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30 August 2022

John Goerzen: The PC & Internet Revolution in Rural America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 June 2022

John Goerzen: Lessons of Social Media from BBSs

In the recent article The Internet Origin Story You Know Is Wrong, I was somewhat surprised to see the argument that BBSs are a part of the Internet origin story that is often omitted. Surprised because I was there for BBSs, and even ran one, and didn t really consider them part of the Internet story myself. I even recently enjoyed a great BBS documentary and still didn t think of the connection on this way. But I think the argument is a compelling one.
In truth, the histories of Arpanet and BBS networks were interwoven socially and materially as ideas, technologies, and people flowed between them. The history of the internet could be a thrilling tale inclusive of many thousands of networks, big and small, urban and rural, commercial and voluntary. Instead, it is repeatedly reduced to the story of the singular Arpanet.
Kevin Driscoll goes on to highlight the social aspects of the modem world , how BBSs and online services like AOL and CompuServe were ways for people to connect. And yet, AOL members couldn t easily converse with CompuServe members, and vice-versa. Sound familiar?
Today s social media ecosystem functions more like the modem world of the late 1980s and early 1990s than like the open social web of the early 21st century. It is an archipelago of proprietary platforms, imperfectly connected at their borders. Any gateways that do exist are subject to change at a moment s notice. Worse, users have little recourse, the platforms shirk accountability, and states are hesitant to intervene.
Yes, it does. As he adds, People aren t the problem. The problem is the platforms. A thought-provoking article, and I think I ll need to buy the book it s excerpted from!

8 April 2022

Reproducible Builds: Reproducible Builds in March 2022

Welcome to the March 2022 report from the Reproducible Builds project! In our monthly reports we outline the most important things that we have been up to over the past month.
The in-toto project was accepted as an incubating project within the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF). in-toto is a framework that protects the software supply chain by collecting and verifying relevant data. It does so by enabling libraries to collect information about software supply chain actions and then allowing software users and/or project managers to publish policies about software supply chain practices that can be verified before deploying or installing software. CNCF foundations hosts a number of critical components of the global technology infrastructure under the auspices of the Linux Foundation. (View full announcement.)
Herv Boutemy posted to our mailing list with an announcement that the Java Reproducible Central has hit the milestone of 500 fully reproduced builds of upstream projects . Indeed, at the time of writing, according to the nightly rebuild results, 530 releases were found to be fully reproducible, with 100% reproducible artifacts.
GitBOM is relatively new project to enable build tools trace every source file that is incorporated into build artifacts. As an experiment and/or proof-of-concept, the GitBOM developers are rebuilding Debian to generate side-channel build metadata for versions of Debian that have already been released. This only works because Debian is (partial) reproducible, so one can be sure that that, if the case where build artifacts are identical, any metadata generated during these instrumented builds applies to the binaries that were built and released in the past. More information on their approach is available in README file in the bomsh repository.
Ludovic Courtes has published an academic paper discussing how the performance requirements of high-performance computing are not (as usually assumed) at odds with reproducible builds. The received wisdom is that vendor-specific libraries and platform-specific CPU extensions have resulted in a culture of local recompilation to ensure the best performance, rendering the property of reproducibility unobtainable or even meaningless. In his paper, Ludovic explains how Guix has:
[ ] implemented what we call package multi-versioning for C/C++ software that lacks function multi-versioning and run-time dispatch [ ]. It is another way to ensure that users do not have to trade reproducibility for performance. (full PDF)

Kit Martin posted to the FOSSA blog a post titled The Three Pillars of Reproducible Builds. Inspired by the shock of infiltrated or intentionally broken NPM packages, supply chain attacks, long-unnoticed backdoors , the post goes on to outline the high-level steps that lead to a reproducible build:
It is one thing to talk about reproducible builds and how they strengthen software supply chain security, but it s quite another to effectively configure a reproducible build. Concrete steps for specific languages are a far larger topic than can be covered in a single blog post, but today we ll be talking about some guiding principles when designing reproducible builds. [ ]
The article was discussed on Hacker News.
Finally, Bernhard M. Wiedemann noticed that the GNU Helloworld project varies depending on whether it is being built during a full moon! (Reddit announcement, openSUSE bug report)

Events There will be an in-person Debian Reunion in Hamburg, Germany later this year, taking place from 23 30 May. Although this is a Debian event, there will be some folks from the broader Reproducible Builds community and, of course, everyone is welcome. Please see the event page on the Debian wiki for more information. Bernhard M. Wiedemann posted to our mailing list about a meetup for Reproducible Builds folks at the openSUSE conference in Nuremberg, Germany. It was also recently announced that DebConf22 will take place this year as an in-person conference in Prizren, Kosovo. The pre-conference meeting (or Debcamp ) will take place from 10 16 July, and the main talks, workshops, etc. will take place from 17 24 July.

Misc news Holger Levsen updated the Reproducible Builds website to improve the documentation for the SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH environment variable, both by expanding parts of the existing text [ ][ ] as well as clarifying meaning by removing text in other places [ ]. In addition, Chris Lamb added a Twitter Card to our website s metadata too [ ][ ][ ]. On our mailing list this month:

Distribution work In Debian this month:
  • Johannes Schauer Marin Rodrigues posted to the debian-devel list mentioning that he exploited the property of reproducibility within Debian to demonstrate that automatically converting a large number of packages to a new internal source version did not change the resulting packages. The proposed change could therefore be applied without causing breakage:
So now we have 364 source packages for which we have a patch and for which we can show that this patch does not change the build output. Do you agree that with those two properties, the advantages of the 3.0 (quilt) format are sufficient such that the change shall be implemented at least for those 364? [ ]
In openSUSE, Bernhard M. Wiedemann posted his usual monthly reproducible builds status report.

Tooling diffoscope is our in-depth and content-aware diff utility. Not only can it locate and diagnose reproducibility issues, it can provide human-readable diffs from many kinds of binary formats. This month, Chris Lamb prepared and uploaded versions 207, 208 and 209 to Debian unstable, as well as made the following changes to the code itself:
  • Update minimum version of Black to prevent test failure on Ubuntu jammy. [ ]
  • Updated the R test fixture for the 4.2.x series of the R programming language. [ ]
Brent Spillner also worked on adding graceful handling for UNIX sockets and named pipes to diffoscope. [ ][ ][ ]. Vagrant Cascadian also updated the diffoscope package in GNU Guix. [ ][ ] reprotest is the Reproducible Build s project end-user tool to build the same source code twice in widely different environments and checking whether the binaries produced by the builds have any differences. This month, Santiago Ruano Rinc n added a new --append-build-command option [ ], which was subsequently uploaded to Debian unstable by Holger Levsen.

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

Testing framework The Reproducible Builds project runs a significant testing framework at tests.reproducible-builds.org, to check packages and other artifacts for reproducibility. This month, the following changes were made:
  • Holger Levsen:
    • Replace a local copy of the dsa-check-running-kernel script with a packaged version. [ ]
    • Don t hide the status of offline hosts in the Jenkins shell monitor. [ ]
    • Detect undefined service problems in the node health check. [ ]
    • Update the sources.lst file for our mail server as its still running Debian buster. [ ]
    • Add our mail server to our node inventory so it is included in the Jenkins maintenance processes. [ ]
    • Remove the debsecan package everywhere; it got installed accidentally via the Recommends relation. [ ]
    • Document the usage of the osuosl174 host. [ ]
Regular node maintenance was also performed by Holger Levsen [ ], Vagrant Cascadian [ ][ ][ ] and Mattia Rizzolo.
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 February 2022

Russ Allbery: INN 2.6.5

This is a bit of a sneak preview announcement since I'm waiting for the ISC mirror to update before sending the official announcement to the normal channels, but INN 2.6.5 has been released. (The release was finalized a few days ago, and I'm a bit behind in posting it.) This is a bug fix and minor feature release over INN 2.6.4, and the upgrade should be painless. You can download the new release from ftp.isc.org (once it updates) or my personal INN pages. The latter also has links to the full changelog and the other INN documentation. As always, thanks to Julien LIE for preparing this release and doing most of the maintenance work on INN! Changes in this release:

14 January 2022

Dirk Eddelbuettel: Rcpp 1.0.8: Updated, Strict Headers

rcpp logo The Rcpp team is thrilled to share the news of the newest release 1.0.8 of Rcpp which hit CRAN today, and has already been uploaded to Debian as well. Windows and macOS builds should appear at CRAN in the next few days. This release continues with the six-months cycle started with release 1.0.5 in July 2020. As a reminder, interim dev or rc releases will alwasys be available in the Rcpp drat repo; this cycle there were once again seven (!!) times two as we also tested the modified header (more below). These rolling release tend to work just as well, and are also fully tested against all reverse-dependencies. Rcpp has become the most popular way of enhancing R with C or C++ code. Right now, around 2478 packages on CRAN depend on Rcpp for making analytical code go faster and further, along with 242 in BioConductor. This release finally brings a change we have worked on quite a bit over the last few months. The idea of enforcing the setting of STRICT_R_HEADERS was prososed years ago in 2016 and again in 2018. But making such a chance against a widely-deployed code base has repurcussions, and we were not ready then. Last April, this was revisited in issue #1158. Over the course of numerous lengthy runs of tests of a changed Rcpp package against (essentially) all reverse-dependencies (i.e. packages which use Rcpp) we identified ninetyfour packages in total which needed a change. We provided either a patch we emailed, or a GitHub pull request, to all ninetyfour. And we are happy to say that eighty cases were resolved via a new CRAN upload, with a seven more having merged the pull request but not yet uploaded. Hence, we could make the case to CRAN (who were always CC ed on the monthly nag emails we sent to maintainers of packages needing a change) that an upload was warranted. And after a brief period for their checks and inspection, our January 11 release of Rcpp 1.0.8 arrived on CRAN on January 13. So with that, a big and heartfelt Thank You! to all eighty maintainers for updating their packages to permit this change at the Rcpp end, to CRAN for the extra checking, and to everybody else who I bugged with the numerous emails and updated to the seemingly never-ending issue #1158. We all got this done, and that is a Good Thing (TM). Other than the aforementioned change which will not automatically set STRICT_R_HEADERS (unless opted out which one can), a number of nice pull request by a number of contributors are included in this release: The full list of details follows.

Changes in Rcpp release version 1.0.8 (2022-01-11)
  • Changes in Rcpp API:
    • STRICT_R_HEADERS is now enabled by default, see extensive discussion in #1158 closing #898.
    • A new #define allows default setting of finalizer calls for external pointers (I aki in #1180 closing #1108).
    • Rcpp:::CxxFlags() now quotes the include path generated, (Kevin in #1189 closing #1188).
    • New header files Rcpp/Light, Rcpp/Lighter, Rcpp/Lightest and default Rcpp/Rcpp for fine-grained access to features (and compilation time) (Dirk #1191 addressing #1168).
  • Changes in Rcpp Attributes:
    • A new option signature allows customization of function signatures (Travers Ching in #1184 and #1187 fixing #1182)
  • Changes in Rcpp Documentation:
    • The Rcpp FAQ has a new entry on how not to grow a vector (Dirk in #1167).
    • Some long-spurious calls to RNGSope have been removed from examples (Dirk in #1173 closing #1172).
    • DOI reference in the bibtex files have been updated per JSS request (Dirk in #1186).
  • Changes in Rcpp Deployment:
    • Some continuous integration components have been updated (Dirk in #1174, #1181, and #1190).

Thanks to my CRANberries, you can also look at a diff to the previous release. Questions, comments etc should go to the rcpp-devel mailing list off the R-Forge page. Bugs reports are welcome at the GitHub issue tracker as well (where one can also search among open or closed issues); questions are also welcome under rcpp tag at StackOverflow which also allows searching among the (currently) 2822 previous questions. If you like this or other open-source work I do, you can sponsor me at GitHub.

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

21 September 2021

Russell Coker: Links September 2021

Matthew Garrett wrote an interesting and insightful blog post about the license of software developed or co-developed by machine-learning systems [1]. One of his main points is that people in the FOSS community should aim for less copyright protection. The USENIX ATC 21/OSDI 21 Joint Keynote Address titled It s Time for Operating Systems to Rediscover Hardware has some inssightful points to make [2]. Timothy Roscoe makes some incendiaty points but backs them up with evidence. Is Linux really an OS? I recommend that everyone who s interested in OS design watch this lecture. Cory Doctorow wrote an interesting set of 6 articles about Disneyland, ride pricing, and crowd control [3]. He proposes some interesting ideas for reforming Disneyland. Benjamin Bratton wrote an insightful article about how philosophy failed in the pandemic [4]. He focuses on the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben who has a history of writing stupid articles that match Qanon talking points but with better language skills. Arstechnica has an interesting article about penetration testers extracting an encryption key from the bus used by the TPM on a laptop [5]. It s not a likely attack in the real world as most networks can be broken more easily by other methods. But it s still interesting to learn about how the technology works. The Portalist has an article about David Brin s Startide Rising series of novels and his thought s on the concept of Uplift (which he denies inventing) [6]. Jacobin has an insightful article titled You re Not Lazy But Your Boss Wants You to Think You Are [7]. Making people identify as lazy is bad for them and bad for getting them to do work. But this is the first time I ve seen it described as a facet of abusive capitalism. Jacobin has an insightful article about free public transport [8]. Apparently there are already many regions that have free public transport (Tallinn the Capital of Estonia being one example). Fare free public transport allows bus drivers to concentrate on driving not taking fares, removes the need for ticket inspectors, and generally provides a better service. It allows passengers to board buses and trams faster thus reducing traffic congestion and encourages more people to use public transport instead of driving and reduces road maintenance costs. Interesting research from Israel about bypassing facial ID [9]. Apparently they can make a set of 9 images that can pass for over 40% of the population. I didn t expect facial recognition to be an effective form of authentication, but I didn t expect it to be that bad. Edward Snowden wrote an insightful blog post about types of conspiracies [10]. Kevin Rudd wrote an informative article about Sky News in Australia [11]. We need to have a Royal Commission now before we have our own 6th Jan event. Steve from Big Mess O Wires wrote an informative blog post about USB-C and 4K 60Hz video [12]. Basically you can t have a single USB-C hub do 4K 60Hz video and be a USB 3.x hub unless you have compression software running on your PC (slow and only works on Windows), or have DisplayPort 1.4 or Thunderbolt (both not well supported). All of the options are not well documented on online store pages so lots of people will get unpleasant surprises when their deliveries arrive. Computers suck. Steinar H. Gunderson wrote an informative blog post about GaN technology for smaller power supplies [13]. A 65W USB-C PSU that fits the usual wall wart form factor is an interesting development.

7 February 2021

Chris Lamb: Favourite books of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 January 2021

Dirk Eddelbuettel: Rcpp 1.0.6: Some Updates

rcpp logo The Rcpp team is proud to announce release 1.0.6 of Rcpp which arrived at CRAN earlier today, and has been uploaded to Debian too. Windows and macOS builds should appear at CRAN in the next few days. This marks the first release on the new six-months cycle announced with release 1.0.5 in July. As reminder, interim dev or rc releases will often be available in the Rcpp drat repo; this cycle there were four. Rcpp has become the most popular way of enhancing R with C or C++ code. As of today, 2174 packages on CRAN depend on Rcpp for making analytical code go faster and further (which is an 8.5% increase just since the last release), along with 207 in BioConductor. This release features six different pull requests from five different contributors, mostly fixing fairly small corner cases, plus some minor polish on documentation and continuous integration. Before releasing we once again made numerous reverse dependency checks none of which revealed any issues. So the passage at CRAN was pretty quick despite the large dependency footprint, and we are once again grateful for all the work the CRAN maintainers do.

Changes in Rcpp patch release version 1.0.6 (2021-01-14)
  • Changes in Rcpp API:
    • Replace remaining few uses of EXTPTR_PTR with R_ExternalPtrAddr (Kevin in #1098 fixing #1097).
    • Add push_back and push_front for DataFrame (Walter Somerville in #1099 fixing #1094).
    • Remove a misleading-to-wrong comment (Mattias Ellert in #1109 cleaning up after #1049).
    • Address a sanitizer report by initializing two private bool variables (Benjamin Christoffersen in #1113).
    • External pointer finalizer toggle default values were corrected to true (Dirk in #1115).
  • Changes in Rcpp Documentation:
    • Several URLs were updated to https and/or new addresses (Dirk).
  • Changes in Rcpp Deployment:
    • Added GitHub Actions CI using the same container-based setup used previously, and also carried code coverage over (Dirk in #1128).
  • Changes in Rcpp support functions:
    • Rcpp.package.skeleton() avoids warning from R. (Dirk)

Thanks to my CRANberries, you can also look at a diff to the previous release. Questions, comments etc should go to the rcpp-devel mailing list off the R-Forge page. Bugs reports are welcome at the GitHub issue tracker as well (where one can also search among open or closed issues); questions are also welcome under rcpp tag at StackOverflow which also allows searching among the (currently) 2616 previous questions. If you like this or other open-source work I do, you can sponsor me at GitHub. My sincere thanks to my current sponsors for me keeping me caffeinated.

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

23 November 2020

Shirish Agarwal: White Hat Senior and Education

I had been thinking of doing a blog post on RCEP which China signed with 14 countries a week and a day back but this new story has broken and is being viraled a bit on the interwebs, especially twitter and is pretty much in our domain so thought would be better to do a blog post about it. Also, there is quite a lot packed so quite a bit of unpacking to do.

Whitehat, Greyhat and Blackhat For those of you who may not, there are actually three terms especially in computer science that one comes across. Those are white hats, grey hats and black hats. Now clinically white hats are like the fiery angels or the good guys who basically take permissions to try and find out weakness in an application, program, website, organization and so on and so forth. A somewhat dated reference to hacker could be Sandra Bullock (The Net 1995) , Sneakers (1992), Live Free or Die Hard (2007) . Of the three one could argue that Sandra was actually into viruses which are part of computer security but still she showed some bad-ass skills, but then that is what actors are paid to do  Sneakers was much more interesting for me because in that you got the best key which can unlock any lock, something like quantum computing is supposed to do. One could equate both the first movies in either as a White hat or a Grey hat . A Grey hat is more flexible in his/her moral values, and they are plenty of such people. For e.g. Julius Assange could be described as a Grey hat, but as you can see and understand those are moral issues.

A black hat on the other hand is one who does things for profit even if it harms the others. The easiest fictitious examples are all Die Hard series, all of them except the 4th one, all had bad guys or black hats. The 4th also had but is the odd one out as it had Matthew Farell (Justin Long) as a Grey hat hacker. In real life Kevin Mitnick, Kevin Poulsen, Robert Tappan Morris, George Hotz, Gary McKinnon are some examples of hackers, most of whom were black hats, most of them reformed into white hats and security specialists. There are many other groups and names but that perhaps is best for another day altogether. Now why am I sharing this. Because in all of the above, the people who are using and working with the systems have better than average understanding of systems and they arguably would be better than most people at securing their networks, systems etc. but as we shall see in this case there has been lots of issues in the company.

WhiteHat Jr. and 300 Million Dollars Before I start this, I would like to share that for me this suit in many ways seems to be similar to the suit filed against Krishnaraj Rao . Although the difference is that Krishnaraj Rao s case/suit is that it was in real estate while this one is in education although many things are similar to those cases but also differ in some obvious ways. For e.g. in the suit against Krishnaraj Rao, the plaintiff s first approached the High Court and then the Supreme Court. Of course Krishnaraj Rao won in the High Court and then in the SC plaintiff s agreed to Krishnaraj Rao s demands as they knew they could not win in SC. In that case, a compromise was reached by the plaintiff just before judgement was to be delivered. In this case, the plaintiff have directly approached the Delhi High Court. The charges against Mr. Poonia (the defendant in this case) are very much similar to those which were made in Krishnaraj Rao s suit hence won t be going into those details. They have claimed defamation and filed a 20 crore suit. The idea is basically to silence any whistle-blowers.

Fictional Character Wolf Gupta The first issue in this case or perhaps one of the most famous or infamous character is an unknown. While he has been reportedly hired by Google India, BJYU, Chandigarh. This has been reported by Yahoo News. I did a cursory search on LinkedIn to see if there indeed is a wolf gupta but wasn t able to find any person with such a name. I am not even talking the amount of money/salary the fictitious gentleman is supposed to have got and the various variations on the salary figures at different times and the different ads.

If I wanted to, I could have asked few of the kind souls whom I know are working in Google to see if they can find such a person using their own credentials but it probably would have been a waste of time. When you show a LinkedIn profile in your social media, it should come up in the results, in this case it doesn t. I also tried to find out if somehow BJYU was a partner to Google and came up empty there as well. There is another story done by Kan India but as I m not a subscriber, I don t know what they have written but the beginning of the story itself does not bode well. While I can understand marketing, there is a line between marketing something and being misleading. At least to me, all of the references shared seems misleading at least to me.

Taking down dissent One of the big no-nos at least from what I perceive, you cannot and should not take down dissent or critique. Indians, like most people elsewhere around the world, critique and criticize day and night. Social media like twitter, mastodon and many others would not exist in the place if criticisms are not there. In fact, one could argue that Twitter and most social media is used to drive engagements to a person, brand etc. It is even an official policy in Twitter. Now you can t drive engagements without also being open to critique and this is true of all the web, including of WordPress and me  . What has been happening is that whitehatjr with help of bjyu have been taking out content of people citing copyright violation which seems laughable. When citizens critique anything, we are obviously going to take the name of the product otherwise people would have to start using new names similar to how Tom Riddle was known as Dark Lord , Voldemort and He who shall not be named . There have been quite a few takedowns, I just provide one for reference, the rest of the takedowns would probably come in the ongoing suit/case.
Whitehat Jr. ad showing investors fighting

Now a brief synopsis of what the ad. is about. The ad is about a kid named Chintu who makes an app. The app. Is so good that investors come to his house and right in the lawn and start fighting each other. The parents are enjoying looking at the fight and to add to the whole thing there is also a nosy neighbor who has his own observations. Simply speaking, it is a juvenile ad but it works as most parents in India, as elsewhere are insecure.
Jihan critiquing the whitehatjr ad
Before starting, let me assure that I asked Jihan s parents if it s ok to share his ad on my blog and they agreed. What he has done is broken down the ad and showed how juvenile the ad is and using logic and humor as a template for the same. He does make sure to state that he does not know how the product is as he hasn t used it. His critique was about the ad and not the product as he hasn t used that.

The Website If you look at the website, sadly, most of the site only talks about itself rather than giving examples that people can look in detail. For e.g. they say they have few apps. on Google play-store but no link to confirm the same. The same is true of quite a few other things. In another ad a Paralympic star says don t get into sports and get into coding. Which athlete in their right mind would say that? And it isn t that we (India) are brimming with athletes at the international level. In the last outing which was had in 2016, India sent a stunning 117 athletes but that was an exception as we had the women s hockey squad which was of 16 women, and even then they were overshadowed in numbers by the bureaucratic and support staff. There was criticism about the staff bit but that is probably a story for another date. Most of the site doesn t really give much value and the point seems to be driving sales to their courses. This is pressurizing small kids as well as teenagers and better who are in the second and third year science-engineering whose parents don t get that it is advertising and it is fake and think that their kids are incompetent. So this pressurizes both small kids as well as those who are learning, doing in whatever college or educational institution . The teenagers more often than not are unable to tell/share with them that this is advertising and fake. Also most of us have been on a a good diet of ads. Fair and lovely still sells even though we know it doesn t work. This does remind me of a similar fake academy which used very much similar symptoms and now nobody remembers them today. There used to be an academy called Wings Academy or some similar name. They used to advertise that you come to us and we will make you into a pilot or an airhostess and it was only much later that it was found out that most kids were doing laundry work in hotels and other such work. Many had taken loans, went bankrupt and even committed suicide because they were unable to pay off the loans due to the dreams given by the company and the harsh realities that awaited them. They were sued in court but dunno what happened but soon they were off the radar so we never came to know what happened to those million of kids whose life dreams were shattered.

Security Now comes the security part. They have alleged that Mr. Poonia broke into their systems. While this may be true, what I find funny is that with the name Whitehat, how can they justify it? If you are saying you are white hat you are supposed to be much better than this. And while I have not tried to penetrate their systems, I did find it laughable that the site is using an expired https:// certificate. I could have tried further to figure out the systems but I chose not to. How they could not have an automated script to get the certificate fixed is beyond me, this is known as certificate outage and is very well understood in the industry. There are tools like Let s Encrypt and Certbot (both EFF) and many others. But that is their concern, not mine.

Comparison A similar offering would be unacademy but as can be seen they neither try to push you in any way and nor do they make any ridiculous claims. In fact how genuine unacademy is can be gauged from the fact that many of its learning resources are available to people to see on YT and if they have tools they can also download it. Now, does this mean that every educational website should have their content for free, of course not. But when a channel has 80% 90% of it YT content as ads and testimonials then they surely should give a reason to pause both for parents and students alike. But if parents had done that much research, then things would not be where they are now.

Allegations Just to complete, there are allegations by Mr. Poonia with some screenshots which show the company has been doing a lot of bad things. For e.g. they were harassing an employee at night 2 a.m. who was frustrated and working in the company at the time. Many of the company staff routinely made sexist and offensive, sexual abusive remarks privately between themselves for prospective women who came to interview via webcam (due to the pandemic). There also seems to be a bit of porn on the web/mobile server of the company as well. There also have been allegations that while the company says refund is done next day, many parents who have demanded those refunds have not got it. Now while Mr. Poonia has shared some quotations of the staff while hiding the identities of both the victims and the perpetrators, the language being used in itself tells a lot. I am in two minds whether to share those photos or not hence atm choosing not to. Poonia has also contended that all teachers do not know programming, and they are given scripts to share. There have been some people who did share that experience with him
Suruchi Sethi
From the company s side they are alleging he has hacked the company servers and would probably be using the Fruit of the poisonous tree argument which we have seen have been used in many arguments.

Conclusion Now that lies in the eyes of the Court whether the single bench chooses the literal meaning or use the spirit of the law or the genuine concerns of the people concerned. While in today s hearing while the company asked for a complete sweeping injunction they were unable to get it. Whatever may happen, we may hope to see some fireworks in the second hearing which is slated to be on 6.01.2021 where all of this plays out. Till later.

6 September 2020

Junichi Uekawa: Trying to boot Debian on Chromebook Kevin.

Trying to boot Debian on Chromebook Kevin. But I haven't yet found how to get the USB serial console device to work, and display is black. So I can't see anything.

6 July 2020

Dirk Eddelbuettel: Rcpp 1.0.5: Several Updates

rcpp logo Right on the heels of the news of 2000 CRAN packages using Rcpp (and also hitting 12.5 of CRAN package, or one in eight), we are happy to announce release 1.0.5 of Rcpp. Since the ten-year anniversary and the 1.0.0 release release in November 2018, we have been sticking to a four-month release cycle. The last release has, however, left us with a particularly bad taste due to some rather peculiar interactions with a very small (but ever so vocal) portion of the user base. So going forward, we will change two things. First off, we reiterate that we have already made rolling releases. Each minor snapshot of the main git branch gets a point releases. Between release 1.0.4 and this 1.0.5 release, there were in fact twelve of those. Each and every one of these was made available via the drat repo, and we will continue to do so going forward. Releases to CRAN, however, are real work. If they then end up with as much nonsense as the last release 1.0.4, we think it is appropriate to slow things down some more so we intend to now switch to a six-months cycle. As mentioned, interim releases are always just one install.packages() call with a properly set repos argument away. Rcpp has become the most popular way of enhancing R with C or C++ code. As of today, 2002 packages on CRAN depend on Rcpp for making analytical code go faster and further, along with 203 in BioConductor. And per the (partial) logs of CRAN downloads, we are running steady at around one millions downloads per month. This release features again a number of different pull requests by different contributors covering the full range of API improvements, attributes enhancements, changes to Sugar and helper functions, extended documentation as well as continuous integration deplayment. See the list below for details.

Changes in Rcpp patch release version 1.0.5 (2020-07-01)
  • Changes in Rcpp API:
    • The exception handler code in #1043 was updated to ensure proper include behavior (Kevin in #1047 fixing #1046).
    • A missing Rcpp_list6 definition was added to support R 3.3.* builds (Davis Vaughan in #1049 fixing #1048).
    • Missing Rcpp_list 2,3,4,5 definition were added to the Rcpp namespace (Dirk in #1054 fixing #1053).
    • A further updated corrected the header include and provided a missing else branch (Mattias Ellert in #1055).
    • Two more assignments are protected with Rcpp::Shield (Dirk in #1059).
    • One call to abs is now properly namespaced with std:: (Uwe Korn in #1069).
    • String object memory preservation was corrected/simplified (Kevin in #1082).
  • Changes in Rcpp Attributes:
    • Empty strings are not passed to R CMD SHLIB which was seen with R 4.0.0 on Windows (Kevin in #1062 fixing #1061).
    • The short_file_name() helper function is safer with respect to temporaries (Kevin in #1067 fixing #1066, and #1071 fixing #1070).
  • Changes in Rcpp Sugar:
    • Two sample() objects are now standard vectors and not R_alloc created (Dirk in #1075 fixing #1074).
  • Changes in Rcpp support functions:
    • Rcpp.package.skeleton() adjusts for a (documented) change in R 4.0.0 (Dirk in #1088 fixing #1087).
  • Changes in Rcpp Documentation:
    • The pdf file of the earlier introduction is again typeset with bibliographic information (Dirk).
    • A new vignette describing how to package C++ libraries has been added (Dirk in #1078 fixing #1077).
  • Changes in Rcpp Deployment:
    • Travis CI unit tests now run a matrix over the versions of R also tested at CRAN (rel/dev/oldrel/oldoldrel), and coverage runs in parallel for a net speed-up (Dirk in #1056 and #1057).
    • The exceptions test is now partially skipped on Solaris as it already is on Windows (Dirk in #1065).
    • The default CI runner was upgraded to R 4.0.0 (Dirk).
    • The CI matrix spans R 3.5, 3.6, r-release and r-devel (Dirk).

Thanks to CRANberries, you can also look at a diff to the previous release. Questions, comments etc should go to the rcpp-devel mailing list off the R-Forge page. Bugs reports are welcome at the GitHub issue tracker as well (where one can also search among open or closed issues); questions are also welcome under rcpp tag at StackOverflow which also allows searching among the (currently) 2455 previous questions. If you like this or other open-source work I do, you can now sponsor me at GitHub. For the first year, GitHub will match your contributions.

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

14 June 2020

Enrico Zini: Culture links

Those of you who watch a lot of Hollywood movies may have noticed a certain trend that has consumed the industry in the last few years. It ...
Video Essay Catalog No. 91 by Kevin B. Lee. Featured on the New York Times and other outlets. Originally published December 13, 2011 on Fandor. https://carpetbagger.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/19/staring-in-awe-its-the-spielberg-face/?_r=0
The Korowai cannibals live on top of trees. But is it true?
Bandicoot Cabbagepatch, Bandersnatch Cumberbund, and even Wimbledon Tennismatch: there seem to be endless variations on the name of Benedict Cumberbatch. [...] But how is a normal internet citizen supposed to know, when they hear someone say I just can t stop looking at gifs of Bombadil Rivendell that this person isn t talking about some other actor with a name and a voice and cheekbones? Or in other words, what makes for a reasonable variation of the name Bendandsnap Calldispatch?

22 May 2020

Bits from Debian: Debian welcomes the 2020 GSOC interns

GSoC logo We are very excited to announce that Debian has selected nine interns to work under mentorship on a variety of projects with us during the Google Summer of Code. Here are the list of the projects, students, and details of the tasks to be performed.
Project: Android SDK Tools in Debian Deliverables of the project: Make the entire Android toolchain, Android Target Platform Framework, and SDK tools available in the Debian archives.
Project: Packaging and Quality assurance of COVID-19 relevant applications Deliverables of the project: Quality assurance including bug fixing, continuous integration tests and documentation for all Debian Med applications that are known to be helpful to fight COVID-19
Project: BLAS/LAPACK Ecosystem Enhancement Deliverables of the project: Better environment, documentation, policy, and lintian checks for BLAS/LAPACK.
Project: Quality Assurance and Continuous integration for applications in life sciences and medicine Deliverables of the project: Continuous integration tests for all Debian Med applications, QA review, and bug fixes.
Project: Systemd unit translator Deliverables of the project: A systemd unit to OpenRC init script translator. Updated OpenRC package into Debian Unstable.
Project: Architecture Cross-Grading Support in Debian Deliverables of the project: Evaluate, test, and develop tools to evaluate cross-grade checks for system and user configuration.
Project: Upstream/Downstream cooperation in Ruby Deliverables of the project: Create guide for rubygems.org on good practices for upstream maintainers, develop a tool that can detect problems and, if possible fix those errors automatically. Establish good documentation, design the tool to be extensible for other languages.
Congratulations and welcome to all the interns! The Google Summer of Code program is possible in Debian thanks to the efforts of Debian Developers and Debian Contributors that dedicate part of their free time to mentor interns and outreach tasks. Join us and help extend Debian! You can follow the interns' weekly reports on the debian-outreach mailing-list, chat with us on our IRC channel or reach out to the individual projects' team mailing lists.

17 May 2020

Dirk Eddelbuettel: RcppArmadillo 0.9.880.1.0

armadillo image Armadillo is a powerful and expressive C++ template library for linear algebra aiming towards a good balance between speed and ease of use with a syntax deliberately close to a Matlab. RcppArmadillo integrates this library with the R environment and language and is widely used by (currently) 719 other packages on CRAN. Conrad released a new upstream version 9.880.1 of Armadillo on Friday which I packaged and tested as usual (result log here in the usual repo). The R package also sports a new OpenMP detection facility once again motivated by macOS which changed its setup yet again. Changes in the new release are noted below.

Changes in RcppArmadillo version 0.9.880.1.0 (2020-05-15)
  • Upgraded to Armadillo release 9.880.1 (Roasted Mocha Detox)
    • expanded qr() to optionally use pivoted decomposition
    • updated physical constants to NIST 2018 CODATA values
    • added ARMA_DONT_USE_CXX11_MUTEX confguration option to disable use of std::mutex
  • OpenMP capability is tested explicitly (Kevin Ushey and Dirk in #294, #295, and #296 all fixing #290).

Courtesy of CRANberries, there is a diffstat report relative to previous release. More detailed information is on the RcppArmadillo page. Questions, comments etc should go to the rcpp-devel mailing list off the R-Forge page. If you like this or other open-source work I do, you can now sponsor me at GitHub. For the first year, GitHub will match your contributions.

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

10 April 2020

Dirk Eddelbuettel: Rcpp 1.0.4.6: Bug fix interim version

rcpp logo Rcpp 1.0.4 was released on March 17, following the usual sequence of fairly involved reverse-depends check along with a call for community testing issued weeks before the release. In that email I specifically pleaded with folks to pretty-please test non-standard setups:
It would be particularly beneficial if those with unsual build dependencies tested it as we would increase overall coverage beyond what I get from testing against 1800+ CRAN packages. BioConductor would also be welcome.
Alas, you can t always get what you want. Shortly after the release we were made aware that the two (large) pull request at the book ends of the 1.0.3 to 1.0.4 release period created trouble. Of these two, the earliest PR in the 1.0.4 release upset older-than-CRAN-tested installation, i.e. R 3.3.0 or before. (Why you d want to run R 3.3.* when R 3.6.3 is current is something I will never understand, but so be it.) This got addressed in two new PRs. And the matching last PR had a bit of sloppyness leaving just about everyone alone, but not all those macbook-wearing data scientists when using newer macOS SDKs not used by CRAN. In other words, unsual setups. But boy, do those folks have an ability to complain. Again, two quick PRs later that was addressed. Along came a minor PR with two more Rcpp::Shield<> uses (as life is too short to manually count PROTECT and UNPROTECT). And then a real issue between R 4.0.0 and Rcpp first noticed with RcppParallel builds on Windows but then also affecting RcppArmadillo. Another quickly issued fix. So by now the count is up to six, and we arrived at Rcpp 1.0.4.6. Which is now on CRAN, after having sat there for nearly a full week, and of course with no reason given. Because the powers that be move in mysterious ways. And don t answer to earthlings like us. As may transpire here, I am little tired from all this. I think we can do better, and I think we damn well should, or I may as well throw in the towel and just release to the drat repo where each of the six interim versions was available for all to take as soon as it materialized. Anyway, here is the state of things. Rcpp has become the most popular way of enhancing R with C or C++ code. As of today, 1897 packages on CRAN depend on Rcpp for making analytical code go faster and further, along with 191 in BioConductor. And per the (partial) logs of CRAN downloads, we are running steasy at one millions downloads per month. The changes for this interim version are summarized below.

Changes in Rcpp patch release version 1.0.4.6 (2020-04-02)
  • Changes in Rcpp API:
    • The exception handler code in #1043 was updated to ensure proper include behavior (Kevin in #1047 fixing #1046).
    • A missing Rcpp_list6 definition was added to support R 3.3.* builds (Davis Vaughan in #1049 fixing #1048).
    • Missing Rcpp_list 2,3,4,5 definition were added to the Rcpp namespace (Dirk in #1054 fixing #1053).
    • A further updated corrected the header include and provided a missing else branch (Mattias Ellert in #1055).
    • Two more assignments are protect with Rcpp::Shield (Dirk in #1059)
  • Changes in Rcpp Attributes:
    • Empty strings are not passed to R CMD SHLIB which was seen with R 4.0.0 on Windows (Kevin in #1062 fixing #1061).
  • Changes in Rcpp Deployment:
    • Travis CI unit tests now run a matrix over the versions of R also tested at CRAN (rel/dev/oldrel/oldoldrel), and coverage runs in parallel for a net speed-up (Dirk in #1056 and #1057).

Thanks to CRANberries, you can also look at a diff to the previous release. Questions, comments etc should go to the rcpp-devel mailing list off the R-Forge page. Bugs reports are welcome at the GitHub issue tracker as well (where one can also search among open or closed issues); questions are also welcome under rcpp tag at StackOverflow which also allows searching among the (currently) 2356 previous questions. If you like this or other open-source work I do, you can now sponsor me at GitHub. For the first year, GitHub will match your contributions.

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

17 March 2020

Dirk Eddelbuettel: Rcpp 1.0.4: Lots of goodies

rcpp logo The fourth maintenance release 1.0.4 of Rcpp, following up on the 10th anniversary and the 1.0.0. release sixteen months ago, arrived on CRAN this morning. This follows a few days of gestation at CRAN. To help during the wait we provided this release via drat last Friday. And it followed a pre-release via drat a week earlier. But now that the release is official, Windows and macOS binaries will be built by CRAN over the next few days. The corresponding Debian package will be uploaded as a source package shortly after which binaries can be built. As with the previous releases Rcpp 1.0.1, Rcpp 1.0.2 and Rcpp 1.0.3, we have the predictable and expected four month gap between releases which seems appropriate given both the changes still being made (see below) and the relative stability of Rcpp. It still takes work to release this as we run multiple extensive sets of reverse dependency checks so maybe one day we will switch to six month cycle. For now, four months still seem like a good pace. Rcpp has become the most popular way of enhancing R with C or C++ code. As of today, 1873 packages on CRAN depend on Rcpp for making analytical code go faster and further, along with 191 in BioConductor. And per the (partial) logs of CRAN downloads, we are running steasy at one millions downloads per month. This release features quite a number of different pull requests by seven different contributors as detailed below. One (personal) highlight is the switch to tinytest.

Changes in Rcpp version 1.0.4 (2020-03-13)
  • Changes in Rcpp API:
    • Safer Rcpp_list*, Rcpp_lang* and Function.operator() (Romain in #1014, #1015).
    • A number of #nocov markers were added (Dirk in #1036, #1042 and #1044).
    • Finalizer calls clear external pointer first (Kirill M ller and Dirk in #1038).
    • Scalar operations with a rhs matrix no longer change the matrix value (Qiang in #1040 fixing (again) #365).
    • Rcpp::exception and Rcpp::stop are now more thread-safe (Joshua Pritikin in #1043).
  • Changes in Rcpp Attributes:
    • The cppFunction helper now deals correctly with mulitple depends arguments (TJ McKinley in #1016 fixing #1017).
    • Invisible return objects are now supported via new option (Kun Ren in #1025 fixing #1024).
    • Unavailable packages referred to in LinkingTo are now reported (Dirk in #1027 fixing #1026).
    • The sourceCpp function can now create a debug DLL on Windows (Dirk in #1037 fixing #1035).
  • Changes in Rcpp Documentation:
    • The .github/ directory now has more explicit guidance on contributing, issues, and pull requests (Dirk).
    • The Rcpp Attributes vignette describe the new invisible return object option (Kun Ren in #1025).
    • Vignettes are now included as pre-made pdf files (Dirk in #1029)
    • The Rcpp FAQ has a new entry on the recommended importFrom directive (Dirk in #1031 fixing #1030).
    • The bib file for the vignette was once again updated to current package versions (Dirk).
  • Changes in Rcpp Deployment:
    • Added unit test to check if C++ version remains remains aligned with the package number (Dirk in #1022 fixing #1021).
    • The unit test system was switched to tinytest (Dirk in #1028, #1032, #1033).

Please note that the change to execptions and Rcpp::stop() in pr #1043 has been seen to have a minor side effect on macOS issue #1046 which has already been fixed by Kevin in pr #1047 for which I may prepare a 1.0.4.1 release for the Rcpp drat repo in a day or two. Thanks to CRANberries, you can also look at a diff to the previous release. Questions, comments etc should go to the rcpp-devel mailing list off the R-Forge page. Bugs reports are welcome at the GitHub issue tracker as well (where one can also search among open or closed issues); questions are also welcome under rcpp tag at StackOverflow which also allows searching among the (currently) 2356 previous questions. If you like this or other open-source work I do, you can now sponsor me at GitHub. For the first year, GitHub will match your contributions.

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

17 October 2017

Russ Allbery: Bundle haul

Confession time: I started making these posts (eons ago) because a close friend did as well, and I enjoyed reading them. But the main reason why I continue is because the primary way I have to keep track of the books I've bought and avoid duplicates is, well, grep on these posts. I should come up with a non-bullshit way of doing this, but time to do more elegant things is in short supply, and, well, it's my blog. So I'm boring all of you who read this in various places with my internal bookkeeping. I do try to at least add a bit of commentary. This one will be more tedious than most since it includes five separate Humble Bundles, which increases the volume a lot. (I just realized I'd forgotten to record those purchases from the past several months.) First, the individual books I bought directly: Ilona Andrews Sweep in Peace (sff)
Ilona Andrews One Fell Sweep (sff)
Steven Brust Vallista (sff)
Nicky Drayden The Prey of Gods (sff)
Meg Elison The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (sff)
Pat Green Night Moves (nonfiction)
Ann Leckie Provenance (sff)
Seanan McGuire Once Broken Faith (sff)
Seanan McGuire The Brightest Fell (sff)
K. Arsenault Rivera The Tiger's Daughter (sff)
Matthew Walker Why We Sleep (nonfiction)
Some new books by favorite authors, a few new releases I heard good things about, and two (Night Moves and Why We Sleep) from references in on-line articles that impressed me. The books from security bundles (this is mostly work reading, assuming I'll get to any of it), including a blockchain bundle: Wil Allsop Unauthorised Access (nonfiction)
Ross Anderson Security Engineering (nonfiction)
Chris Anley, et al. The Shellcoder's Handbook (nonfiction)
Conrad Barsky & Chris Wilmer Bitcoin for the Befuddled (nonfiction)
Imran Bashir Mastering Blockchain (nonfiction)
Richard Bejtlich The Practice of Network Security (nonfiction)
Kariappa Bheemaiah The Blockchain Alternative (nonfiction)
Violet Blue Smart Girl's Guide to Privacy (nonfiction)
Richard Caetano Learning Bitcoin (nonfiction)
Nick Cano Game Hacking (nonfiction)
Bruce Dang, et al. Practical Reverse Engineering (nonfiction)
Chris Dannen Introducing Ethereum and Solidity (nonfiction)
Daniel Drescher Blockchain Basics (nonfiction)
Chris Eagle The IDA Pro Book, 2nd Edition (nonfiction)
Nikolay Elenkov Android Security Internals (nonfiction)
Jon Erickson Hacking, 2nd Edition (nonfiction)
Pedro Franco Understanding Bitcoin (nonfiction)
Christopher Hadnagy Social Engineering (nonfiction)
Peter N.M. Hansteen The Book of PF (nonfiction)
Brian Kelly The Bitcoin Big Bang (nonfiction)
David Kennedy, et al. Metasploit (nonfiction)
Manul Laphroaig (ed.) PoC GTFO (nonfiction)
Michael Hale Ligh, et al. The Art of Memory Forensics (nonfiction)
Michael Hale Ligh, et al. Malware Analyst's Cookbook (nonfiction)
Michael W. Lucas Absolute OpenBSD, 2nd Edition (nonfiction)
Bruce Nikkel Practical Forensic Imaging (nonfiction)
Sean-Philip Oriyano CEHv9 (nonfiction)
Kevin D. Mitnick The Art of Deception (nonfiction)
Narayan Prusty Building Blockchain Projects (nonfiction)
Prypto Bitcoin for Dummies (nonfiction)
Chris Sanders Practical Packet Analysis, 3rd Edition (nonfiction)
Bruce Schneier Applied Cryptography (nonfiction)
Adam Shostack Threat Modeling (nonfiction)
Craig Smith The Car Hacker's Handbook (nonfiction)
Dafydd Stuttard & Marcus Pinto The Web Application Hacker's Handbook (nonfiction)
Albert Szmigielski Bitcoin Essentials (nonfiction)
David Thiel iOS Application Security (nonfiction)
Georgia Weidman Penetration Testing (nonfiction)
Finally, the two SF bundles: Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes Encounter with Tiber (sff)
Poul Anderson Orion Shall Rise (sff)
Greg Bear The Forge of God (sff)
Octavia E. Butler Dawn (sff)
William C. Dietz Steelheart (sff)
J.L. Doty A Choice of Treasons (sff)
Harlan Ellison The City on the Edge of Forever (sff)
Toh Enjoe Self-Reference ENGINE (sff)
David Feintuch Midshipman's Hope (sff)
Alan Dean Foster Icerigger (sff)
Alan Dean Foster Mission to Moulokin (sff)
Alan Dean Foster The Deluge Drivers (sff)
Taiyo Fujii Orbital Cloud (sff)
Hideo Furukawa Belka, Why Don't You Bark? (sff)
Haikasoru (ed.) Saiensu Fikushon 2016 (sff anthology)
Joe Haldeman All My Sins Remembered (sff)
Jyouji Hayashi The Ouroboros Wave (sff)
Sergei Lukyanenko The Genome (sff)
Chohei Kambayashi Good Luck, Yukikaze (sff)
Chohei Kambayashi Yukikaze (sff)
Sakyo Komatsu Virus (sff)
Miyuki Miyabe The Book of Heroes (sff)
Kazuki Sakuraba Red Girls (sff)
Robert Silverberg Across a Billion Years (sff)
Allen Steele Orbital Decay (sff)
Bruce Sterling Schismatrix Plus (sff)
Michael Swanwick Vacuum Flowers (sff)
Yoshiki Tanaka Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 1: Dawn (sff)
Yoshiki Tanaka Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 2: Ambition (sff)
Yoshiki Tanaka Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Volume 3: Endurance (sff)
Tow Ubukata Mardock Scramble (sff)
Sayuri Ueda The Cage of Zeus (sff)
Sean Williams & Shane Dix Echoes of Earth (sff)
Hiroshi Yamamoto MM9 (sff)
Timothy Zahn Blackcollar (sff)
Phew. Okay, all caught up, and hopefully won't have to dump something like this again in the near future. Also, more books than I have any actual time to read, but what else is new.

20 August 2017

Dirk Eddelbuettel: RcppArmadillo 0.7.960.1.1

armadillo image On the heels of the very recent bi-monthly RcppArmadillo release comes a quick bug-fix release 0.7.960.1.1 which just got onto CRAN (and I will ship a build to Debian in a moment). There were three distinct issues I addressed in three quick pull requests: Armadillo is a powerful and expressive C++ template library for linear algebra aiming towards a good balance between speed and ease of use with a syntax deliberately close to a Matlab. RcppArmadillo integrates this library with the R environment and language--and is widely used by (currently) 382 other packages on CRAN---an increase of 52 since the CRAN release in June! Changes in this release relative to the previous CRAN release are as follows:

Changes in RcppArmadillo version 0.7.960.1.1 (2017-08-20)
  • Added improved check for inherited S4 matrix classes (#162 fixing #161)
  • Changed fastLm C++ function to fastLm_impl to not clash with R method (#164 fixing #163)
  • Added OpenMP check for configure (#166 fixing #165)

Courtesy of CRANberries, there is a diffstat report. More detailed information is on the RcppArmadillo page. Questions, comments etc should go to the rcpp-devel mailing list off the R-Forge page.

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

1 June 2017

Paul Wise: FLOSS Activities May 2017

Changes

Issues

Review

Administration
  • Debian: discuss mail bounces with a hoster, check perms of LE results, add 1 user to a group, re-sent some TLS cert expiry mail, clean up mail bounce flood, approve some debian.net TLS certs, do the samhain dance thrice, end 1 samhain mail flood, diagnose/fix LDAP update issue, relay DebConf cert expiry mails, reboot 2 non-responsive VM, merged patches for debian.org-sources.debian.org meta-package,
  • Debian mentors: lintian/security updates & reboot
  • Debian wiki: delete stray tmp file, whitelist 14 email addresses, disable 1 accounts with bouncing email, ping 3 persons with bouncing email
  • Debian website: update/push index/CD/distrib
  • Debian QA: deploy my changes, disable some removed suites in qadb
  • Debian PTS: strip whitespace from existing pages, invalidate sigs so pages get a rebuild
  • Debian derivatives census: deploy changes
  • Openmoko: security updates & reboots.

Communication
  • Invite Purism (on IRC), XBian (also on IRC), DuZeru to the Debian derivatives census
  • Respond to the shutdown of Parsix
  • Report BlankOn fileserver and Huayra webserver issues
  • Organise a transition of Ubuntu/Endless Debian derivatives census maintainers
  • Advocate against Debian having a monopoly on hardware certification
  • Advocate working with existing merchandise vendors
  • Start a discussion about Debian membership in other organisations
  • Advocate for HPE to join the LVFS & support fwupd

Sponsors All work was done on a volunteer basis.

7 May 2017

Dirk Eddelbuettel: RInside 0.2.14

A new release 0.2.14 of RInside is now on CRAN and in Debian. RInside provides a set of convenience classes which facilitate embedding of R inside of C++ applications and programs, using the classes and functions provided by Rcpp. It has been nearly two years since the last release, and a number of nice extensions, build robustifications and fixes had been submitted over this period---see below for more. The only larger and visible extension is both a new example and some corresponding internal changes to allow a readline prompt in an RInside application, should you desire it. RInside is stressing the CRAN system a little in that it triggers a number of NOTE and WARNING messages. Some of these are par for the course as we get close to R internals not all of which are "officially" in the API. This lead to the submission sitting a little longer than usual in incoming queue. Going forward we may need to find a way to either sanction these access point, whitelist them or, as a last resort, take the package off CRAN. Time will tell. Changes since the last release were:

Changes in RInside version 0.2.14 (2017-04-28)
  • Interactive mode can use readline REPL ( ukasz aniewski-Wo k in #25, and Dirk in #26)
  • Windows macros checks now uses _WIN32 (Kevin Ushey in #22)
  • The wt example now links with libboost_system
  • The Makevars file is now more robist (Mattias Ellert in #21)
  • A problem with empty environment variable definitions on Windows was addressed (Jeroen Ooms in #17 addressing #16)
  • HAVE_UINTPTR_T is defined only if not already defined
  • Travis CI is now driven via run.sh from our forked r-travis

CRANberries also provides a short report with changes from the previous release. More information is on the RInside page. Questions, comments etc should go to the rcpp-devel mailing list off the Rcpp R-Forge page, or to issues tickets at the GitHub repo.

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

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