the --clamp-mtime flag [ ]. On our mailing list this month, Bernhard M. Wiedemann posted an interesting summary on some of the reasons why packages are still not reproducible in 2023. diffoscope is our in-depth and content-aware diff utility that can locate and diagnose reproducibility issues. This month, Chris Lamb made a number of changes, including processing objdump symbol comment filter inputs as Python byte (and not str) instances [ ] and Vagrant Cascadian extended diffoscope support for GNU Guix [ ] and updated the version in that distribution to version 253 [ ].

Challenges of Producing Software Bill Of Materials for Java Musard Balliu, Benoit Baudry, Sofia Bobadilla, Mathias Ekstedt, Martin Monperrus, Javier Ron, Aman Sharma, Gabriel Skoglund, C sar Soto-Valero and Martin Wittlinger (!) of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, have published an article in which they:
deep-dive into 6 tools and the accuracy of the SBOMs they produce for complex open-source Java projects. Our novel insights reveal some hard challenges regarding the accurate production and usage of software bills of materials.
The paper is available on arXiv.

Debian Non-Maintainer campaign As mentioned in previous reports, the Reproducible Builds team within Debian has been organising a series of online and offline sprints in order to clear the huge backlog of reproducible builds patches submitted by performing so-called NMUs (Non-Maintainer Uploads). During December, Vagrant Cascadian performed a number of such uploads, including: In addition, Holger Levsen performed three no-source-change NMUs in order to address the last packages without .buildinfo files in Debian trixie, specifically lorene (0.0.0~cvs20161116+dfsg-1.1), maria (1.3.5-4.2) and ruby-rinku (1.7.3-2.1).

Reproducibility testing framework The Reproducible Builds project operates a comprehensive testing framework (available at in order to check packages and other artifacts for reproducibility. In December, a number of changes were made by Holger Levsen:
  • Debian-related changes:
    • Fix matching packages for the [R programming language]( [ ][ ][ ]
    • Add a Certbot configuration for the Nginx web server. [ ]
    • Enable debugging for the create-meta-pkgs tool. [ ][ ]
  • Arch Linux-related changes
    • The asp has been deprecated by pkgctl; thanks to dvzrv for the pointer. [ ]
    • Disable the Arch Linux builders for now. [ ]
    • Stop referring to the /trunk branch / subdirectory. [ ]
    • Use --protocol https when cloning repositories using the pkgctl tool. [ ]
  • Misc changes:
    • Install the python3-setuptools and swig packages, which are now needed to build OpenWrt. [ ]
    • Install pkg-config needed to build Coreboot artifacts. [ ]
    • Detect failures due to an issue where the fakeroot tool is implicitly required but not automatically installed. [ ]
    • Detect failures due to rename of the vmlinuz file. [ ]
    • Improve the grammar of an error message. [ ]
    • Document that has been updated to FreeBSD 14.0. [ ]
In addition, node maintenance was performed by Holger Levsen [ ] and Vagrant Cascadian [ ].

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

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

9 January 2024

Louis-Philippe V ronneau: 2023 A Musical Retrospective

I ended 2022 with a musical retrospective and very much enjoyed writing that blog post. As such, I have decided to do the same for 2023! From now on, this will probably be an annual thing :) Albums In 2023, I added 73 new albums to my collection nearly 2 albums every three weeks! I listed them below in the order in which I acquired them. I purchased most of these albums when I could and borrowed the rest at libraries. If you want to browse though, I added links to the album covers pointing either to websites where you can buy them or to Discogs when digital copies weren't available. Once again this year, it seems that Punk (mostly O !) and Metal dominate my list, mostly fueled by Angry Metal Guy and the amazing Montr al Skinhead/Punk concert scene. Concerts A trend I started in 2022 was to go to as many concerts of artists I like as possible. I'm happy to report I went to around 80% more concerts in 2023 than in 2022! Looking back at my list, April was quite a busy month... Here are the concerts I went to in 2023: Although metalfinder continues to work as intended, I'm very glad to have discovered the Montr al underground scene has departed from Facebook/Instagram and adopted en masse Gancio, a FOSS community agenda that supports ActivityPub. Our local instance, is pretty much all I could ask for :) That's it for 2023!

3 January 2024

John Goerzen: Consider Security First

I write this in the context of my decision to ditch Raspberry Pi OS and move everything I possibly can, including my Raspberry Pi devices, to Debian. I will write about that later. But for now, I wanted to comment on something I think is often overlooked and misunderstood by people considering distributions or operating systems: the huge importance of getting security updates in an automated and easy way.

Background Let s assume that these statements are true, which I think are well-supported by available evidence:
  1. Every computer system (OS plus applications) that can do useful modern work has security vulnerabilities, some of which are unknown at any given point in time;
  2. During the lifetime of that computer system, some of these vulnerabilities will be discovered. For a (hopefully large) subset of those vulnerabilities, timely patches will become available.
Now then, it follows that applying those timely patches is a critical part of having a system that it as secure as possible. Of course, you have to do other things as well good passwords, secure practices, etc but, fundamentally, if your system lacks patches for known vulnerabilities, you ve already lost at the security ballgame.

How to stay patched There is something of a continuum of how you might patch your system. It runs roughly like this, from best to worst:
  1. All components are kept up-to-date automatically, with no intervention from the user/operator
  2. The operator is automatically alerted to necessary patches, and they can be easily installed with minimal intervention
  3. The operator is automatically alerted to necessary patches, but they require significant effort to apply
  4. The operator has no way to detect vulnerabilities or necessary patches
It should be obvious that the first situation is ideal. Every other situation relies on the timeliness of human action to keep up-to-date with security patches. This is a fallible situation; humans are busy, take trips, dismiss alerts, miss alerts, etc. That said, it is rare to find any system living truly all the way in that scenario, as you ll see.

What is your system ? A critical point here is: what is your system ? It includes:
  • Your kernel
  • Your base operating system
  • Your applications
  • All the libraries needed to run all of the above
Some OSs, such as Debian, make little or no distinction between the base OS and the applications. Others, such as many BSDs, have a distinction there. And in some cases, people will compile or install applications outside of any OS mechanism. (It must be stressed that by doing so, you are taking the responsibility of patching them on your own shoulders.)

How do common systems stack up?
  • Debian, with its support for unattended-upgrades, needrestart, debian-security-support, and such, is largely category 1. It can automatically apply security patches, in most cases can restart the necessary services for the patch to take effect, and will alert you when some processes or the system must be manually restarted for a patch to take effect (for instance, a kernel update). Those cases requiring manual intervention are category 2. The debian-security-support package will even warn you of gaps in the system. You can also use debsecan to scan for known vulnerabilities on a given installation.
  • FreeBSD has no way to automatically install security patches for things in the packages collection. As with many rolling-release systems, you can t automate the installation of these security patches with FreeBSD because it is not safe to blindly update packages. It s not safe to blindly update packages because they may bring along more than just security patches: they may represent major upgrades that introduce incompatibilities, etc. Unlike Debian s practice of backporting fixes and thus producing narrowly-tailored patches, forcing upgrades to newer versions precludes a minimal intervention install. Therefore, rolling release systems are category 3.
  • Things such as Snap, Flatpak, AppImage, Docker containers, Electron apps, and third-party binaries often contain embedded libraries and such for which you have no easy visibility into their status. For instance, if there was a bug in libpng, would you know how many of your containers had a vulnerability? These systems are category 4 you don t even know if you re vulnerable. It s for this reason that my Debian-based Docker containers apply security patches before starting processes, and also run unattended-upgrades and friends.

The pernicious library problem As mentioned in my last category above, hidden vulnerabilities can be a big problem. I ve been writing about this for years. Back in 2017, I wrote an article focused on Docker containers, but which applies to the other systems like Snap and so forth. I cited a study back then that Over 80% of the :latest versions of official images contained at least one high severity vulnerability. The situation is no better now. In December 2023, it was reported that, two years after the critical Log4Shell vulnerability, 25% of apps were still vulnerable to it. Also, only 21% of developers ever update third-party libraries after introducing them into their projects. Clearly, you can t rely on these images with embedded libraries to be secure. And since they are black box, they are difficult to audit. Debian s policy of always splitting libraries out from packages is hugely beneficial; it allows finegrained analysis of not just vulnerabilities, but also the dependency graph. If there s a vulnerability in libpng, you have one place to patch it and you also know exactly what components of your system use it. If you use snaps, or AppImages, you can t know if they contain a deeply embedded vulnerability, nor could you patch it yourself if you even knew. You are at the mercy of upstream detecting and remedying the problem a dicey situation at best.

Who makes the patches? Fundamentally, humans produce security patches. Often, but not always, patches originate with the authors of a program and then are integrated into distribution packages. It should be noted that every security team has finite resources; there will always be some CVEs that aren t patched in a given system for various reasons; perhaps they are not exploitable, or are too low-impact, or have better mitigations than patches. Debian has an excellent security team; they manage the process of integrating patches into Debian, produce Debian Security Advisories, maintain the Debian Security Tracker (which maintains cross-references with the CVE database), etc. Some distributions don t have this infrastructure. For instance, I was unable to find this kind of tracker for Devuan or Raspberry Pi OS. In contrast, Ubuntu and Arch Linux both seem to have active security teams with trackers and advisories.

Implications for Raspberry Pi OS and others As I mentioned above, I m transitioning my Pi devices off Raspberry Pi OS (Raspbian). Security is one reason. Although Raspbian is a fork of Debian, and you can install packages like unattended-upgrades on it, they don t work right because they use the Debian infrastructure, and Raspbian hasn t modified them to use their own infrastructure. I don t see any Raspberry Pi OS security advisories, trackers, etc. In short, they lack the infrastructure to support those Debian tools anyhow. Not only that, but Raspbian lags behind Debian in both new releases and new security patches, sometimes by days or weeks. Live Migrating from Raspberry Pi OS bullseye to Debian bookworm contains instructions for migrating Raspberry Pis to Debian.

1 January 2024

Russ Allbery: 2023 Book Reading in Review

In 2023, I finished and reviewed 53 books, continuing a trend of year-over-year increases and of reading the most books since 2012 (the last year I averaged five books a month). Reviewing continued to be uneven, with a significant slump in the summer and smaller slumps in February and November, and a big clump of reviews finished in October in addition to my normal year-end reading and reviewing vacation. The unevenness this year was mostly due to finishing books and not writing reviews immediately. Reviews are much harder to write when the finished books are piling up, so one goal for 2024 is to not let that happen again. I enter the new year with one book finished and not yet reviewed, after reading a book about every day and a half during my December vacation. I read two all-time favorite books this year. The first was Emily Tesh's debut novel Some Desperate Glory, which is one of the best space opera novels I have ever read. I cannot improve on Shelley Parker-Chan's blurb for this book: "Fierce and heartbreakingly humane, this book is for everyone who loved Ender's Game, but Ender's Game didn't love them back." This is not hard science fiction but it is fantastic character fiction. It was exactly what I needed in the middle of a year in which I was fighting a "burn everything down" mood. The second was Night Watch by Terry Pratchett, the 29th Discworld and 6th Watch novel. Throughout my Discworld read-through, Pratchett felt like he was on the cusp of a truly stand-out novel, one where all the pieces fit and the book becomes something more than the sum of its parts. This was that book. It's a book about ethics and revolutions and governance, but also about how your perception of yourself changes as you get older. It does all of the normal Pratchett things, just... better. While I would love to point new Discworld readers at it, I think you do have to read at least the Watch novels that came before it for it to carry its proper emotional heft. This was overall a solid year for fiction reading. I read another 15 novels I rated 8 out of 10, and 12 that I rated 7 out of 10. The largest contributor to that was my Discworld read-through, which was reliably entertaining throughout the year. The run of Discworld books between The Fifth Elephant (read late last year) and Wintersmith (my last of this year) was the best run of Discworld novels so far. One additional book I'll call out as particularly worth reading is Thud!, the Watch novel after Night Watch and another excellent entry. I read two stand-out non-fiction books this year. The first was Oliver Darkshire's delightful memoir about life as a rare book seller, Once Upon a Tome. One of the things I will miss about Twitter is the regularity with which I stumbled across fascinating people and then got to read their books. I'm off Twitter permanently now because the platform is designed to make me incoherently angry and I need less of that in my life, but it was very good at finding delightfully quirky books like this one. My other favorite non-fiction book of the year was Michael Lewis's Going Infinite, a profile of Sam Bankman-Fried. I'm still bemused at the negative reviews that this got from people who were upset that Lewis didn't turn the story into a black-and-white morality play. Bankman-Fried's actions were clearly criminal; that's not in dispute. Human motivations can be complex in ways that are irrelevant to the law, and I thought this attempt to understand that complexity by a top-notch storyteller was worthy of attention. Also worth a mention is Tony Judt's Postwar, the first book I reviewed in 2023. A sprawling history of post-World-War-II Europe will never have the sheer readability of shorter, punchier books, but this was the most informative book that I read in 2023. 2024 should see the conclusion of my Discworld read-through, after which I may return to re-reading Mercedes Lackey or David Eddings, both of which I paused to make time for Terry Pratchett. I also have another re-read similar to my Chronicles of Narnia reviews that I've been thinking about for a while. Perhaps I will start that next year; perhaps it will wait for 2025. Apart from that, my intention as always is to read steadily, write reviews as close to when I finished the book as possible, and make reading time for my huge existing backlog despite the constant allure of new releases. Here's to a new year full of more new-to-me books and occasional old favorites. The full analysis includes some additional personal reading statistics, probably only of interest to me.

29 December 2023

Ulrike Uhlig: How do kids conceive the internet? - part 4

Read all parts of the series Part 1 // Part 2 // Part 3 // Part 4 I ve been wanting to write this post for over a year, but lacked energy and time. Before 2023 is coming to an end, I want to close this series and share some more insights with you and hopefully provide you with a smile here and there. For this round of interviews, four more kids around the ages of 8 to 13 were interviewed, 3 of them have a US background these 3 interviews were done by a friend who recorded these interviews for me, thank you! As opposed to the previous interviews, these four kids have parents who have a more technical professional background. And this seems to make a difference: even though none of these kids actually knew much better how the internet really works than the other kids that I interviewed, specifically in terms of physical infrastructures, they were much more confident in using the internet, they were able to more correctly name things they see on the internet, and they had partly radical ideas about what they would like to learn or what they would want to change about the internet! Looking at these results, I think it s safe to say that social reproduction is at work and that we need to improve education for kids who do not profit from this type of social and cultural wealth at home. But let s dive into the details.

The boy and the aliens (I ll be mostly transribing the interview, which was short, and which I find difficult to sum up because some of the questions are written in a way to encourage the kids to tell a story, and this particular kid had a thing going on with aliens.) He s a 13 year old boy living in the US. He has his own computer, which technically belongs to his school but can be used by him freely and he can also take it home. He s the first kid saying he s reading the news on the internet; he does not actually use social media, besides sometimes watching TikTok. When asked: Imagine that aliens land and come to you and say: We ve heard about this internet thing you all talk about, what is it? What do you tell them? he replied:
Well, I mean they re aliens, so I don t know if I wanna tell them much.
(Parents laughing in the background.) Let s assume they re friendly aliens.
Well, I would say you can look anything up and play different games. And there are alien games. But mostly the enemies are aliens which you might be a little offended by. And you can get work done, if you needed to spy on humans. There s cameras, you can film yourself, yeah. And you can text people and call people who are far away
And what would be in a drawing that would explain the internet? Google, an alien using Twitch, Google search results, and the interface of an IM software on an iPhone drawn by a 13 year old boy And here s what he explains about his drawing:
First, I would draw what I see when you open a new tab, Google.
On the right side of the drawing we see something like Twitch.
I don t wanna offend the aliens, but you can film yourself playing a game, so here is the alien and he s playing a game.
And then you can ask questions like: How did aliens come to the Earth? And the answer will be here (below). And there ll be different websites that you can click on.
And you can also look up Who won the alien contest? And that would be Usmushgagu, and that guy won the alien contest.
Do you think the information about alien intergalactic football is already on the internet?
Yeah! That s how fast the internet is.
On the bottom of the drawing we see an iPhone and an instant messaging software.
There s also a device called an iPhone and with it you can text your friends. So here s the alien asking: How was ur day? and the friend might answer IDK [I don t know].
Imagine that a wise and friendly dragon could teach you one thing about the internet that you ve always wanted to know. What would you ask the dragon to teach you about?
Is there a way you don t have to pay for any channels or subscriptions and you can get through any firewall?
Imagine you could make the internet better for everyone. What would you do first?
Well you wouldn t have to pay for it [paywalls].
Can you describe what happens between your device and a website when you visit a website?
Well, it takes 0.025 seconds. [ ] It s connecting.
Wow, that s indeed fast! We were not able to obtain more details about what is that fast thing that s happening exactly

The software engineer s kid This kid identifies as neither boy nor girl, is 10 years old and lives in Germany. Their father works as a software engineer, or in the words of the child:
My dad knows everything.
The kid has a laptop and a mobile phone, both with parental control they don t think that the controlling is fair. This kid uses the internet foremostly for listening to music and watching prank channels on Youtube but also to work with Purple Mash (a teaching platform for the computing curriculum used at their school), finding 3d printing models (that they ask their father to print with them because they did not manage to use the printer by themselves yet). Interestingly, and very differently from the non-tech-parent kids, this kid insists on using Firefox and Signal - the latter is not only used by their dad to tell them to come downstairs for dinner, but also to call their grandmother. This kid also shops online, with the help of the father who does the actual shopping for them using money that the kid earned by reading books. If you would need to explain to an alien who has landed on Earth what the internet is, what would you tell them?
The internet is something where you search, for example, you can look for music. You can also watch videos from around the world, and you can program stuff.
Like most of the kids interviewed, this kid uses the internet mostly for media consumption, but with the difference that they also engage with technology by way of programming using Purple Mash. drawing of the internet by a 10 year old showing a Youtube prank channel, an external device trackpad, and headphones In their drawing we see a Youtube prank channel on a screen, an external trackpad on the right (likely it s not a touch screen), and headphones. Notice how there is no keyboard, or maybe it s folded away. If you could ask a nice and friendly dragon anything you d like to learn about the internet, what would it be?
How do I shutdown my dad s computer forever?
And what is it that he would do to improve the internet for everyone? Contrary to the kid living in the US, they think that
It takes too much time to load stuff!
I wonder if this kid experiences the internet as being slow because they use the mobile network or because their connection somehow gets throttled as a way to control media consumption, or if the German internet infrastructure is just so much worse in certain regions If you could improve the internet for everyone, what would you do first? I d make a new Firefox app that loads the internet much faster.

The software engineer s daughter This girl is only 8 years old, she hates unicorns, and her dad is also a software engineer. She uses a smartphone, controlled by her parents. My impression of the interview is that at this age, kids slightly mix up the internet with the devices that they use to access the internet. drawing of the internet by an 8 year old girl, Showing Google and the interface to call and text someone In her drawing, we see again Google - it s clearly everywhere - and also the interfaces for calling and texting someone. To explain what the internet is, besides the fact that one can use it for calling and listening to music, she says:
[The internet] is something that you can [use to] see someone who is far away, so that you don t need to take time to get to them.
Now, that s a great explanation, the internet providing the possibility for communication over a distance :) If she could ask a friendly dragon something she always wanted to know, she d ask how to make her phone come alive:
that it can talk to you, that it can see you, that it can smile and has eyes. It s like a new family member, you can talk to it.
Sounds a bit like Siri, Alexa, or Furby, doesn t it? If you could improve the internet for everyone, what would you do first? She d have the phone be able to decide over her free time, her phone time. That would make the world better, not for the kids, but certainly for the parents.

The antifascist kid This German boy s dad has a background in electrotechnical engineering. He s 10 years old and he told me he s using the internet a lot for searching things for example about his passion: the firefighters. For him, the internet is:
An invisible world. A virtual world. But there s also the darknet.
He told me he always watches that German show on public TV for kids that explains stuff: Checker Tobi. (In 2014, Checker Tobi actually produced an episode about the internet, which I d criticize for having only male characters, except for one female character: a secretary Google, a nice and friendly woman guiding the way through the huge library that s the internet ) This kid was the only one interviewed who managed to actually explain something about the internet, or rather about the hypertextual structure of the web. When I asked him to draw the internet, he made a drawing of a pin board. He explained:
Many items are attached to the pin board, and on the top left corner there s a computer, for example with Youtube and one can navigate like that between all the items, and start again from the beginning when done.
hypertext structure representing the internet drawn by a kid When I asked if he knew what actually happens between the device and a website he visits, he put forth the hypothesis of the existence of some kind of
Waves, internet waves - all this stuff somehow needs to be transmitted.
What he d like to learn:
How to get into the darknet? How do you become a Whitehat? I ve heard these words on the internet, the internet makes me clever.
And what would he change on the internet if he could?
I want that right wing extreme stuff is not accessible anymore, or at least, that it rains turds ( Kackw rste ) whenever people watch such stuff. Or that people are always told: This video is scum.
I suspect that his father has been talking with him about these things, and maybe these are also subjects he heard about when listening to punk music (he told me he does), or browsing Youtube.

Future projects To me this has been pretty insightful. I might share some more internet drawings by adults in the future, which I think are also really interesting, as they show very different things depending on the age of the person. I ve been using the information gathered to work on a children s book which I hope to be able to share with you next year.

28 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Nettle & Bone

Review: Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-24403-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 242
Nettle & Bone is a standalone fantasy novel with fairy tale vibes. T. Kingfisher is a pen name for Ursula Vernon. As the book opens, Marra is giving herself a blood infection by wiring together dog bones out of a charnel pit. This is the second of three impossible tasks that she was given by the dust-wife. Completing all three will give her the tools to kill a prince. I am a little cautious of which T. Kingfisher books I read since she sometimes writes fantasy and sometimes writes horror and I don't get along with horror. This one seemed a bit horrific in the marketing, so I held off on reading it despite the Hugo nomination. It turns out to be just on the safe side of my horror tolerance, with only a couple of parts that I read a bit quickly. One of those is the opening, which I am happy to report does not set the tone for the rest of the book. Marra starts the story in a wasteland full of disease, madmen, and cannibals (who, in typical Ursula Vernon fashion, turn out to be nicer than the judgmental assholes outside of the blistered land). She doesn't stay there long. By chapter two, the story moves on to flashbacks explaining how Marra ended up there, alternating with further (and less horrific) steps in her quest to kill the prince of the Northern Kingdom. Marra is a princess of a small, relatively poor coastal kingdom with a good harbor and acquisitive neighbors. Her mother, the queen, has protected the kingdom through arranged marriage of her daughters to the prince of the Northern Kingdom, who rules it in all but name given the mental deterioration of his father the king. Marra's eldest sister Damia was first, but she died suddenly and mysteriously in a fall. (If you're thinking about the way women are injured by "accident," you have the right idea.) Kania, the middle sister, is next to marry; she lives, but not without cost. Meanwhile, Marra is sent off to a convent to ensure that there are no complicating potential heirs, and to keep her on hand as a spare. I won't spoil the entire backstory, but you do learn it all. Marra is a typical Kingfisher protagonist: a woman who is way out of her depth who persists with stubbornness, curiosity, and innate decency because what else is there to do? She accumulates the typical group of misfits and oddballs common in Kingfisher's quest fantasies, characters that in the Chosen One male fantasy would be supporting characters at best. The bone-wife is a delight; her chicken is even better. There are fairy godmothers and a goblin market and a tooth extraction that was one of the creepiest things I've read without actually being horror. It is, in short, a Kingfisher fantasy novel, with a touch more horror than average but not enough to push it out of the fantasy genre. I think my favorite part of this book was not the main quest. It was the flashback scenes set in the convent, where Marra has the space (and the mentorship) to develop her sense of self.
"We're a mystery religion," said the abbess, when she'd had a bit more wine than usual, "for people who have too much work to do to bother with mysteries. So we simply get along as best we can. Occasionally someone has a vision, but [the goddess] doesn't seem to want anything much, and so we try to return the favor."
If you have read any other Kingfisher novels, much of this will be familiar: the speculative asides, the dogged determination, the slightly askew nature of the world, the vibes-based world-building that feels more like a fairy tale than a carefully constructed magic system, and the sense that the main characters (and nearly all of the supporting characters) are average people trying to play the hands they were dealt as ethically as they can. You will know that the tentative and woman-initiated romance is coming as soon as the party meets the paladin type who is almost always the romantic interest in one of these books. The emotional tone of the book is a bit predictable for regular readers, but Ursula Vernon's brain is such a delightful place to spend some time that I don't mind.
Marra had not managed to be pale and willowy and consumptive at any point in eighteen years of life and did not think she could achieve it before she died.
Nettle & Bone won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2023. I'm not sure why this specific T. Kingfisher novel won and not any of the half-dozen earlier novels she's written in a similar style, but sure, I have no objections. I'm glad one of them won; they're all worth reading and hopefully that will help more people discover this delightful style of fantasy that doesn't feel like what anyone else is doing. Recommended, although be prepared for a few more horror touches than normal and a rather grim first chapter. Content warnings: domestic abuse. The dog... lives? Is equally as alive at the end of the book as it was at the end of the first chapter? The dog does not die; I'll just leave it at that. (Neither does the chicken.) Rating: 8 out of 10

27 December 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: A Study in Scarlet

Review: A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle
Series: Sherlock Holmes #1
Publisher: AmazonClassics
Copyright: 1887
Printing: February 2018
ISBN: 1-5039-5525-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 159
A Study in Scarlet is the short mystery novel (probably a novella, although I didn't count words) that introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes. I'm going to invoke the 100-year-rule and discuss the plot of this book rather freely on the grounds that even someone who (like me prior to a few days ago) has not yet read it is probably not that invested in avoiding all spoilers. If you do want to remain entirely unspoiled, exercise caution before reading on. I had somehow managed to avoid ever reading anything by Arthur Conan Doyle, not even a short story. I therefore couldn't be sure that some of the assertions I was making in my review of A Study in Honor were correct. Since A Study in Scarlet would be quick to read, I decided on a whim to do a bit of research and grab a free copy of the first Holmes novel. Holmes is such a part of English-speaking culture that I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. This was largely true, but cultural osmosis had somehow not prepared me for the surprise Mormons. A Study in Scarlet establishes the basic parameters of a Holmes story: Dr. James Watson as narrator, the apartment he shares with Holmes at 221B Baker Street, the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes's competition with police detectives, and his penchant for making leaps of logical deduction from subtle clues. The story opens with Watson meeting Holmes, agreeing to split the rent of a flat, and being baffled by the apparent randomness of Holmes's fields of study before Holmes reveals he's a consulting detective. The first case is a murder: a man is found dead in an abandoned house, without a mark on him although there are blood splatters on the walls and the word "RACHE" written in blood. Since my only prior exposure to Holmes was from cultural references and a few TV adaptations, there were a few things that surprised me. One is that Holmes is voluble and animated rather than aloof. Doyle is clearly going for passionate eccentric rather than calculating mastermind. Another is that he is intentionally and unabashedly ignorant on any topic not related to solving mysteries.
My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it. "You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it." "To forget it!" "You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you chose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
This is directly contrary to my expectation that the best way to make leaps of deduction is to know something about a huge range of topics so that one can draw unexpected connections, particularly given the puzzle-box construction and odd details so beloved in classic mysteries. I'm now curious if Doyle stuck with this conception, and if there were any later mysteries that involved astronomy. Speaking of classic mysteries, A Study in Scarlet isn't quite one, although one can see the shape of the genre to come. Doyle does not "play fair" by the rules that have not yet been invented. Holmes at most points knows considerably more than the reader, including bits of evidence that are not described until Holmes describes them and research that Holmes does off-camera and only reveals when he wants to be dramatic. This is not the sort of story where the reader is encouraged to try to figure out the mystery before the detective. Rather, what Doyle seems to be aiming for, and what Watson attempts (unsuccessfully) as the reader surrogate, is slightly different: once Holmes makes one of his grand assertions, the reader is encouraged to guess what Holmes might have done to arrive at that conclusion. Doyle seems to want the reader to guess technique rather than outcome, while providing only vague clues in general descriptions of Holmes's behavior at a crime scene. The structure of this story is quite odd. The first part is roughly what you would expect: first-person narration from Watson, supposedly taken from his journals but not at all in the style of a journal and explicitly written for an audience. Part one concludes with Holmes capturing and dramatically announcing the name of the killer, who the reader has never heard of before. Part two then opens with... a western?
In the central portion of the great North American Continent there lies an arid and repulsive desert, which for many a long year served as a barrier against the advance of civilization. From the Sierra Nevada to Nebraska, and from the Yellowstone River in the north to the Colorado upon the south, is a region of desolation and silence. Nor is Nature always in one mood throughout the grim district. It comprises snow-capped and lofty mountains, and dark and gloomy valleys. There are swift-flowing rivers which dash through jagged ca ons; and there are enormous plains, which in winter are white with snow, and in summer are grey with the saline alkali dust. They all preserve, however, the common characteristics of barrenness, inhospitality, and misery.
First, I have issues with the geography. That region contains some of the most beautiful areas on earth, and while a lot of that region is arid, describing it primarily as a repulsive desert is a bit much. Doyle's boundaries and distances are also confusing: the Yellowstone is a northeast-flowing river with its source in Wyoming, so the area between it and the Colorado does not extend to the Sierra Nevadas (or even to Utah), and it's not entirely clear to me that he realizes Nevada exists. This is probably what it's like for people who live anywhere else in the world when US authors write about their country. But second, there's no Holmes, no Watson, and not even the pretense of a transition from the detective novel that we were just reading. Doyle just launches into a random western with an omniscient narrator. It features a lean, grizzled man and an adorable child that he adopts and raises into a beautiful free spirit, who then falls in love with a wild gold-rush adventurer. This was written about 15 years before the first critically recognized western novel, so I can't blame Doyle for all the cliches here, but to a modern reader all of these characters are straight from central casting. Well, except for the villains, who are the Mormons. By that, I don't mean that the villains are Mormon. I mean Brigham Young is the on-page villain, plotting against the hero to force his adopted daughter into a Mormon harem (to use the word that Doyle uses repeatedly) and ruling Salt Lake City with an iron hand, border guards with passwords (?!), and secret police. This part of the book was wild. I was laughing out-loud at the sheer malevolent absurdity of the thirty-day countdown to marriage, which I doubt was the intended effect. We do eventually learn that this is the backstory of the murder, but we don't return to Watson and Holmes for multiple chapters. Which leads me to the other thing that surprised me: Doyle lays out this backstory, but then never has his characters comment directly on the morality of it, only the spectacle. Holmes cares only for the intellectual challenge (and for who gets credit), and Doyle sets things up so that the reader need not concern themselves with aftermath, punishment, or anything of that sort. I probably shouldn't have been surprised this does fit with the Holmes stereotype but I'm used to modern fiction where there is usually at least some effort to pass judgment on the events of the story. Doyle draws very clear villains, but is utterly silent on whether the murder is justified. Given its status in the history of literature, I'm not sorry to have read this book, but I didn't particularly enjoy it. It is very much of its time: everyone's moral character is linked directly to their physical appearance, and Doyle uses the occasional racial stereotype without a second thought. Prevailing writing styles have changed, so the prose feels long-winded and breathless. The rivalry between Holmes and the police detectives is tedious and annoying. I also find it hard to read novels from before the general absorption of techniques of emotional realism and interiority into all genres. The characters in A Study in Scarlet felt more like cartoon characters than fully-realized human beings. I have no strong opinion about the objective merits of this book in the context of its time other than to note that the sudden inserted western felt very weird. My understanding is that this is not considered one of the better Holmes stories, and Holmes gets some deeper characterization later on. Maybe I'll try another of Doyle's works someday, but for now my curiosity has been sated. Followed by The Sign of the Four. Rating: 4 out of 10