Search Results: "lars"

14 April 2022

Reproducible Builds: Supporter spotlight: Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC)

The Reproducible Builds project relies on several projects, supporters and sponsors for financial support, but they are also valued as ambassadors who spread the word about the project and the work that we do. This is the third instalment in a series featuring the projects, companies and individuals who support the Reproducible Builds project. If you are a supporter of the Reproducible Builds project (of whatever size) and would like to be featured here, please let get in touch with us at contact@reproducible-builds.org. We started this series by featuring the Civil Infrastructure Platform project and followed this up with a post about the Ford Foundation. Today, however, we ll be talking with Dan Romanchik, Communications Manager at Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC).
Chris Lamb: Hey Dan, it s nice to meet you! So, for someone who has not heard of Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC) before, could you tell us what your foundation is about? Dan: Sure! ARDC s mission is to support, promote, and enhance experimentation, education, development, open access, and innovation in amateur radio, digital communication, and information and communication science and technology. We fulfill that mission in two ways:
  1. We administer an allocation of IP addresses that we call 44Net. These IP addresses (in the 44.0.0.0/8 IP range) can only be used for amateur radio applications and experimentation.
  2. We make grants to organizations whose work aligns with our mission. This includes amateur radio clubs as well as other amateur radio-related organizations and activities. Additionally, we support scholarship programs for people who either have an amateur radio license or are pursuing careers in technology, STEM education and open-source software development projects that fit our mission, such as Reproducible Builds.

Chris: How might you relate the importance of amateur radio and similar technologies to someone who is non-technical? Dan: Amateur radio is important in a number of ways. First of all, amateur radio is a public service. In fact, the legal name for amateur radio is the Amateur Radio Service, and one of the primary reasons that amateur radio exists is to provide emergency and public service communications. All over the world, amateur radio operators are prepared to step up and provide emergency communications when disaster strikes or to provide communications for events such as marathons or bicycle tours. Second, amateur radio is important because it helps advance the state of the art. By experimenting with different circuits and communications techniques, amateurs have made significant contributions to communications science and technology. Third, amateur radio plays a big part in technical education. It enables students to experiment with wireless technologies and electronics in ways that aren t possible without a license. Amateur radio has historically been a gateway for young people interested in pursuing a career in engineering or science, such as network or electrical engineering. Fourth and this point is a little less obvious than the first three amateur radio is a way to enhance international goodwill and community. Radio knows no boundaries, of course, and amateurs are therefore ambassadors for their country, reaching out to all around the world. Beyond amateur radio, ARDC also supports and promotes research and innovation in the broader field of digital communication and information and communication science and technology. Information and communication technology plays a big part in our lives, be it for business, education, or personal communications. For example, think of the impact that cell phones have had on our culture. The challenge is that much of this work is proprietary and owned by large corporations. By focusing on open source work in this area, we help open the door to innovation outside of the corporate landscape, which is important to overall technological resiliency.
Chris: Could you briefly outline the history of ARDC? Dan: Nearly forty years ago, a group of visionary hams saw the future possibilities of what was to become the internet and requested an address allocation from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). That allocation included more than sixteen million IPv4 addresses, 44.0.0.0 through 44.255.255.255. These addresses have been used exclusively for amateur radio applications and experimentation with digital communications techniques ever since. In 2011, the informal group of hams administering these addresses incorporated as a nonprofit corporation, Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC). ARDC is recognized by IANA, ARIN and the other Internet Registries as the sole owner of these addresses, which are also known as AMPRNet or 44Net. Over the years, ARDC has assigned addresses to thousands of hams on a long-term loan (essentially acting as a zero-cost lease), allowing them to experiment with digital communications technology. Using these IP addresses, hams have carried out some very interesting and worthwhile research projects and developed practical applications, including TCP/IP connectivity via radio links, digital voice, telemetry and repeater linking. Even so, the amateur radio community never used much more than half the available addresses, and today, less than one third of the address space is assigned and in use. This is one of the reasons that ARDC, in 2019, decided to sell one quarter of the address space (or approximately 4 million IP addresses) and establish an endowment with the proceeds. This endowment now funds ARDC s a suite of grants, including scholarships, research projects, and of course amateur radio projects. Initially, ARDC was restricted to awarding grants to organizations in the United States, but is now able to provide funds to organizations around the world.
Chris: How does the Reproducible Builds effort help ARDC achieve its goals? Dan: Our aspirational goals include: We think that the Reproducible Builds efforts in helping to ensure the safety and security of open source software closely align with those goals.
Chris: Are there any specific success stories that ARDC is particularly proud of? Dan: We are really proud of our grant to the Hoopa Valley Tribe in California. With a population of nearly 2,100, their reservation is the largest in California. Like everywhere else, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the reservation hard, and the lack of broadband internet access meant that 130 children on the reservation were unable to attend school remotely. The ARDC grant allowed the tribe to address the immediate broadband needs in the Hoopa Valley, as well as encourage the use of amateur radio and other two-way communications on the reservation. The first nation was able to deploy a network that provides broadband access to approximately 90% of the residents in the valley. And, in addition to bringing remote education to those 130 children, the Hoopa now use the network for remote medical monitoring and consultation, adult education, and other applications. Other successes include our grants to:
Chris: ARDC supports a number of other existing projects and initiatives, not all of them in the open source world. How much do you feel being a part of the broader free culture movement helps you achieve your aims? Dan: In general, we find it challenging that most digital communications technology is proprietary and closed-source. It s part of our mission to fund open source alternatives. Without them, we are solely reliant, as a society, on corporate interests for our digital communication needs. It makes us vulnerable and it puts us at risk of increased surveillance. Thus, ARDC supports open source software wherever possible, and our grantees must make a commitment to share their work under an open source license or otherwise make it as freely available as possible.
Chris: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today. Now, if someone wanted to know more about ARDC or to get involved, where might they go to look? To learn more about ARDC in general, please visit our website at https://www.ampr.org. To learn more about 44Net, go to https://wiki.ampr.org/wiki/Main_Page. And, finally, to learn more about our grants program, go to https://www.ampr.org/apply/

For more about the Reproducible Builds project, please see our website at reproducible-builds.org. If you are interested in ensuring the ongoing security of the software that underpins our civilisation and wish to sponsor the Reproducible Builds project, please reach out to the project by emailing contact@reproducible-builds.org.

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

Daniel Silverstone: Subplot and FOSDEM 2022 talk

As many of you may be aware, I work with Lars Wirzenius on a project we call Subplot which is a tool for writing documentation which helps all stakeholders involved with a proejct to understand how the project meets its requirements. At the start of February we had FOSDEM which was once again online, and I decided to give a talk in the Safety and open source devroom to introduce the concepts of safety argumentation and to bring some attention to how I feel that Subplot could be used in that arena. You can view the talk on the FOSDEM website at some point in the future when they manage to finish transcoding all the amazing talks from the weekend, or if you are more impatient, on Youtube, whichever you prefer. If, after watching the talk, or indeed just reading about Subplot on our website, you are interested in learning more about Subplot, or talking with us about how it might fit into your development flow, then you can find Lars and myself in the Subplot Matrix Room or else on any number of IRC networks where I hang around as kinnison.

26 January 2022

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

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

opened box

accessories and a leaflet about Linux support

laptop lifted from the box, closed

laptop with lid open

Ubuntu running

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

16 January 2022

Chris Lamb: Favourite films of 2021

In my four most recent posts, I went over the memoirs and biographies, the non-fiction, the fiction and the 'classic' novels that I enjoyed reading the most in 2021. But in the very last of my 2021 roundup posts, I'll be going over some of my favourite movies. (Saying that, these are perhaps less of my 'favourite films' than the ones worth remarking on after all, nobody needs to hear that The Godfather is a good movie.) It's probably helpful to remark you that I took a self-directed course in film history in 2021, based around the first volume of Roger Ebert's The Great Movies. This collection of 100-odd movie essays aims to make a tour of the landmarks of the first century of cinema, and I watched all but a handul before the year was out. I am slowly making my way through volume two in 2022. This tome was tremendously useful, and not simply due to the background context that Ebert added to each film: it also brought me into contact with films I would have hardly come through some other means. Would I have ever discovered the sly comedy of Trouble in Paradise (1932) or the touching proto-realism of L'Atalante (1934) any other way? It also helped me to 'get around' to watching films I may have put off watching forever the influential Battleship Potemkin (1925), for instance, and the ur-epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) spring to mind here. Choosing a 'worst' film is perhaps more difficult than choosing the best. There are first those that left me completely dry (Ready or Not, Written on the Wind, etc.), and those that were simply poorly executed. And there are those that failed to meet their own high opinions of themselves, such as the 'made for Reddit' Tenet (2020) or the inscrutable Vanilla Sky (2001) the latter being an almost perfect example of late-20th century cultural exhaustion. But I must save my most severe judgement for those films where I took a visceral dislike how their subjects were portrayed. The sexually problematic Sixteen Candles (1984) and the pseudo-Catholic vigilantism of The Boondock Saints (1999) both spring to mind here, the latter of which combines so many things I dislike into such a short running time I'd need an entire essay to adequately express how much I disliked it.

Dogtooth (2009) A father, a mother, a brother and two sisters live in a large and affluent house behind a very high wall and an always-locked gate. Only the father ever leaves the property, driving to the factory that he happens to own. Dogtooth goes far beyond any allusion to Josef Fritzl's cellar, though, as the children's education is a grotesque parody of home-schooling. Here, the parents deliberately teach their children the wrong meaning of words (e.g. a yellow flower is called a 'zombie'), all of which renders the outside world utterly meaningless and unreadable, and completely mystifying its very existence. It is this creepy strangeness within a 'regular' family unit in Dogtooth that is both socially and epistemically horrific, and I'll say nothing here of its sexual elements as well. Despite its cold, inscrutable and deadpan surreality, Dogtooth invites all manner of potential interpretations. Is this film about the artificiality of the nuclear family that the West insists is the benchmark of normality? Or is it, as I prefer to believe, something more visceral altogether: an allegory for the various forms of ontological violence wrought by fascism, as well a sobering nod towards some of fascism's inherent appeals? (Perhaps it is both. In 1972, French poststructuralists Gilles and F lix Guattari wrote Anti-Oedipus, which plays with the idea of the family unit as a metaphor for the authoritarian state.) The Greek-language Dogtooth, elegantly shot, thankfully provides no easy answers.

Holy Motors (2012) There is an infamous scene in Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 film collaboration between Luis Bu uel and famed artist Salvador Dal . A young woman is cornered in her own apartment by a threatening man, and she reaches for a tennis racquet in self-defence. But the man suddenly picks up two nearby ropes and drags into the frame two large grand pianos... each leaden with a dead donkey, a stone tablet, a pumpkin and a bewildered priest. This bizarre sketch serves as a better introduction to Leos Carax's Holy Motors than any elementary outline of its plot, which ostensibly follows 24 hours in the life of a man who must play a number of extremely diverse roles around Paris... all for no apparent reason. (And is he even a man?) Surrealism as an art movement gets a pretty bad wrap these days, and perhaps justifiably so. But Holy Motors and Un Chien Andalou serve as a good reminder that surrealism can be, well, 'good, actually'. And if not quite high art, Holy Motors at least demonstrates that surrealism can still unnerving and hilariously funny. Indeed, recalling the whimsy of the plot to a close friend, the tears of laughter came unbidden to my eyes once again. ("And then the limousines...!") Still, it is unclear how Holy Motors truly refreshes surrealism for the twenty-first century. Surrealism was, in part, a reaction to the mechanical and unfeeling brutality of World War I and ultimately sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind. Holy Motors cannot be responding to another continental conflagration, and so it appears to me to be some kind of commentary on the roles we exhibit in an era of 'post-postmodernity': a sketch on our age of performative authenticity, perhaps, or an idle doodle on the function and psychosocial function of work. Or perhaps not. After all, this film was produced in a time that offers the near-universal availability of mind-altering substances, and this certainly changes the context in which this film was both created. And, how can I put it, was intended to be watched.

Manchester by the Sea (2016) An absolutely devastating portrayal of a character who is unable to forgive himself and is hesitant to engage with anyone ever again. It features a near-ideal balance between portraying unrecoverable anguish and tender warmth, and is paradoxically grandiose in its subtle intimacy. The mechanics of life led me to watch this lying on a bed in a chain hotel by Heathrow Airport, and if this colourless circumstance blunted the film's emotional impact on me, I am probably thankful for it. Indeed, I find myself reduced in this review to fatuously recalling my favourite interactions instead of providing any real commentary. You could write a whole essay about one particular incident: its surfaces, subtexts and angles... all despite nothing of any substance ever being communicated. Truly stunning.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) Roger Ebert called this movie one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come. But whilst it is difficult to disagree with his sentiment, Ebert's choice of sad is somehow not quite the right word. Indeed, I've long regretted that our dictionaries don't have more nuanced blends of tragedy and sadness; perhaps the Ancient Greeks can loan us some. Nevertheless, the plot of this film is of a gambler and a prostitute who become business partners in a new and remote mining town called Presbyterian Church. However, as their town and enterprise booms, it comes to the attention of a large mining corporation who want to bully or buy their way into the action. What makes this film stand out is not the plot itself, however, but its mood and tone the town and its inhabitants seem to be thrown together out of raw lumber, covered alternatively in mud or frozen ice, and their days (and their personalities) are both short and dark in equal measure. As a brief aside, if you haven't seen a Roger Altman film before, this has all the trappings of being a good introduction. As Ebert went on to observe: This is not the kind of movie where the characters are introduced. They are all already here. Furthermore, we can see some of Altman's trademark conversations that overlap, a superb handling of ensemble casts, and a quietly subversive view of the tyranny of 'genre'... and the latter in a time when the appetite for revisionist portrays of the West was not very strong. All of these 'Altmanian' trademarks can be ordered in much stronger measures in his later films: in particular, his comedy-drama Nashville (1975) has 24 main characters, and my jejune interpretation of Gosford Park (2001) is that it is purposefully designed to poke fun those who take a reductionist view of 'genre', or at least on the audience's expectations. (In this case, an Edwardian-era English murder mystery in the style of Agatha Christie, but where no real murder or detection really takes place.) On the other hand, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is actually a poor introduction to Altman. The story is told in a suitable deliberate and slow tempo, and the two stars of the film are shown thoroughly defrocked of any 'star status', in both the visual and moral dimensions. All of these traits are, however, this film's strength, adding up to a credible, fascinating and riveting portrayal of the old West.

Detour (1945) Detour was filmed in less than a week, and it's difficult to decide out of the actors and the screenplay which is its weakest point.... Yet it still somehow seemed to drag me in. The plot revolves around luckless Al who is hitchhiking to California. Al gets a lift from a man called Haskell who quickly falls down dead from a heart attack. Al quickly buries the body and takes Haskell's money, car and identification, believing that the police will believe Al murdered him. An unstable element is soon introduced in the guise of Vera, who, through a set of coincidences that stretches credulity, knows that this 'new' Haskell (ie. Al pretending to be him) is not who he seems. Vera then attaches herself to Al in order to blackmail him, and the world starts to spin out of his control. It must be understood that none of this is executed very well. Rather, what makes Detour so interesting to watch is that its 'errors' lend a distinctively creepy and unnatural hue to the film. Indeed, in the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud used the word unheimlich to describe the experience of something that is not simply mysterious, but something creepy in a strangely familiar way. This is almost the perfect description of watching Detour its eerie nature means that we are not only frequently second-guessed about where the film is going, but are often uncertain whether we are watching the usual objective perspective offered by cinema. In particular, are all the ham-fisted segues, stilted dialogue and inscrutable character motivations actually a product of Al inventing a story for the viewer? Did he murder Haskell after all, despite the film 'showing' us that Haskell died of natural causes? In other words, are we watching what Al wants us to believe? Regardless of the answers to these questions, the film succeeds precisely because of its accidental or inadvertent choices, so it is an implicit reminder that seeking the director's original intention in any piece of art is a complete mirage. Detour is certainly not a good film, but it just might be a great one. (It is a short film too, and, out of copyright, it is available online for free.)

Safe (1995) Safe is a subtly disturbing film about an upper-middle-class housewife who begins to complain about vague symptoms of illness. Initially claiming that she doesn't feel right, Carol starts to have unexplained headaches, a dry cough and nosebleeds, and eventually begins to have trouble breathing. Carol's family doctor treats her concerns with little care, and suggests to her husband that she sees a psychiatrist. Yet Carol's episodes soon escalate. For example, as a 'homemaker' and with nothing else to occupy her, Carol's orders a new couch for a party. But when the store delivers the wrong one (although it is not altogether clear that they did), Carol has a near breakdown. Unsure where to turn, an 'allergist' tells Carol she has "Environmental Illness," and so Carol eventually checks herself into a new-age commune filled with alternative therapies. On the surface, Safe is thus a film about the increasing about of pesticides and chemicals in our lives, something that was clearly felt far more viscerally in the 1990s. But it is also a film about how lack of genuine healthcare for women must be seen as a critical factor in the rise of crank medicine. (Indeed, it made for something of an uncomfortable watch during the coronavirus lockdown.) More interestingly, however, Safe gently-yet-critically examines the psychosocial causes that may be aggravating Carol's illnesses, including her vacant marriage, her hollow friends and the 'empty calorie' stimulus of suburbia. None of this should be especially new to anyone: the gendered Victorian term 'hysterical' is often all but spoken throughout this film, and perhaps from the very invention of modern medicine, women's symptoms have often regularly minimised or outright dismissed. (Hilary Mantel's 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost is especially harrowing on this.) As I opened this review, the film is subtle in its messaging. Just to take one example from many, the sound of the cars is always just a fraction too loud: there's a scene where a group is eating dinner with a road in the background, and the total effect can be seen as representing the toxic fumes of modernity invading our social lives and health. I won't spoiler the conclusion of this quietly devasting film, but don't expect a happy ending.

The Driver (1978) Critics grossly misunderstood The Driver when it was first released. They interpreted the cold and unemotional affect of the characters with the lack of developmental depth, instead of representing their dissociation from the society around them. This reading was encouraged by the fact that the principal actors aren't given real names and are instead known simply by their archetypes instead: 'The Driver', 'The Detective', 'The Player' and so on. This sort of quasi-Jungian erudition is common in many crime films today (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, Layer Cake, Fight Club), so the critics' misconceptions were entirely reasonable in 1978. The plot of The Driver involves the eponymous Driver, a noted getaway driver for robberies in Los Angeles. His exceptional talent has far prevented him from being captured thus far, so the Detective attempts to catch the Driver by pardoning another gang if they help convict the Driver via a set-up robbery. To give himself an edge, however, The Driver seeks help from the femme fatale 'Player' in order to mislead the Detective. If this all sounds eerily familiar, you would not be far wrong. The film was essentially remade by Nicolas Winding Refn as Drive (2011) and in Edgar Wright's 2017 Baby Driver. Yet The Driver offers something that these neon-noir variants do not. In particular, the car chases around Los Angeles are some of the most captivating I've seen: they aren't thrilling in the sense of tyre squeals, explosions and flying boxes, but rather the vehicles come across like wild animals hunting one another. This feels especially so when the police are hunting The Driver, which feels less like a low-stakes game of cat and mouse than a pack of feral animals working together a gang who will tear apart their prey if they find him. In contrast to the undercar neon glow of the Fast & Furious franchise, the urban realism backdrop of the The Driver's LA metropolis contributes to a sincere feeling of artistic fidelity as well. To be sure, most of this is present in the truly-excellent Drive, where the chase scenes do really communicate a credible sense of stakes. But the substitution of The Driver's grit with Drive's soft neon tilts it slightly towards that common affliction of crime movies: style over substance. Nevertheless, I can highly recommend watching The Driver and Drive together, as it can tell you a lot about the disconnected socioeconomic practices of the 1980s compared to the 2010s. More than that, however, the pseudo-1980s synthwave soundtrack of Drive captures something crucial to analysing the world of today. In particular, these 'sounds from the past filtered through the present' bring to mind the increasing role of nostalgia for lost futures in the culture of today, where temporality and pop culture references are almost-exclusively citational and commemorational.

The Souvenir (2019) The ostensible outline of this quietly understated film follows a shy but ambitious film student who falls into an emotionally fraught relationship with a charismatic but untrustworthy older man. But that doesn't quite cover the plot at all, for not only is The Souvenir a film about a young artist who is inspired, derailed and ultimately strengthened by a toxic relationship, it is also partly a coming-of-age drama, a subtle portrait of class and, finally, a film about the making of a film. Still, one of the geniuses of this truly heartbreaking movie is that none of these many elements crowds out the other. It never, ever feels rushed. Indeed, there are many scenes where the camera simply 'sits there' and quietly observes what is going on. Other films might smother themselves through references to 18th-century oil paintings, but The Souvenir somehow evades this too. And there's a certain ring of credibility to the story as well, no doubt in part due to the fact it is based on director Joanna Hogg's own experiences at film school. A beautifully observed and multi-layered film; I'll be happy if the sequel is one-half as good.

The Wrestler (2008) Randy 'The Ram' Robinson is long past his prime, but he is still rarin' to go in the local pro-wrestling circuit. Yet after a brutal beating that seriously threatens his health, Randy hangs up his tights and pursues a serious relationship... and even tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter. But Randy can't resist the lure of the ring, and readies himself for a comeback. The stage is thus set for Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, which is essentially about what drives Randy back to the ring. To be sure, Randy derives much of his money from wrestling as well as his 'fitness', self-image, self-esteem and self-worth. Oh, it's no use insisting that wrestling is fake, for the sport is, needless to say, Randy's identity; it's not for nothing that this film is called The Wrestler. In a number of ways, The Sound of Metal (2019) is both a reaction to (and a quiet remake of) The Wrestler, if only because both movies utilise 'cool' professions to explore such questions of identity. But perhaps simply when The Wrestler was produced makes it the superior film. Indeed, the role of time feels very important for the Wrestler. In the first instance, time is clearly taking its toll on Randy's body, but I felt it more strongly in the sense this was very much a pre-2008 film, released on the cliff-edge of the global financial crisis, and the concomitant precarity of the 2010s. Indeed, it is curious to consider that you couldn't make The Wrestler today, although not because the relationship to work has changed in any fundamentalway. (Indeed, isn't it somewhat depressing the realise that, since the start of the pandemic and the 'work from home' trend to one side, we now require even more people to wreck their bodies and mental health to cover their bills?) No, what I mean to say here is that, post-2016, you cannot portray wrestling on-screen without, how can I put it, unwelcome connotations. All of which then reminds me of Minari's notorious red hat... But I digress. The Wrestler is a grittily stark darkly humorous look into the life of a desperate man and a sorrowful world, all through one tragic profession.

Thief (1981) Frank is an expert professional safecracker and specialises in high-profile diamond heists. He plans to use his ill-gotten gains to retire from crime and build a life for himself with a wife and kids, so he signs on with a top gangster for one last big score. This, of course, could be the plot to any number of heist movies, but Thief does something different. Similar to The Wrestler and The Driver (see above) and a number of other films that I watched this year, Thief seems to be saying about our relationship to work and family in modernity and postmodernity. Indeed, the 'heist film', we are told, is an understudied genre, but part of the pleasure of watching these films is said to arise from how they portray our desired relationship to work. In particular, Frank's desire to pull off that last big job feels less about the money it would bring him, but a displacement from (or proxy for) fulfilling some deep-down desire to have a family or indeed any relationship at all. Because in theory, of course, Frank could enter into a fulfilling long-term relationship right away, without stealing millions of dollars in diamonds... but that's kinda the entire point: Frank needing just one more theft is an excuse to not pursue a relationship and put it off indefinitely in favour of 'work'. (And being Federal crimes, it also means Frank cannot put down meaningful roots in a community.) All this is communicated extremely subtly in the justly-lauded lowkey diner scene, by far the best scene in the movie. The visual aesthetic of Thief is as if you set The Warriors (1979) in a similarly-filthy Chicago, with the Xenophon-inspired plot of The Warriors replaced with an almost deliberate lack of plot development... and the allure of The Warriors' fantastical criminal gangs (with their alluringly well-defined social identities) substituted by a bunch of amoral individuals with no solidarity beyond the immediate moment. A tale of our time, perhaps. I should warn you that the ending of Thief is famously weak, but this is a gritty, intelligent and strangely credible heist movie before you get there.

Uncut Gems (2019) The most exhausting film I've seen in years; the cinematic equivalent of four cups of double espresso, I didn't even bother even trying to sleep after downing Uncut Gems late one night. Directed by the two Safdie Brothers, it often felt like I was watching two films that had been made at the same time. (Or do I mean two films at 2X speed?) No, whatever clumsy metaphor you choose to adopt, the unavoidable effect of this film's finely-tuned chaos is an uncompromising and anxiety-inducing piece of cinema. The plot follows Howard as a man lost to his countless vices mostly gambling with a significant side hustle in adultery, but you get the distinct impression he would be happy with anything that will give him another high. A true junkie's junkie, you might say. You know right from the beginning it's going to end in some kind of disaster, the only question remaining is precisely how and what. Portrayed by an (almost unrecognisable) Adam Sandler, there's an uncanny sense of distance in the emotional chasm between 'Sandler-as-junkie' and 'Sandler-as-regular-star-of-goofy-comedies'. Yet instead of being distracting and reducing the film's affect, this possibly-deliberate intertextuality somehow adds to the masterfully-controlled mayhem. My heart races just at the memory. Oof.

Woman in the Dunes (1964) I ended up watching three films that feature sand this year: Denis Villeneuve's Dune (2021), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Woman in the Dunes. But it is this last 1964 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara that will stick in my mind in the years to come. Sure, there is none of the Medician intrigue of Dune or the Super Panavision-70 of Lawrence of Arabia (or its quasi-orientalist score, itself likely stolen from Anton Bruckner's 6th Symphony), but Woman in the Dunes doesn't have to assert its confidence so boldly, and it reveals the enormity of its plot slowly and deliberately instead. Woman in the Dunes never rushes to get to the film's central dilemma, and it uncovers its terror in little hints and insights, all whilst establishing the daily rhythm of life. Woman in the Dunes has something of the uncanny horror as Dogtooth (see above), as well as its broad range of potential interpretations. Both films permit a wide array of readings, without resorting to being deliberately obscurantist or being just plain random it is perhaps this reason why I enjoyed them so much. It is true that asking 'So what does the sand mean?' sounds tediously sophomoric shorn of any context, but it somehow applies to this thoughtfully self-contained piece of cinema.

A Quiet Place (2018) Although A Quiet Place was not actually one of the best films I saw this year, I'm including it here as it is certainly one of the better 'mainstream' Hollywood franchises I came across. Not only is the film very ably constructed and engages on a visceral level, I should point out that it is rare that I can empathise with the peril of conventional horror movies (and perhaps prefer to focus on its cultural and political aesthetics), but I did here. The conceit of this particular post-apocalyptic world is that a family is forced to live in almost complete silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound alone. Still, A Quiet Place engages on an intellectual level too, and this probably works in tandem with the pure 'horrorific' elements and make it stick into your mind. In particular, and to my mind at least, A Quiet Place a deeply American conservative film below the surface: it exalts the family structure and a certain kind of sacrifice for your family. (The music often had a passacaglia-like strain too, forming a tombeau for America.) Moreover, you survive in this dystopia by staying quiet that is to say, by staying stoic suggesting that in the wake of any conflict that might beset the world, the best thing to do is to keep quiet. Even communicating with your loved ones can be deadly to both of you, so not emote, acquiesce quietly to your fate, and don't, whatever you do, speak up. (Or join a union.) I could go on, but The Quiet Place is more than this. It's taut and brief, and despite cinema being an increasingly visual medium, it encourages its audience to develop a new relationship with sound.

3 January 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Crashed

Review: Crashed, by Adam Tooze
Publisher: Penguin Books
Copyright: 2018
Printing: 2019
ISBN: 0-525-55880-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 615
The histories of the 2008 financial crisis that I have read focus almost exclusively on the United States. They also stop after the bank rescue and TARP or, if they press on into the aftermath, focus on the resulting damage to the US economy and the widespread pain of falling housing prices and foreclosure. Crashed does neither, instead arguing that 2008 was a crisis of European banks as much as American banks. It extends its history to cover the sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone, treating it as a continuation of the same crisis in a different guise. In the process, Tooze makes a compelling argument that one can draw a clear, if wandering, line from the moral revulsion at the propping up of the international banking system to Brexit and Trump. Qualifications first, since they are important for this type of comprehensive and, in places, surprising and counterintuitive history. Adam Tooze is Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of History at Columbia University and the director of its European Institute. His previous books have won multiple awards, and Crashed won the Lionel Gelber Prize for non-fiction on foreign policy. That it won a prize in that topic, rather than history or economics, is a hint at Tooze's chosen lens. The first half of the book is the lead-up and response to the crisis provoked by the collapse in value of securitized US mortgages and leading to the failure of Lehman Brothers, the failure in all but name of AIG, and a massive bank rescue. The financial instruments at the center of the crisis are complex and difficult to understand, and Tooze provides only brief explanation. This therefore may not be the best first book on the crisis; for that, I would still recommend Bethany McClean and Joe Nocera's All the Devils Are Here, although it's hard to beat Michael Lewis's storytelling in The Big Short. Tooze is not interested in dwelling on a blow-by-blow account of the crisis and initial response, and some of his account feels perfunctory. He is instead interested in describing its entangled global sweep. The new detail I took from the first half of Crashed is the depth of involvement of the European banks in what is often portrayed as a US crisis. Tooze goes into more specifics than other accounts on the eurodollar market, run primarily through the City of London, and the vast dollar-denominated liabilities of European banks. When the crisis struck, the breakdown of liquidity markets left those banks with no source of dollar funding to repay dollar-denominated short-term loans. The scale of dollar borrowing by European banks was vast, dwarfing the currency reserves or trade surpluses of their home countries. An estimate from the Bank of International Settlements put the total dollar funding needs for European banks at more than $2 trillion. The institution that saved the European banks was the United States Federal Reserve. This was an act of economic self-protection, not largesse; in the absence of dollar liquidity, the fire sale of dollar assets by European banks in a desperate attempt to cover their loans would have exacerbated the market crash. But it's remarkable in its extent, and in how deeply this contradicts the later public political position that 2008 was an American recession caused by American banks. 52% of the mortgage-backed securities purchased by the Federal Reserve in its quantitative easing policies (popularly known as QE1, QE2, and QE3) were sold by foreign banks. Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse unloaded more securities on the Fed than any American bank by a significant margin. And when that wasn't enough, the Fed went farther and extended swap lines to major national banks, providing them dollar liquidity that they could then pass along to their local institutions. In essence, in Tooze's telling, the US Federal Reserve became the reserve bank for the entire world, preventing a currency crisis by providing dollars to financial systems both foreign and domestic, and it did so with a remarkable lack of scrutiny. Its swap lines avoided public review until 2010, when Bloomberg won a court fight to extract the records. That allowed the European banks that benefited to hide the extent of their exposure.
In Europe, the bullish CEOs of Deutsche Bank and Barclays claimed exceptional status because they avoided taking aid from their national governments. What the Fed data reveal is the hollowness of those boasts. The banks might have avoided state-sponsored recapitalization, but every major bank in the entire world was taking liquidity assistance on a grand scale from its local central bank, and either directly or indirectly by way of the swap lines from the Fed.
The emergency steps taken by Timothy Geithner in the Treasury Department were nearly as dramatic as those of the Federal Reserve. Without regard for borders, and pushing the boundary of their legal authority, they intervened massively in the world (not just the US) economy to save the banking and international finance system. And it worked. One of the benefits of a good history is to turn stories about heroes and villains into more nuanced information about motives and philosophies. I came away from Sheila Bair's account of the crisis furious at Geithner's protection of banks from any meaningful consequences for their greed. Tooze's account, and analysis, agrees with Bair in many respects, but Bair was continuing a personal fight and Tooze has more space to put Geithner into context. That context tells an interesting story about the shape of political economics in the 21st century. Tooze identifies Geithner as an institutionalist. His goal was to keep the system running, and he was acutely aware of what would happen if it failed. He therefore focused on the pragmatic and the practical: the financial system was about to collapse, he did whatever was necessary to keep it working, and that effort was successful. Fairness, fault, and morals were treated as irrelevant. This becomes more obvious when contrasted with the eurozone crisis, which started with a Greek debt crisis in the wake of the recession triggered by the 2008 crisis. Greece is tiny by the standards of the European economy, so at first glance there is no obvious reason why its debt crisis should have perturbed the financial system. Under normal circumstances, its lenders should have been able to absorb such relatively modest losses. But the immediate aftermath of the 2008 crisis was not normal circumstances, particularly in Europe. The United States had moved aggressively to recapitalize its banks using the threat of compensation caps and government review of their decisions. The European Union had not; European countries had done very little, and their banks were still in a fragile state. Worse, the European Central Bank had sent signals that the market interpreted as guaranteeing the safety of all European sovereign debt equally, even though this was explicitly ruled out by the Lisbon Treaty. If Greece defaulted on its debt, not only would that be another shock to already-precarious banks, it would indicate to the market that all European debt was not equal and other countries may also be allowed to default. As the shape of the Greek crisis became clearer, the cost of borrowing for all of the economically weaker European countries began rising towards unsustainable levels. In contrast to the approach taken by the United States government, though, Europe took a moralistic approach to the crisis. Jean-Claude Trichet, then president of the European Central Bank, held the absolute position that defaulting on or renegotiating the Greek debt was unthinkable and would not be permitted, even though there was no realistic possibility that Greece would be able to repay. He also took a conservative hard line on the role of the ECB, arguing that it could not assist in this crisis. (Tooze is absolutely scathing towards Trichet, who comes off in this account as rigidly inflexible, volatile, and completely irrational.) Germany's position, represented by Angela Merkel, was far more realistic: Greece's debt should be renegotiated and the creditors would have to accept losses. This is, in Tooze's account, clearly correct, and indeed is what eventually happened. But the problem with Merkel's position was the potential fallout. The German government was still in denial about the health of its own banks, and political opinion, particularly in Merkel's coalition, was strongly opposed to making German taxpayers responsible for other people's debts. Stopping the progression of a Greek default to a loss of confidence in other European countries would require backstopping European sovereign debt, and Merkel was not willing to support this. Tooze is similarly scathing towards Merkel, but I'm not sure it's warranted by his own account. She seemed, even in his account, boxed in by domestic politics and the tight constraints of the European political structure. Regardless, even after Trichet's term ended and he was replaced by the far more pragmatic Mario Draghi, Germany and Merkel continued to block effective action to relieve Greece's debt burden. As a result, the crisis lurched from inadequate stopgap to inadequate stopgap, forcing crippling austerity, deep depressions, and continued market instability while pretending unsustainable debt would magically become payable through sufficient tax increases and spending cuts. US officials such as Geithner, who put morals and arguably legality aside to do whatever was needed to save the system, were aghast. One takeaway from this is that expansionary austerity is the single worst macroeconomic idea that anyone has ever had.
In the summer of 2012 [the IMF's] staff revisited the forecasts they had made in the spring of 2010 as the eurozone crisis began and discovered that they had systematically underestimated the negative impact of budget cuts. Whereas they had started the crisis believing that the multiplier was on average around 0.5, they now concluded that from 2010 forward it had been in excess of 1. This meant that cutting government spending by 1 euro, as the austerity programs demanded, would reduce economic activity by more than 1 euro. So the share of the state in economic activity actually increased rather than decreased, as the programs presupposed. It was a staggering admission. Bad economics and faulty empirical assumptions had led the IMF to advocate a policy that destroyed the economic prospects for a generation of young people in Southern Europe.
Another takeaway, though, is central to Tooze's point in the final section of the book: the institutionalists in the United States won the war on financial collapse via massive state interventions to support banks and the financial system, a model that Europe grudgingly had to follow when attempting to reject it caused vast suffering while still failing to stabilize the financial system. But both did so via actions that were profoundly and obviously unfair, and only questionably legal. Bankers suffered few consequences for their greed and systematic mismanagement, taking home their normal round of bonuses while millions of people lost their homes and unemployment rates for young men in some European countries exceeded 50%. In Europe, the troika's political pressure against Greece and Italy was profoundly anti-democratic. The financial elite achieved their goal of saving the financial system. It could have failed, that failure would have been catastrophic, and their actions are defensible on pragmatic grounds. But they completely abandoned the moral high ground in the process. The political forces opposed to centrist neoliberalism attempted to step into that moral gap. On the Left, that came in the form of mass protest movements, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, and parties such as Syriza in Greece. The Left, broadly, took the moral side of debtors, holding that the primary pain of the crisis should instead be born by the wealthy creditors who were more able to absorb it. The Right by contrast, in the form of the Tea Party movement inside the Republican Party in the United States and the nationalist parties in Europe, broadly blamed debtors for taking on excessive debt and focused their opposition on use of taxpayer dollars to bail out investment banks and other institutions of the rich. Tooze correctly points out that the Right's embrace of racist nationalism and incoherent demagoguery obscures the fact that their criticism of the elite center has real merit and is partly shared by the Left. As Tooze sketches out, the elite centrist consensus held in most of Europe, beating back challenges from both the Left and the Right, although it faltered in the UK, Poland, and Hungary. In the United States, the Democratic Party similarly solidified around neoliberalism and saw off its challenges from the Left. The Republican Party, however, essentially abandoned the centrist position, embracing the Right. That left the Democratic Party as the sole remaining neoliberal institutionalist party, supplemented by a handful of embattled Republican centrists. Wall Street and its money swung to the Democratic Party, but it was deeply unpopular on both the Left and the Right and this shift may have hurt them more than helped. The Democrats, by not abandoning the center, bore the brunt of the residual anger over the bank bailout and subsequent deep recession. Tooze sees in that part of the explanation for Trump's electoral victory over Hilary Clinton. This review is already much too long, and I haven't even mentioned Tooze's clear explanation of the centrality of treasury bonds to world finances, or his discussions of Russian and Ukraine, China, or Brexit, all of which I thought were excellent. This is not only an comprehensive history of both of the crises and international politics of the time period. It is also a thought-provoking look at how drastic of interventions are required to keep the supposed free market working, who is left to suffer after those interventions, and the political consequences of the choice to prioritize the stability of a deeply inequitable and unsafe financial system. At least in the United States, there is now a major political party that is likely to oppose even mundane international financial institutions, let alone another major intervention. The neoliberal center is profoundly weakened. But nothing has been done to untangle the international financial system, and little has been done to reduce its risk. The world will go into the next financial challenge still suffering from a legitimacy crisis. Given the miserly, condescending, and dismissive treatment of the suffering general populace after moving heaven and earth to save the banking system, that legitimacy crisis is arguably justified, but an uncontrolled crash of the financial system is not likely to be any kinder to the average citizen than it is to the investment bankers. Crashed is not the best-written book at a sentence-by-sentence level. Tooze's prose is choppy and a bit awkward, and his paragraphs occasionally wander away from a clear point. But the content is excellent and thought-provoking, filling in large sections of the crisis picture that I had not previously been aware of and making a persuasive argument for its continuing effects on current politics. Recommended if you're not tired of reading about financial crises. Rating: 8 out of 10

31 December 2021

Chris Lamb: Favourite books of 2021: Fiction

In my two most recent posts, I listed the memoirs and biographies and followed this up with the non-fiction I enjoyed the most in 2021. I'll leave my roundup of 'classic' fiction until tomorrow, but today I'll be going over my favourite fiction. Books that just miss the cut here include Kingsley Amis' comic Lucky Jim, Cormac McCarthy's The Road (although see below for McCarthy's Blood Meridian) and the Complete Adventures of Tintin by Herg , the latter forming an inadvertently incisive portrait of the first half of the 20th century. Like ever, there were a handful of books that didn't live up to prior expectations. Despite all of the hype, Emily St. John Mandel's post-pandemic dystopia Station Eleven didn't match her superb The Glass Hotel (one of my favourite books of 2020). The same could be said of John le Carr 's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which felt significantly shallower compared to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy again, a favourite of last year. The strangest book (and most difficult to classify at all) was undoubtedly Patrick S skind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and the non-fiction book I disliked the most was almost-certainly Beartown by Fredrik Bachman. Two other mild disappointments were actually film adaptions. Specifically, the original source for Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac didn't match Alfred Hitchock's 1958 masterpiece, as did James Sallis' Drive which was made into a superb 2011 neon-noir directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. These two films thus defy the usual trend and are 'better than the book', but that's a post for another day.

A Wizard of Earthsea (1971) Ursula K. Le Guin How did it come to be that Harry Potter is the publishing sensation of the century, yet Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea is only a popular cult novel? Indeed, the comparisons and unintentional intertextuality with Harry Potter are entirely unavoidable when reading this book, and, in almost every respect, Ursula K. Le Guin's universe comes out the victor. In particular, the wizarding world that Le Guin portrays feels a lot more generous and humble than the class-ridden world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Just to take one example from many, in Earthsea, magic turns out to be nurtured in a bottom-up manner within small village communities, in almost complete contrast to J. K. Rowling's concept of benevolent government departments and NGOs-like institutions, which now seems a far too New Labour for me. Indeed, imagine an entire world imbued with the kindly benevolence of Dumbledore, and you've got some of the moral palette of Earthsea. The gently moralising tone that runs through A Wizard of Earthsea may put some people off:
Vetch had been three years at the School and soon would be made Sorcerer; he thought no more of performing the lesser arts of magic than a bird thinks of flying. Yet a greater, unlearned skill he possessed, which was the art of kindness.
Still, these parables aimed directly at the reader are fairly rare, and, for me, remain on the right side of being mawkish or hectoring. I'm thus looking forward to reading the next two books in the series soon.

Blood Meridian (1985) Cormac McCarthy Blood Meridian follows a band of American bounty hunters who are roaming the Mexican-American borderlands in the late 1840s. Far from being remotely swashbuckling, though, the group are collecting scalps for money and killing anyone who crosses their path. It is the most unsparing treatment of American genocide and moral depravity I have ever come across, an anti-Western that flouts every convention of the genre. Blood Meridian thus has a family resemblance to that other great anti-Western, Once Upon a Time in the West: after making a number of gun-toting films that venerate the American West (ie. his Dollars Trilogy), Sergio Leone turned his cynical eye to the western. Yet my previous paragraph actually euphemises just how violent Blood Meridian is. Indeed, I would need to be a much better writer (indeed, perhaps McCarthy himself) to adequately 0utline the tone of this book. In a certain sense, it's less than you read this book in a conventional sense, but rather that you are forced to witness successive chapters of grotesque violence... all occurring for no obvious reason. It is often said that books 'subvert' a genre and, indeed, I implied as such above. But the term subvert implies a kind of Puck-like mischievousness, or brings to mind court jesters licensed to poke fun at the courtiers. By contrast, however, Blood Meridian isn't funny in the slightest. There isn't animal cruelty per se, but rather wanton negligence of another kind entirely. In fact, recalling a particular passage involving an injured horse makes me feel physically ill. McCarthy's prose is at once both baroque in its language and thrifty in its presentation. As Philip Connors wrote back in 2007, McCarthy has spent forty years writing as if he were trying to expand the Old Testament, and learning that McCarthy grew up around the Church therefore came as no real surprise. As an example of his textual frugality, I often looked for greater precision in the text, finding myself asking whether who a particular 'he' is, or to which side of a fight some two men belonged to. Yet we must always remember that there is no precision to found in a gunfight, so this infidelity is turned into a virtue. It's not that these are fair fights anyway, or even 'murder': Blood Meridian is just slaughter; pure butchery. Murder is a gross understatement for what this book is, and at many points we are grateful that McCarthy spares us precision. At others, however, we can be thankful for his exactitude. There is no ambiguity regarding the morality of the puppy-drowning Judge, for example: a Colonel Kurtz who has been given free license over the entire American south. There is, thank God, no danger of Hollywood mythologising him into a badass hero. Indeed, we must all be thankful that it is impossible to film this ultra-violent book... Indeed, the broader idea of 'adapting' anything to this world is, beyond sick. An absolutely brutal read; I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Bodies of Light (2014) Sarah Moss Bodies of Light is a 2014 book by Glasgow-born Sarah Moss on the stirrings of women's suffrage within an arty clique in nineteenth-century England. Set in the intellectually smoggy cities of Manchester and London, this poignant book follows the studiously intelligent Alethia 'Ally' Moberly who is struggling to gain the acceptance of herself, her mother and the General Medical Council. You can read my full review from July.

House of Leaves (2000) Mark Z. Danielewski House of Leaves is a remarkably difficult book to explain. Although the plot refers to a fictional documentary about a family whose house is somehow larger on the inside than the outside, this quotidian horror premise doesn't explain the complex meta-commentary that Danielewski adds on top. For instance, the book contains a large number of pseudo-academic footnotes (many of which contain footnotes themselves), with references to scholarly papers, books, films and other articles. Most of these references are obviously fictional, but it's the kind of book where the joke is that some of them are not. The format, structure and typography of the book is highly unconventional too, with extremely unusual page layouts and styles. It's the sort of book and idea that should be a tired gimmick but somehow isn't. This is particularly so when you realise it seems specifically designed to create a fandom around it and to manufacturer its own 'cult' status, something that should be extremely tedious. But not only does this not happen, House of Leaves seems to have survived through two exhausting decades of found footage: The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are, to an admittedly lesser degree, doing much of the same thing as House of Leaves. House of Leaves might have its origins in Nabokov's Pale Fire or even Derrida's Glas, but it seems to have more in common with the claustrophobic horror of Cube (1997). And like all of these works, House of Leaves book has an extremely strange effect on the reader or viewer, something quite unlike reading a conventional book. It wasn't so much what I got out of the book itself, but how it added a glow to everything else I read, watched or saw at the time. An experience.

Milkman (2018) Anna Burns This quietly dazzling novel from Irish author Anna Burns is full of intellectual whimsy and oddball incident. Incongruously set in 1970s Belfast during The Irish Troubles, Milkman's 18-year-old narrator (known only as middle sister ), is the kind of dreamer who walks down the street with a Victorian-era novel in her hand. It's usually an error for a book that specifically mention other books, if only because inviting comparisons to great novels is grossly ill-advised. But it is a credit to Burns' writing that the references here actually add to the text and don't feel like they are a kind of literary paint by numbers. Our humble narrator has a boyfriend of sorts, but the figure who looms the largest in her life is a creepy milkman an older, married man who's deeply integrated in the paramilitary tribalism. And when gossip about the narrator and the milkman surfaces, the milkman beings to invade her life to a suffocating degree. Yet this milkman is not even a milkman at all. Indeed, it's precisely this kind of oblique irony that runs through this daring but darkly compelling book.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) Claire North Harry August is born, lives a relatively unremarkable life and finally dies a relatively unremarkable death. Not worth writing a novel about, I suppose. But then Harry finds himself born again in the very same circumstances, and as he grows from infancy into childhood again, he starts to remember his previous lives. This loop naturally drives Harry insane at first, but after finding that suicide doesn't stop the quasi-reincarnation, he becomes somewhat acclimatised to his fate. He prospers much better at school the next time around and is ultimately able to make better decisions about his life, especially when he just happens to know how to stay out of trouble during the Second World War. Yet what caught my attention in this 'soft' sci-fi book was not necessarily the book's core idea but rather the way its connotations were so intelligently thought through. Just like in a musical theme and varations, the success of any concept-driven book is far more a product of how the implications of the key idea are played out than how clever the central idea was to begin with. Otherwise, you just have another neat Borges short story: satisfying, to be sure, but in a narrower way. From her relatively simple premise, for example, North has divined that if there was a community of people who could remember their past lives, this would actually allow messages and knowledge to be passed backwards and forwards in time. Ah, of course! Indeed, this very mechanism drives the plot: news comes back from the future that the progress of history is being interfered with, and, because of this, the end of the world is slowly coming. Through the lives that follow, Harry sets out to find out who is passing on technology before its time, and work out how to stop them. With its gently-moralising romp through the salient historical touchpoints of the twentieth century, I sometimes got a whiff of Forrest Gump. But it must be stressed that this book is far less certain of its 'right-on' liberal credentials than Robert Zemeckis' badly-aged film. And whilst we're on the topic of other media, if you liked the underlying conceit behind Stuart Turton's The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle yet didn't enjoy the 'variations' of that particular tale, then I'd definitely give The First Fifteen Lives a try. At the very least, 15 is bigger than 7. More seriously, though, The First Fifteen Lives appears to reflect anxieties about technology, particularly around modern technological accelerationism. At no point does it seriously suggest that if we could somehow possess the technology from a decade in the future then our lives would be improved in any meaningful way. Indeed, precisely the opposite is invariably implied. To me, at least, homo sapiens often seems to be merely marking time until we can blow each other up and destroying the climate whilst sleepwalking into some crisis that might precipitate a thermonuclear genocide sometimes seems to be built into our DNA. In an era of cli-fi fiction and our non-fiction newspaper headlines, to label North's insight as 'prescience' might perhaps be overstating it, but perhaps that is the point: this destructive and negative streak is universal to all periods of our violent, insecure species.

The Goldfinch (2013) Donna Tartt After Breaking Bad, the second biggest runaway success of 2014 was probably Donna Tartt's doorstop of a novel, The Goldfinch. Yet upon its release and popular reception, it got a significant number of bad reviews in the literary press with, of course, an equal number of predictable think pieces claiming this was sour grapes on the part of the cognoscenti. Ah, to be in 2014 again, when our arguments were so much more trivial. For the uninitiated, The Goldfinch is a sprawling bildungsroman that centres on Theo Decker, a 13-year-old whose world is turned upside down when a terrorist bomb goes off whilst visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, killing his mother among other bystanders. Perhaps more importantly, he makes off with a painting in order to fulfil a promise to a dying old man: Carel Fabritius' 1654 masterpiece The Goldfinch. For the next 14 years (and almost 800 pages), the painting becomes the only connection to his lost mother as he's flung, almost entirely rudderless, around the Western world, encountering an array of eccentric characters. Whatever the critics claimed, Tartt's near-perfect evocation of scenes, from the everyday to the unimaginable, is difficult to summarise. I wouldn't label it 'cinematic' due to her evocation of the interiority of the characters. Take, for example: Even the suggestion that my father had close friends conveyed a misunderstanding of his personality that I didn't know how to respond it's precisely this kind of relatable inner subjectivity that cannot be easily conveyed by film, likely is one of the main reasons why the 2019 film adaptation was such a damp squib. Tartt's writing is definitely not 'impressionistic' either: there are many near-perfect evocations of scenes, even ones we hope we cannot recognise from real life. In particular, some of the drug-taking scenes feel so credibly authentic that I sometimes worried about the author herself. Almost eight months on from first reading this novel, what I remember most was what a joy this was to read. I do worry that it won't stand up to a more critical re-reading (the character named Xandra even sounds like the pharmaceuticals she is taking), but I think I'll always treasure the first days I spent with this often-beautiful novel.

Beyond Black (2005) Hilary Mantel Published about five years before the hyperfamous Wolf Hall (2004), Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black is a deeply disturbing book about spiritualism and the nature of Hell, somewhat incongruously set in modern-day England. Alison Harte is a middle-aged physic medium who works in the various towns of the London orbital motorway. She is accompanied by her stuffy assistant, Colette, and her spirit guide, Morris, who is invisible to everyone but Alison. However, this is no gentle and musk-smelling world of the clairvoyant and mystic, for Alison is plagued by spirits from her past who infiltrate her physical world, becoming stronger and nastier every day. Alison's smiling and rotund persona thus conceals a truly desperate woman: she knows beyond doubt the terrors of the next life, yet must studiously conceal them from her credulous clients. Beyond Black would be worth reading for its dark atmosphere alone, but it offers much more than a chilling and creepy tale. Indeed, it is extraordinarily observant as well as unsettlingly funny about a particular tranche of British middle-class life. Still, the book's unnerving nature that sticks in the mind, and reading it noticeably changed my mood for days afterwards, and not necessarily for the best.

The Wall (2019) John Lanchester The Wall tells the story of a young man called Kavanagh, one of the thousands of Defenders standing guard around a solid fortress that envelopes the British Isles. A national service of sorts, it is Kavanagh's job to stop the so-called Others getting in. Lanchester is frank about what his wall provides to those who stand guard: the Defenders of the Wall are conscripted for two years on the Wall, with no exceptions, giving everyone in society a life plan and a story. But whilst The Wall is ostensibly about a physical wall, it works even better as a story about the walls in our mind. In fact, the book blends together of some of the most important issues of our time: climate change, increasing isolation, Brexit and other widening societal divisions. If you liked P. D. James' The Children of Men you'll undoubtedly recognise much of the same intellectual atmosphere, although the sterility of John Lanchester's dystopia is definitely figurative and textual rather than literal. Despite the final chapters perhaps not living up to the world-building of the opening, The Wall features a taut and engrossing narrative, and it undoubtedly warrants even the most cursory glance at its symbolism. I've yet to read something by Lanchester I haven't enjoyed (even his short essay on cheating in sports, for example) and will be definitely reading more from him in 2022.

The Only Story (2018) Julian Barnes The Only Story is the story of Paul, a 19-year-old boy who falls in love with 42-year-old Susan, a married woman with two daughters who are about Paul's age. The book begins with how Paul meets Susan in happy (albeit complicated) circumstances, but as the story unfolds, the novel becomes significantly more tragic and moving. Whilst the story begins from the first-person perspective, midway through the book it shifts into the second person, and, later, into the third as well. Both of these narrative changes suggested to me an attempt on the part of Paul the narrator (if not Barnes himself), to distance himself emotionally from the events taking place. This effect is a lot more subtle than it sounds, however: far more prominent and devastating is the underlying and deeply moving story about the relationship ends up. Throughout this touching book, Barnes uses his mastery of language and observation to avoid the saccharine and the maudlin, and ends up with a heart-wrenching and emotive narrative. Without a doubt, this is the saddest book I read this year.

25 December 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: Shattered Pillars

Review: Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear
Series: Eternal Sky #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: March 2013
ISBN: 0-7653-2755-4
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 333
Shattered Pillars is the second book in the Eternal Sky series, which begins with Range of Ghosts. You should read them in order, and ideally close together, since they (along with the next book) form a single continuous story. I made the horrible mistake of reading the first book of an Elizabeth Bear series and then letting four years go by before reading the second one. Bear's trademark style is to underexplain things to the point that it can be hard to follow the plot when you remember it, let alone after more than sufficient time to forget even the general shape of the plot. I therefore spent most of this book (and a bit of Internet searching) trying to dig up pieces of my memory and reconstruct the story. Learn from my error and read the trilogy as one novel if you're going to read it. Please, authors and publishers, put a short plot synopsis at the start of series books. No, your hints about what happened previously that you weave into the first two chapters are not as good as a one-page plot synopsis. No, I don't want to have to re-read the first book; do you have any idea how many books I own but haven't read? No, the Internet doesn't provide plot synopses for every book. Give me a couple of paragraphs and help me enjoy your fiction! Argh. Possible spoiler warnings for the first book are in order because I don't remember the first book well enough to remember what plot details might be a spoiler. As Shattered Pillars opens, Temur, Samarkar, and their companions have reached the western city of Asitaneh, seeking help from Temur's grandfather to rescue Edene from the Nameless. This will require breaching the Nameless fortress of Ala-Din. That, in turn, will entangle Temur and Samarkar in the politics of the western caliphate, where al-Sepehr of the Nameless is also meddling. Far to the east, from where Samarkar came, a deadly plague breaks out in the city of Tsarepheth, one that follows an eerily reliable progression and is even more sinister than it may first appear. Al-Sepehr's plans to sow chaos and war using ancient evil magic and bend the results to his favor continue apace. But one of the chess pieces he thought he controlled has partly escaped his grasp. Behind all of this lurks the powers of Erem and its scorching, blinding, multi-sunned sky. Al-Sepehr believes he understands those powers well enough to use them. He may be wrong. This is entirely the middle book of a trilogy, in that essentially nothing is resolved here. All the pieces in motion at the start of this book are still in motion at the end of this book. We learn a lot more about the characters, get some tantalizing and obscure glances at Erem, and end the book with a firmer idea of the potential sides and powers in play, but there is barely any plot resolution and no proper intermediate climax. This is a book to read as part of a series, not on its own. That said, I enjoyed this book considerably more than I would have expected given how little is resolved. Bear's writing is vivid and engrossing and made me feel like I was present in this world even when nothing apparently significant was happening. And, as usual, her world-building is excellent if you like puzzles, stray hints, and complicated, multi-faceted mythology. This is a world in which the sky literally changes depending on which magical or mythological system reigns supreme in a given area, which in the Erem sections give it a science fiction flavor. If someone told me Bear could merge Silk Road historical fantasy with some of the feel of planetary romance (but far more sophisticated writing), I would have been dubious, but it works. Perhaps the best thing about this book is that all of the characters feel like adults. They make complex, nuanced decisions in pursuit of their goals, thoughtfully adjust to events, rarely make obviously stupid decisions, and generally act like the intelligent and experienced people that they are. This is refreshing in epic fantasy, where the plot tends to steamroll the characters and where often there's a young chosen one at the center of the plot whose courage and raw power overcomes repeated emotional stupidity. Shattered Pillars is careful, precise, and understated where epic fantasy is often brash, reckless, and over-explained. That plus the subtle and deep world-building makes this world feel older and more complex than most series of this sort. There's also a magical horse, who is delightfully uninterested in revealing anything about where it came from or why it's magical, and who was probably my favorite character of the book. Hrahima, the giant tiger-woman, is a close second. I was intrigued to learn more about her complicated relationship with her entirely separate mythology, and hope there's more about that the third book. The villain is still hissable, but a bit less blatantly so on camera. It helps that the scenes from the villains' perspective primarily focus on his more interesting servants. One of the problems with this book, and I think one of the reasons why it feels so transitional and intermediate, is that there are a lot of viewpoint characters and a lot of scene-switching. We're kept up-to-date with four separate threads of events, generally with more than one viewpoint character in each of those threads, and at times (particularly with the wizards of Tsarepheth) I had trouble keeping all the supporting characters straight. Hopefully the third book will quickly merge plot lines and bring some of this complexity together. I wish I'd read this more closely to Range of Ghosts. Either that or a plot synopsis would have helped me enjoy it more. But this is solid epic fantasy by one of SFF's better writers, and now I'm invested in the series again. Some unfortunate logistics are currently between me and the third book, but it won't be four years before I finish the series. Followed by Steles of the Sky. Rating: 7 out of 10

30 August 2021

Russell Coker: Links August 2021

Sciencealert has an interesting article on a game to combat misinformation by microdosing people [1]. The game seemed overly simplistic to me, but I guess I m not the target demographic. Research shows it to work. Vice has an interesting and amusing article about mass walkouts of underpaid staff in the US [2]. The way that corporations are fighting an increase in the minimum wage doesn t seem financially beneficial for them. An increase in the minimum wage means small companies have to increase salaries too and the ratio of revenue to payroll is probably worse for small companies. It seems that companies like McDonalds make oppressing their workers a higher priority than making a profit. Interesting article in Vice about how the company Shot Spotter (which determines the locations of gunshots by sound) forges evidence for US police [3]. All convictions based on Shot Spotter evidence should be declared mistrials. BitsNBites has an interesting article on the fundamental flaws of SIMD (Single Instruction Multiple Data) [4]. The Daily Dot has a disturbing article anbout the possible future of the QAnon movement [5]. Let s hope they become too busy fighting each other to hurt many innocent people. Ben Taylor wrote an interesting blog post suggesting that Web Assembly should be a default binary target [6]. I don t support that idea but I think that considering it is useful. Web assembly could be used more for non-web things and it would be a better option than Node.js for some things. There are also some interesting corner cases like games, Minecraft was written in Java and there s no reason that Web Assembly couldn t do the same things. Vice has an interesting article about the Phantom encrypted phone service that ran on Blackberry handsets [7]. Australia really needs legislation based on the US RICO law! Vice has an interesting article about an encrypted phone company run by drug dealers [8]. Apparently after making an encrypted phone system for their own use they decided to sell it to others and made millions of dollars. They could have run a successful legal business. Salon has an insightful interview with Michael Petersen about his research on fake news and people who share it because they need chaos [9]. Apparently low status people who are status seeking are a main contributor to this, they share fake news knowingly to spread chaos. A society with less inequality would have less problems with fake news. Salon has another insightful interview with Michael Petersen, about is later research on fake news as an evolutionary strategy [10]. People knowingly share fake news to mobilise their supporters and to signal allegiance to their group. The more bizarre the beliefs are the more strongly they signal allegiance. If an opposing group has a belief then they can show support for their group by having the opposite belief (EG by opposing vaccination if the other political side supports doctors). He also suggests that lying can be a way of establishing dominance, the more honest people are opposed by a lie the more dominant the liar may seem. Vice has an amusing article about how police took over the Encrochat encrypted phone network that was mostly used by criminals [11]. It s amusing to read of criminals getting taken down like this. It s also interesting to note that the authorities messed up by breaking the wipe facility which alerted the criminals that their security was compromised. The investigation could have continued for longer if they hadn t changed the functionality of compromised phones. A later vice article mentioned that the malware installed on Encrochat devices recorded MAC addresses of Wifi access points which was used to locate the phones even though they had the GPS hardware removed. Cory Doctorow wrote an insightful article for Locus about the insufficient necessity of interoperability [12]. The problem if monopolies is not just an inability to interoperate with other services or leave it s losing control over your life. A few cartel participants interoperating will be able to do all the bad things to us tha a single monopolist could do.

22 August 2021

Joachim Breitner: Sweet former employee appreciation

Two months ago was my last day of working as an employee for DFINITY, and as I mentioned in the previous blog post, one of my main contributions was the introduction and maintenance of the Interface Specification.
The Interface Specification as a bookThe Interface Specification as a book
Hence I was especially happy to find that my former colleague Hans Larsen has, as a farewell gift and token of appreciation, created a hard copy of the document, with 107 pages of dry technical content that, and a very sweet dedication on the back. This is especially valuable as it came from Lars personally (i.e. it s not just routine HR work to keep former employees happy, which I could imagine to be a thing in big and mature corporations), and despite the fact that he himself has left DFINITY since. I also take this as further confirmation that this specification-driven design process, despite the initial resistance and daily hurdles, is a good one. A rough list of guiding principles would be: The similarity to the concept of deep specifications from the DeepSpec project is indeed striking. One of my hopes at DFINITY was that these principles would catch on and that other components (e.g the NNS, the nodes or the ICP ledger canister) would follow suite. That did not happen, it seems. Or rather, it did not happen yet PS, in case you are wondering how: The rendering of the document that s shown at at https://sdk.dfinity.org/docs/interface-spec/index.html is not great; the internal website had a different style with made navigating this large document more possible, as it was a dedicated site with the document s nested table of content on the left.

12 July 2021

Daniel Silverstone: Subplot - First public alpha release

This weekend we (Lars and I) finished our first public alpha release of Subplot. Subplot is a tool for helping you to document your acceptance criteria for a project in such a way that you can also produce a programmatic test suite for the verification criteria. We centre this around the concept of writing a Markdown document about your project, with the option to write Gherkin-like given/when/then scenarios inside which detail the automated verification of the acceptance criteria. This may sound very similar to Yarn, a similar concept which Lars, Richard, and I came up with in 2013. Critically back then we were very 'software engineer' focussed and so Yarn was a testing tool which happened to also produce reasonable documentation outputs if you squinted sideways and tried not to think too critically about them. Subplot on the other hand considers the documentation output to be just as important, if not more important, than the test suite output. Yarn was a tool which ran tests embedded in Markdown files, where Subplot is a documentation tool capable of extracting tests from an acceptance document for use in testing your project. The release we made is the first time we're actively asking other people to try Subplot and see whether the concept is useful to them. Obviously we expect there to be plenty of sharp corners and there's a good amount of functionality yet to implement to make Subplot as useful as we want it to be, but if you find yourself looking at a project and thinking "How do I make sure this is acceptable to the stakeholders without first teaching them how to read my unit tests?" then Subplot may be the tool for you. While Subplot can be used to produce test suites with functions written in Bash, Python, or Rust, the only language we're supporting as first-class in this release is Python. However I am personally most interested in the Rust opportunity as I see a lot of Rust programs very badly tested from the perspective of 'acceptance' as there is a tendency in Rust projects to focus on unit-type tests. If you are writing something in Rust and want to look at producing some high level acceptance criteria and yet still test in Rust, then please take a look at Subplot, particularly how we test subplotlib itself. Issues, feature requests, and perhaps most relevantly, code patches, gratefully received. A desire to be actively involved in shaping the second goal of Subplot even more so.

4 May 2021

Benjamin Mako Hill: NSF CAREER Award

In exciting professional news, it was recently announced that I got an National Science Foundation CAREER award! The CAREER is the US NSF s most prestigious award for early-career faculty. In addition to the recognition, the award involves a bunch of money for me to put toward my research over the next 5 years. The Department of Communication at the University of Washington has put up a very nice web page announcing the thing. It s all very exciting and a huge honor. I m very humbled. The grant will support a bunch of new research to develop and test a theory about the relationship between governance and online community lifecycles. If you ve been reading this blog for a while, you ll know that I ve been involved in a bunch of research to describe how peer production communities tend to follow common patterns of growth and decline as well as a studies that show that many open communities become increasingly closed in ways that deter lots of the kinds contributions that made the communities successful in the first place. Over the last few years, I ve worked with Aaron Shaw to develop the outlines of an explanation for why many communities because increasingly closed over time in ways that hurt their ability to integrate contributions from newcomers. Over the course of the work on the CAREER, I ll be continuing that project with Aaron and I ll also be working to test that explanation empirically and to develop new strategies about what online communities can do as a result. In addition to supporting research, the grant will support a bunch of new outreach and community building within the Community Data Science Collective. In particular, I m planning to use the grant to do a better job of building relationships with community participants, community managers, and others in the platforms we study. I m also hoping to use the resources to help the CDSC do a better job of sharing our stuff out in ways that are useful as well doing a better job of listening and learning from the communities that our research seeks to inform. There are many to thank. The proposed work was the direct research of the work I did as the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford where I got to spend the 2018-2019 academic year in Claude Shannon s old office and talking through these ideas with an incredible range of other scholars over lunch every day. It s also the product of years of conversations with Aaron Shaw and Yochai Benkler. The proposal itself reflects the excellent work of the whole CDSC who did the work that made the award possible and provided me with detailed feedback on the proposal itself.

28 April 2021

Russell Coker: Links April 2021

Dr Justin Lehmiller s blog post comparing his official (academic style) and real biographies is interesting [1]. Also the rest of his blog is interesting too, he works at the Kinsey Institute so you know he s good. Media Matters has an interesting article on the spread of vaccine misinformation on Instagram [2]. John Goerzen wrote a long post summarising some of the many ways of having a decentralised Internet [3]. One problem he didn t address is how to choose between them, I could spend months of work to setup a fraction of those services. Erasmo Acosta wrote an interesting medium article Could Something as Pedestrian as the Mitochondria Unlock the Mystery of the Great Silence? [4]. I don t know enough about biology to determine how plausible this is. But it is a worry, I hope that humans will meet extra-terrestrial intelligences at some future time. Meredith Haggerty wrote an insightful Medium article about the love vs money aspects of romantic comedies [5]. Changes in viewer demographics would be one factor that makes lead actors in romantic movies significantly less wealthy in recent times. Informative article about ZIP compression and the history of compression in general [6]. Vice has an insightful article about one way of taking over SMS access of phones without affecting voice call or data access [7]. With this method the victom won t notice that they are having their sservice interfered with until it s way too late. They also explain the chain of problems in the US telecommunications industry that led to this. I wonder what s happening in this regard in other parts of the world. The clown code of ethics (8 Commandments) is interesting [8]. Sam Hartman wrote an insightful blog post about the problems with RMS and how to deal with him [9]. Also Sam Whitton has an interesting take on this [10]. Another insightful post is by Selam G about RMS long history of bad behavior and the way universities are run [11]. Cory Doctorow wrote an insightful article for Locus about free markets with a focus on DRM on audio books [12]. We need legislative changes to fix this!

30 March 2021

Emmanuel Kasper: Playing with cri-o, a container runtime built for Kubernetes

Kubernetes is moving aways from docker to alternative container engines presenting a smaller core having just the functionality needed. The two most populars alternatives are:These alternatives are meant to be used programatically via a unix domain socket, and therefore have a limited command line interface.Let's play around in a VM.Install a throwaway VM with Vagrant
apt install vagrant vagrant-libvirt
vagrant init debian/testing64
Start the VM, install dependencies
vagrant up
vagrant ssh
sudo apt update
sudo apt install --yes curl gnupg jq
Install cri-o the container engine
sudo bash
export OS=Debian_Testing VERSION=1.20

echo "deb https://download.opensuse.org/repositories/devel:/kubic:/libcontainers:/stable/$OS/ /" > /etc/apt/sources.list.d/libcontainers.list
echo "deb https://download.opensuse.org/repositories/devel:/kubic:/libcontainers:/stable:/cri-o:/$VERSION/$OS/ /" > /etc/apt/sources.list.d/cri-o:$VERSION.list
curl -L https://download.opensuse.org/repositories/devel:kubic:libcontainers:stable:cri-o:$VERSION/$OS/Release.key apt-key add -
curl -L https://download.opensuse.org/repositories/devel:/kubic:/libcontainers:/stable/$OS/Release.key apt-key add -
apt install cri-o cri-o-runc containernetworking-plugins conntrack
Verify it is running properly
systemctl restart cri-o
systemctl status cri-o
...
Started Container Runtime Interface for OCI (CRI-O).
Say hello to cri-o via its unix domain socket
curl --silent  --unix-socket /var/run/crio/crio.sock http://localhost/info   jq 

"storage_driver": "overlay",
"storage_root": "/var/lib/containers/storage",
"cgroup_driver": "systemd",
"default_id_mappings":
"uids": [

"container_id": 0,
"host_id": 0,
"size": 4294967295

],
"gids": [

"container_id": 0,
"host_id": 0,
"size": 4294967295

]


Install crictl, a Kubernetes debugging tool for containers
wget --directory-prefix=/tmp https://github.com/kubernetes-sigs/cri-tools/releases/download/v1.20.0/crictl-v1.20.0-linux-amd64.tar.gz
tar -xaf /tmp/crictl-v1.20.0-linux-amd64.tar.gz -C /usr/local/sbin/
chmod +x /usr/local/sbin/crictl

crictl info

"status":
"conditions": [

"type": "RuntimeReady",
"status": true,
"reason": "",
"message": ""
,

"type": "NetworkReady",
"status": true,
"reason": "",
"message": ""

]



From there on you can create a container following the examples in https://github.com/kubernetes-sigs/cri-tools/blob/master/docs/crictl.md

22 February 2021

John Goerzen: Recovering Our Lost Free Will Online: Tools and Techniques That Are Available Now

As I ve been thinking and writing about privacy and decentralization lately, I had a conversation with a colleague this week, and he commented about how loss of privacy is related to loss of agency: that is, loss of our ability to make our own choices, pursue our own interests, and be master of our own attention. In terms of telecommunications, we have never really been free, though in terms of Internet and its predecessors, there have been times where we had a lot more choice. Many are too young to remember this, and for others, that era is a distant memory. The irony is that our present moment is one of enormous consolidation of power, and yet also one of a proliferation of technologies that let us wrest back some of that power. In this post, I hope to enlighten or remind us of some of the choices we have lost and also talk about the ways in which we can choose to regain them, already, right now. I will talk about the possibilities, the big dreams that are possible now, and then go into more detail about the solutions. The Problems & Possibilities The limitations of online We make the assumption that we must be online to exchange data. This is reinforced by many modern protocols; Twitter clients, for instance, don t tend to let you make posts by relaying them through disconnected devices. What would it be like if you could fully participate in global communities without a constant Internet connection? If you could share photos with your friends, read the news, read your email, etc. even if you don t have a connection at present? Even if the device you use to do that never has a connection, but can route messages via other devices that do? Would it surprise you to learn that this was once the case? Back in the days of UUCP, much email and Usenet news a global discussion forum that didn t require an Internet connection was relayed via occasional calls over phone lines. This technology remains with us, and has even improved. Sadly, many modern protocols make no effort in this regard. Some email clients will let you compose messages offline to send when you get online later, but the assumption always is that you will be connected to an IP network again soon. NNCP, on the other hand, lets you relay messages over TCP, a radio, a satellite, or a USB stick. Email and Usenet, since they were designed in an era where store-and-forward was valued, can actually still be used in an entirely offline fashion (without ever touching an IP-based network). All it takes is for someone to care to make it happen. You can even still do it over UUCP if you like. The physical and data link layers Many of us just accept that we communicate in a few ways: Wifi for short distances, and then cable modems or DSL for our local Internet connection, and then many people are fuzzy about what happens after that. Or, alternatively, we have 4G phones that are the local Internet connection, and the same fuzzy things happen after. Think about this for a moment. Which of these do you control in any way? Sometimes just wifi, sometimes maybe you have choices of local Internet providers. After that, your traffic is handled by enormous infrastructure companies. There is choice here. People in ham radio have been communicating digitally over long distances without the support of the traditional Internet for decades, but the technology to do this is now more accessible to anyone. Long-distance radio has had tremendous innovation in the last decade; cheap radios can now communicate over several miles/km without any other infrastructure at all. We all carry around radios (Wifi and Bluetooth) in our pockets that don t have to be used as mere access points to the Internet or as drivers of headphones, but can also form their own networks directly (Briar). Meshtastic is an example; it s an instant messenger that can form a mesh over many miles/km and requires no IP infrastructure at all. Briar is similar. XBee radios form a mesh in hardware, allowing peers to reach each other (also over many miles/km) with a serial or framed protocol. Loss of peer-to-peer Back in the late 90s, I worked at a university. I had a 386 on my desk for a workstation not a powerful computer even then. But I put the boa webserver on it and could just serve pages on the Internet. I didn t have to get permission. Didn t have to pay a hosting provider. I could just DO it. And of course that is because the university had no firewall and no NAT. Every PC at the university was a full participant on the Internet as much as the servers at Microsoft or DEC. All I needed was a DNS entry. I could run my own SMTP server if I wanted, run a web or Gopher server, and that was that. There are many reasons why this changed. Nowadays most residential ISPs will block SMTP for their customers, and if they didn t, others would; large email providers have decided not to federate with IPs in residential address spaces. Most people have difficulty even getting a static IP address in the first place. Many are behind firewalls, NATs, or both, meaning that incoming connections of any kind are problematic. Do you see what that means? It has weakened the whole point of the Internet being a network of peers. While IP still acts that way, as a practical matter, there are clients that are prevented from being servers by administrative policy they have no control over. Imagine if you, a person with an Internet connection to your laptop or phone, could just decide to host a website, or a forum on it. For moderate levels of load, they are certainly capable of this. The only thing in the way is the network management policies you can t control. Elaborate technologies exist to try to bridge this divide, and some, like Tor or cjdns, can work quite well. More on this below. Expense of running something popular Related to the loss of peer-to-peer infrastructure is the very high cost of hosting something popular. Do you want to share videos with lots of people? That almost certainly is going to require expensive equipment and bandwidth. There is a reason that there are only a small handful of popular video streaming sites online. It requires a ton of money to host videos at scale. What if it didn t? What if you could achieve economies of scale so much that you, an individual, could compete with the likes of YouTube? You wouldn t necessarily have to run ads to support the service. You wouldn t have to have billions of dollars or billions of viewers just to make it work. This technology exists right now. Of course many of you are aware of how Bittorrent leverages the swarm for files. But projects like IPFS, Dat, and Peertube have taken this many steps further to integrate it into a global ecosystem. And, at least in the case of Peertube, this is a thing that works right now in any browser already! Application-level walled gardens I was recently startled at how much excitement there was when Github introduced dark mode . Yes, Github now offers two colors on its interface. Already back in the 80s and 90s, many DOS programs had more options than that. Git is a decentralized protocol, but Github has managed to make it centralized. Email is a decentralized protocol pick your own provider, and they all communicate but Facebook and Twitter aren t. You can t just pick your provider for Facebook. It s Facebook or nothing. There is a profit motive in locking others out; these networks want to keep you using their platforms because their real customers are advertisers, and they want to keep showing you ads. Is it possible to have a world where you get to pick your own app for sharing photos, and it works even if your parents use a different one? Yes, yes it is. Mastodon and the Fediverse are fantastic examples for social media. Pixelfed is specifically designed for photos, Mastodon for short-form communication, there s Pleroma for more long-form communication, and they all work together. You can use Mastodon to read Pleroma content or look at Pixelfed photos, and there are many (free) providers of each. Freedom from manipulation I recently wrote about the dangers of the attention economy, so I won t go into a lot of detail here. Fundamentally, you are not the customer of Facebook or Google; advertisers are. They optimize their site to keep you on it as much as possible so that they can show you as many ads as possible which makes them as much money as possible. Ads, of course, are fundamentally seeking to manipulate your behavior ( buy this product ). By lowering the cost of running services, we can give a huge boost to hobbyists and nonprofits that want to do so without an ultimate profit motive. For-profit companies benefit also, with a dramatically reduced cost structure that frees them to pursue their mission instead of so many ads. Freedom from snooping (privacy and anonymity) These days, it s not just government snooping that people think about. It s data stolen by malware, spies at corporations (whether human or algorithmic), and even things like basic privacy of one s own security footage. Here the picture is improving; encryption in transit, at least at a basic level, has become much more common with TLS being a standard these days. Sadly, end-to-end encryption (E2EE) is not nearly as much, perhaps because corporations have a profit motive to have access to your plaintext and metadata. Closely related to privacy is anonymity: that is, being able to do things in an anonymous fashion. The two are not necessarily equal: you could send an encrypted message but reveal who the correspondents are, as with email; or, you could send a plaintext message over a Tor exit node that hides who the correspondents are. It is sometimes difficult to achieve both. Nevertheless, numerous answers exist here that tackle one or both problems, from the Signal messenger to Tor. Solutions That Exist Today Let s dive in to some of the things that exist today. One concept you ll see in many of these is integrated encryption with public keys used for addressing. In other words, your public key is akin to an IP address (and in some cases, is literally your IP address.) Data link and networking technologies (some including P2P) P2P Infrastructure While some of the technologies above, such as cjdns, explicitly facitilitate peer-to-peer communication, there are some other application-level technologies to look at. Instant Messengers and Chat I won t go into a lot of detail here since I recently wrote a roundup of secure mesh messengers and also a followup article about Signal and some hidden drawbacks of P2P. Please refer to those articles for some interesting things that are happening in this space. Matrix is a distributed IM platform similar in concept to Slack or IRC, but globally distributed in a mesh. It supports optional E2EE. Social Media I wrote recently about how to join the Fediverse, which covered joining Mastodon, a federeated, decentralized social network. Mastodon is the largest of these, with several million users, and is something of a much nicer version of Twitter. Mastodon is also part of what is known as the Fediverse , which are applications that are loosely joined together by their support of the ActivityPub protocol. Other popular Fediverse applications include Pixelfed (similar to Instagram) and Peertube for sharing video. Peertube is particularly interesting in that it supports Webtorrent for efficiently distributing popular videos. Webtorrent is akin to Bittorrent running efficiently inside your browser. Concluding Remarks Part of my goal with this is encouraging people to dream big, to ask questions like: What could you do if offline were easy? What is possible if you have freedom in the physical and data link layers? Dream big. We re so used to thinking that it s quite difficult for two devices on the Internet to talk to each other. What would be possible if this were actually quite easy? The assumption that costs rise dramatically as popularity increases is also baked into our thought processes. What if that weren t the case could you take on Youtube from your garage? Would lowering barriers to entry lower the ad economy and let nonprofits have more equal footing with large corporations? We have so many walled gardens, from Github to Facebook, that we almost forget it doesn t have to be that way. So having asked these questions, my secondary point is to suggest that these aren t pie-in-the-sky notions. These possibilites are with us right now. You ll notice from this list that virtually every one of these technologies is ad-free at its heart (though some would be capable of serving ads). They give you back your attention. Many preserve privacy, anonymity, or both. Many dramatically improve your freedom of association and communication. Technologies like IPFS and Bittorrent ease the burden of running something popular. Some are quite easy to use (Mastodon or Peertube) while others are much more complex (libp2p or the lower-level mesh network systems). Clearly there is still room for improvement in many areas. But my fundamental point is this: good technology is here, right now. Technical people can vote with their feet and wallets and start using it. Early adopters will help guide the way for the next set of improvements. Join us!

23 December 2020

John Goerzen: How & Why To Use Airgapped Backups

A good backup strategy needs to consider various threats to the integrity of data. For instance: It s that last one that is of particular interest today. A lot of backup strategies are such that if a user (or administrator) has their local account or network compromised, their backups could very well be destroyed as well. For instance, do you ssh from the account being backed up to the system holding the backups? Or rsync using a keypair stored on it? Or access S3 buckets, etc? It is trivially easy in many of these schemes to totally ruin cloud-based backups, or even some other schemes. rsync can be run with delete (and often is, to prune remotes), S3 buckets can be deleted, etc. And even if you try to lock down an over-network backup to be append-only, still there are vectors for attack (ssh credentials, OpenSSL bugs, etc). In this post, I try to explore how we can protect against them and still retain some modern conveniences. A backup scheme also needs to make a balance between: My story so far About 20 years ago, I had an Exabyte tape drive, with the amazing capacity of 7GB per tape! Eventually as disk prices fell, I had external disks plugged in to a server, and would periodically rotate them offsite. I ve also had various combinations of partial or complete offsite copies over the Internet as well. I have around 6TB of data to back up (after compression), a figure that is growing somewhat rapidly as I digitize some old family recordings and videos. Since I last wrote about backups 5 years ago, my scheme has been largely unchanged; at present I use ZFS for local and to-disk backups and borg for the copies over the Internet. Let s take a look at some options that could make this better. Tape The original airgapped backup. You back up to a tape, then you take the (fairly cheap) tape out of the drive and put in another one. In cost per GB, tape is probably the cheapest medium out there. But of course it has its drawbacks. Let s start with cost. To get a drive that can handle capacities of what I d be needing, at least LTO-6 (2.5TB per tape) would be needed, if not LTO-7 (6TB). New, these drives cost several thousand dollars, plus they need LVD SCSI or Fibre Channel cards. You re not going to be hanging one off a Raspberry Pi; these things need a real server with enterprise-style connectivity. If you re particularly lucky, you might find an LTO-6 drive for as low as $500 on eBay. Then there are tapes. A 10-pack of LTO-6 tapes runs more than $200, and provides a total capacity of 25TB sufficient for these needs (note that, of course, you need to have at least double the actual space of the data, to account for multiple full backups in a set). A 5-pack of LTO-7 tapes is a little more expensive, while providing more storage. So all-in, this is going to be in the best possible scenario nearly $1000, and possibly a lot more. For a large company with many TB of storage, the initial costs can be defrayed due to the cheaper media, but for a home user, not so much. Consider that 8TB hard drives can be found for $150 $200. A pair of them (for redundancy) would run $300-400, and then you have all the other benefits of disk (quicker access, etc.) Plus they can be driven by something as cheap as a Raspberry Pi. Fancier tape setups involve auto-changers, but then you re not really airgapped, are you? (If you leave all your tapes in the changer, they can generally be selected and overwritten, barring things like hardware WORM). As useful as tape is, for this project, it would simply be way more expensive than disk-based options. Fundamentals of disk-based airgapping The fundamental thing we need to address with disk-based airgapping is that the machines being backed up have no real-time contact with the backup storage system. This rules out most solutions out there, that want to sync by comparing local state with remote state. If one is willing to throw storage efficiency out the window maybe practical for very small data sets one could just send a full backup daily. But in reality, what is more likely needed is a way to store a local proxy for the remote state. Then a runner device (a USB stick, disk, etc) could be plugged into the network, filled with queued data, then plugged into the backup system to have the data dequeued and processed. Some may be tempted to short-circuit this and just plug external disks into a backup system. I ve done that for a long time. This is, however, a risk, because it makes those disks vulnerable to whatever may be attacking the local system (anything from lightning to ransomware). ZFS ZFS is, it should be no surprise, particularly well suited for this. zfs send/receive can send an incremental stream that represents a delta between two checkpoints (snapshots or bookmarks) on a filesystem. It can do this very efficiently, much more so than walking an entire filesystem tree. Additionally, with the recent addition of ZFS crypto to ZFS on Linux, the replication stream can optionally reflect the encrypted data. Yes, as long as you don t need to mount them, you can mostly work with ZFS datasets on an encrypted basis, and can directly tell zfs send to just send the encrypted data instead of the decrypted data. The downside of ZFS is the resource requirements at the destination, which in terms of RAM are higher than most of the older Raspberry Pi-style devices. Still, one could perhaps just save off zfs send streams and restore them later if need be, but that implies a periodic resend of a full stream, an inefficient operation. dedpulicating software such as borg could be used on those streams (though with less effectiveness if they re encrypted). Tar Perhaps surprisingly, tar in listed incremental mode can solve this problem for non-ZFS users. It will keep a local cache of the state of the filesystem as of the time of the last run of tar, and can generate new tarballs that reflect the changes since the previous run (even deletions). This can achieve a similar result to the ZFS send/receive, though in a much less elegant way. Bacula / Bareos Bacula (and its fork Bareos) both have support for a FIFO destination. Theoretically this could be used to queue of data for transfer to the airgapped machine. This support is very poorly documented in both and is rumored to have bitrotted, however. rdiff and xdelta rdiff and xdelta can be used as sort of a non-real-time rsync, at least on a per-file basis. Theoretically, one could generate a full backup (with tar, ZFS send, or whatever), take an rdiff signature, and send over the file while keeping the signature. On the next run, another full backup is piped into rdiff, and on the basis of the signature file of the old and the new data, it produces a binary patch that can be queued for the backup target to update its stored copy of the file. This leaves history preservation as an exercise to be undertaken on the backup target. It may not necessarily be easy and may not be efficient. rsync batches rsync can be used to compute a delta between two directory trees and express this as a single-file batch that can be processed by a remote rsync. Unfortunately this implies the sender must always keep an old tree around (barring a solution such as ZFS snapshots) in order to compute the delta, and of course it still implies the need for history processing on the remote. Getting the Data There OK, so you ve got an airgapped system, some sort of runner device for your sneakernet (USB stick, hard drive, etc). Now what? Obviously you could just copy data on the runner and move it back off at the backup target. But a tool like NNCP (sort of a modernized UUCP) offer a lot of help in automating the process, returning error reports, etc. NNCP can be used online over TCP, over reliable serial links, over ssh, with offline onion routing via intermediaries or directly, etc. Imagine having an airgapped machine at a different location you go to frequently (workplace, friend, etc). Before leaving, you put a USB stick in your pocket. When you get there, you pop it in. It s despooled and processed while you want, and return emails or whatever are queued up to be sent when you get back home. Not bad, eh? Future installment I m going to try some of these approaches and report back on my experiences in the next few weeks.

28 November 2020

Mark Brown: Book club: Rust after the honeymoon

Earlier this month Daniel, Lars and myself got together to discuss Bryan Cantrill s article Rust after the honeymoon. This is an overview of what keeps him enjoying working with Rust after having used it for an extended period of time for low level systems work at Oxide, we were particularly interested to read a perspective from someone who was both very experienced in general and had been working with the language for a while. While I have no experience with Rust both Lars and Daniel have been using it for a while and greatly enjoy it. One of the first areas we discussed was data bearing enums these have been very important to Bryan. In keeping with a pattern we all noted these take a construct that s relatively commonly implemented by hand in C (or skipped as too much effort, as Lars found) and provides direct support in the language for it. For both Daniel and Lars this has been key to their enjoyment of Rust, it makes things that are good practice or common idioms in C and C++ into first class language features which makes them more robust and allows them to fade into the background in a way they can t when done by hand. Daniel was also surprised by some omissions, some small such as the ? operator but others much more substantial the standout one being editions. These aim to address the problems seen with version transitions in other languages like Python, allowing individual parts of a Rust program to adopt potentially incompatible language features while remaining interoperability with older editions of the language rather than requiring the entire program to be upgraded en masse. This helps Rust move forwards with less need to maintain strict source level compatibility, allowing much more rapid evolution and helping deal with any issues that are found. Lars expressed the results of this very clearly, saying that while lots of languages offer a 20%/80% solution which does very well in specific problem domains but has issues for some applications Rust is much more able to move towards a much more general applicability by addressing problems and omissions as they are understood. This distracted us a bit from the actual content of the article and we had an interesting discussion of the issues with handling OS differences in filenames portably. Rather than mapping filenames onto a standard type within the language and then have to map back out into whatever representation the system actually uses Rust has an explicit type for filenames which must be explicitly converted on those occasions when it s required, meaning that a lot of file handling never needs to worry about anything except the OS native format and doesn t run into surprises. This is in keeping with Rust s general approach to interfacing with things that can t be represented in its abstractions, rather than hide things it keeps track of where things that might break the assumptions it makes are and requires the programmer to acknowledge and handle them explicitly. Both Lars and Daniel said that this made them feel a lot more confident in the code that they were writing and that they had a good handle on where complexity might lie, Lars noted that Rust is the first languages he s felt comfortable writing multi threaded code in. We all agreed that the effect here was more about having idioms which tend to be robust and both encourage writing things well and gives readers tools to help know where particular attention is required no tooling can avoid problems entirely. This was definitely an interesting discussion for me with my limited familiarity with Rust, hopefully Daniel and Lars also got a lot out of it!

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.

21 October 2020

Bits from Debian: Debian donation for Peertube development

The Debian project is happy to announce a donation of 10,000 to help Framasoft reach the fourth stretch-goal of its Peertube v3 crowdfunding campaign -- Live Streaming. This year's iteration of the Debian annual conference, DebConf20, had to be held online, and while being a resounding success, it made clear to the project our need to have a permanent live streaming infrastructure for small events held by local Debian groups. As such, Peertube, a FLOSS video hosting platform, seems to be the perfect solution for us. We hope this unconventional gesture from the Debian project will help us make this year somewhat less terrible and give us, and thus humanity, better Free Software tooling to approach the future. Debian thanks the commitment of numerous Debian donors and DebConf sponsors, particularly all those that contributed to DebConf20 online's success (volunteers, speakers and sponsors). Our project also thanks Framasoft and the PeerTube community for developing PeerTube as a free and decentralized video platform. The Framasoft association warmly thanks the Debian Project for its contribution, from its own funds, towards making PeerTube happen. This contribution has a twofold impact. Firstly, it's a strong sign of recognition from an international project - one of the pillars of the Free Software world - towards a small French association which offers tools to liberate users from the clutches of the web's giant monopolies. Secondly, it's a substantial amount of help in these difficult times, supporting the development of a tool which equally belongs to and is useful to everyone. The strength of Debian's gesture proves, once again, that solidarity, mutual aid and collaboration are values which allow our communities to create tools to help us strive towards Utopia.

Reproducible Builds: Supporter spotlight: Civil Infrastructure Platform

The Reproducible Builds project depends on our many projects, supporters and sponsors. We rely on their financial support, but they are also valued ambassadors who spread the word about the Reproducible Builds project and the work that we do. This is the first installment in a series featuring the projects, companies and individuals who support the Reproducible Builds project. If you are a supporter of the Reproducible Builds project (of whatever size) and would like to be featured here, please let get in touch with us at contact@reproducible-builds.org. However, we are kicking off this series by featuring Urs Gleim and Yoshi Kobayashi of the Civil Infrastructure Platform (CIP) project.
Chris Lamb: Hi Urs and Yoshi, great to meet you. How might you relate the importance of the Civil Infrastructure Platform to a user who is non-technical? A: The Civil Infrastructure Platform (CIP) project is focused on establishing an open source base layer of industrial-grade software that acts as building blocks in civil infrastructure projects. End-users of this critical code include systems for electric power generation and energy distribution, oil and gas, water and wastewater, healthcare, communications, transportation, and community management. These systems deliver essential services, provide shelter, and support social interactions and economic development. They are society s lifelines, and CIP aims to contribute to and support these important pillars of modern society.
Chris: We have entered an age where our civilisations have become reliant on technology to keep us alive. Does the CIP believe that the software that underlies our own safety (and the safety of our loved ones) receives enough scrutiny today? A: For companies developing systems running our infrastructure and keeping our factories working, it is part of their business to ensure the availability, uptime, and security of these very systems. However, software complexity continues to increase, and the efforts spent on those systems is now exploding. What is missing is a common way of achieving this through refining the same tools, and cooperating on the hardening and maintenance of standard components such as the Linux operating system.
Chris: How does the Reproducible Builds effort help the Civil Infrastructure Platform achieve its goals? A: Reproducibility helps a great deal in software maintenance. We have a number of use-cases that should have long-term support of more than 10 years. During this period, we encounter issues that need to be fixed in the original source code. But before we make changes to the source code, we need to check whether it is actually the original source code or not. If we can reproduce exactly the same binary from the source code even after 10 years, we can start to invest time and energy into making these fixes.
Chris: Can you give us a brief history of the Civil Infrastructure Platform? Are there any specific success stories that the CIP is particularly proud of? A: The CIP Project formed in 2016 as a project hosted by Linux Foundation. It was launched out of necessity to establish an open source framework and the subsequent software foundation delivers services for civil infrastructure and economic development on a global scale. Some key milestones we have achieved as a project include our collaboration with Debian, where we are helping with the Debian Long Term Support (LTS) initiative, which aims to extend the lifetime of all Debian stable releases to at least 5 years. This is critical because most control systems for transportation, power plants, healthcare and telecommunications run on Debian-based embedded systems. In addition, CIP is focused on IEC 62443, a standards-based approach to counter security vulnerabilities in industrial automation and control systems. Our belief is that this work will help mitigate the risk of cyber attacks, but in order to deal with evolving attacks of this kind, all of the layers that make up these complex systems (such as system services and component functions, in addition to the countless operational layers) must be kept secure. For this reason, the IEC 62443 series is attracting attention as the de facto cyber-security standard.
Chris: The Civil Infrastructure Platform project comprises a number of project members from different industries, with stakeholders across multiple countries and continents. How does working together with a broad group of interests help in your effectiveness and efficiency? A: Although the members have different products, they share the requirements and issues when developing sustainable products. In the end, we are driven by common goals. For the project members, working internationally is simply daily business. We see this as an advantage over regional or efforts that focus on narrower domains or markets.
Chris: The Civil Infrastructure Platform supports a number of other existing projects and initiatives in the open source world too. How much do you feel being a part of the broader free software community helps you achieve your aims? A: Collaboration with other projects is an essential part of how CIP operates we want to enable commonly-used software components. It would not make sense to re-invent solutions that are already established and widely used in product development. To this end, we have an upstream first policy which means that, if existing projects need to be modified to our needs or are already working on issues that we also need, we work directly with them.
Chris: Open source software in desktop or user-facing contexts receives a significant amount of publicity in the media. However, how do you see the future of free software from an industrial-oriented context? A: Open source software has already become an essential part of the industry and civil infrastructure, and the importance of open source software there is still increasing. Without open source software, we cannot achieve, run and maintain future complex systems, such as smart cities and other key pieces of civil infrastructure.
Chris: If someone wanted to know more about the Civil Infrastructure Platform (or even to get involved) where should they go to look? A: We have many avenues to participate and learn more! We have a website, a wiki and you can even follow us on Twitter.

For more about the Reproducible Builds project, please see our website at reproducible-builds.org. If you are interested in ensuring the ongoing security of the software that underpins our civilisation and wish to sponsor the Reproducible Builds project, please reach out to the project by emailing contact@reproducible-builds.org.

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