Search Results: "mira"

27 June 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Light from Uncommon Stars

Review: Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-78907-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 371
Katrina Nguyen is an young abused transgender woman. As the story opens, she's preparing to run away from home. Her escape bag is packed with meds, clothes, her papers, and her violin. The note she is leaving for her parents says that she's going to San Francisco, a plausible lie. Her actual destination is Los Angeles, specifically the San Gabriel Valley, where a man she met at a queer youth conference said he'd give her a place to sleep. Shizuka Satomi is the Queen of Hell, the legendary uncompromising violin teacher responsible for six previous superstars, at least within the limited world of classical music. She's wealthy, abrasive, demanding, and intimidating, and unbeknownst to the rest of the world she has made a literal bargain with Hell. She has to deliver seven souls, seven violin players who want something badly enough that they'll bargain with Hell to get it. Six have already been delivered in spectacular fashion, but she's running out of time to deliver the seventh before her own soul is forfeit. Tamiko Grohl, an up-and-coming violinist from her native Los Angeles, will hopefully be the seventh. Lan Tran is a refugee and matriarch of a family who runs Starrgate Donut. She and her family didn't flee another unstable or inhospitable country. They fled the collapsing Galactic Empire, securing their travel authorization by promising to set up a tourism attraction. Meanwhile, she's careful to give cops free donuts and to keep their advanced technology carefully concealed. The opening of this book is unlikely to be a surprise in general shape. Most readers would expect Katrina to end up as Satomi's student rather than Tamiko, and indeed she does, although not before Katrina has a very difficult time. Near the start of the novel, I thought "oh, this is going to be hurt/comfort without a romantic relationship," and it is. But it then goes beyond that start into a multifaceted story about complexity, resilience, and how people support each other. It is also a fantastic look at the nuance and intricacies of being or supporting a transgender person, vividly illustrated by a story full of characters the reader cares about and without the academic abstruseness that often gets in the way. The problems with gender-blindness, the limitations of honoring someone's gender without understanding how other people do not, the trickiness of privilege, gender policing as a distraction and alienation from the rest of one's life, the complications of real human bodies and dysmorphia, the importance of listening to another person rather than one's assumptions about how that person feels it's all in here, flowing naturally from the story, specific to the characters involved, and never belabored. I cannot express how well-handled this is. It was a delight to read. The other wonderful thing Aoki does is set Satomi up as the almost supernaturally competent teacher who in a sense "rescues" Katrina, and then invert the trope, showing the limits of Satomi's expertise, the places where she desperately needs human connection for herself, and her struggle to understand Katrina well enough to teach her at the level Satomi expects of herself. Teaching is not one thing to everyone; it's about listening, and Katrina is nothing like Satomi's other students. This novel is full of people thinking they finally understand each other and realizing there is still more depth that they had missed, and then talking through the gap like adults. As you can tell from any summary of this book, it's an odd genre mash-up. The fantasy part is a classic "magician sells her soul to Hell" story; there are a few twists, but it largely follows genre expectations. The science fiction part involving Lan is unfortunately weaker and feels more like a random assortment of borrowed Star Trek tropes than coherent world-building. Genre readers should not come to this story expecting a well-thought-out science fiction universe or a serious attempt to reconcile metaphysics between the fantasy and science fiction backgrounds. It's a quirky assortment of parts that don't normally go together, defy easy classification, and are often unexplained. I suspect this was intentional on Aoki's part given how deeply this book is about the experience of being transgender. Of the three primary viewpoint characters, I thought Lan's perspective was the weakest, and not just because of her somewhat generic SF background. Aoki uses her as a way to talk about the refugee experience, describing her as a woman who brings her family out of danger to build a new life. This mostly works, but Lan has vastly more power and capabilities than a refugee would normally have. Rather than the typical Asian refugee experience in the San Gabriel valley, Lan is more akin to a US multimillionaire who for some reason fled to Vietnam (relative to those around her, Lan is arguably even more wealthy than that). This is also a refugee experience, but it is an incredibly privileged one in a way that partly undermines the role that she plays in the story. Another false note bothered me more: I thought Tamiko was treated horribly in this story. She plays a quite minor role, sidelined early in the novel and appearing only briefly near the climax, and she's portrayed quite negatively, but she's clearly hurting as deeply as the protagonists of this novel. Aoki gives her a moment of redemption, but Tamiko gets nothing from it. Unlike every other injured and abused character in this story, no one is there for Tamiko and no one ever attempts to understand her. I found that profoundly sad. She's not an admirable character, but neither is Satomi at the start of the book. At least a gesture at a future for Tamiko would have been appreciated. Those two complaints aside, though, I could not put this book down. I was able to predict the broad outline of the plot, but the specifics were so good and so true to characters. Both the primary and supporting cast are unique, unpredictable, and memorable. Light from Uncommon Stars has a complex relationship with genre. It is squarely in the speculative fiction genre; the plot would not work without the fantasy and (more arguably) the science fiction elements. Music is magical in a way that goes beyond what can be attributed to metaphor and subjectivity. But it's also primarily character story deeply rooted in the specific location of the San Gabriel valley east of Los Angeles, full of vivid descriptions (particularly of food) and day-to-day life. As with the fantasy and science fiction elements, Aoki does not try to meld the genre elements into a coherent whole. She lets them sit side by side and be awkward and charming and uneven and chaotic. If you're the sort of SF reader who likes building a coherent theory of world-building rules, you may have to turn that desire off to fully enjoy this book. I thought this book was great. It's not flawless, but like its characters it's not trying to be flawless. In places it is deeply insightful and heartbreakingly emotional; in others, it's a glorious mess. It's full of cooking and food, YouTube fame, the disappointments of replicators, video game music, meet-cutes over donuts, found family, and classical music drama. I wish we'd gotten way more about the violin repair shop and a bit less warmed-over Star Trek, but I also loved it exactly the way it was. Definitely the best of the 2022 Hugo nominees that I've read so far. Content warning for child abuse, rape, self-harm, and somewhat explicit sex work. The start of the book is rather heavy and horrific, although the author advertises fairly clearly (and accurately) that things will get better. Rating: 9 out of 10

17 June 2022

Antoine Beaupr : Matrix notes

I have some concerns about Matrix (the protocol, not the movie that came out recently, although I do have concerns about that as well). I've been watching the project for a long time, and it seems more a promising alternative to many protocols like IRC, XMPP, and Signal. This review may sound a bit negative, because it focuses on those concerns. I am the operator of an IRC network and people keep asking me to bridge it with Matrix. I have myself considered just giving up on IRC and converting to Matrix. This space is a living document exploring my research of that problem space. The TL;DR: is that no, I'm not setting up a bridge just yet, and I'm still on IRC. This article was written over the course of the last three months, but I have been watching the Matrix project for years (my logs seem to say 2016 at least). The article is rather long. It will likely take you half an hour to read, so copy this over to your ebook reader, your tablet, or dead trees, and lean back and relax as I show you around the Matrix. Or, alternatively, just jump to a section that interest you, most likely the conclusion.

Introduction to Matrix Matrix is an "open standard for interoperable, decentralised, real-time communication over IP. It can be used to power Instant Messaging, VoIP/WebRTC signalling, Internet of Things communication - or anywhere you need a standard HTTP API for publishing and subscribing to data whilst tracking the conversation history". It's also (when compared with XMPP) "an eventually consistent global JSON database with an HTTP API and pubsub semantics - whilst XMPP can be thought of as a message passing protocol." According to their FAQ, the project started in 2014, has about 20,000 servers, and millions of users. Matrix works over HTTPS but over a special port: 8448.

Security and privacy I have some concerns about the security promises of Matrix. It's advertised as a "secure" with "E2E [end-to-end] encryption", but how does it actually work?

Data retention defaults One of my main concerns with Matrix is data retention, which is a key part of security in a threat model where (for example) an hostile state actor wants to surveil your communications and can seize your devices. On IRC, servers don't actually keep messages all that long: they pass them along to other servers and clients as fast as they can, only keep them in memory, and move on to the next message. There are no concerns about data retention on messages (and their metadata) other than the network layer. (I'm ignoring the issues with user registration, which is a separate, if valid, concern.) Obviously, an hostile server could log everything passing through it, but IRC federations are normally tightly controlled. So, if you trust your IRC operators, you should be fairly safe. Obviously, clients can (and often do, even if OTR is configured!) log all messages, but this is generally not the default. Irssi, for example, does not log by default. IRC bouncers are more likely to log to disk, of course, to be able to do what they do. Compare this to Matrix: when you send a message to a Matrix homeserver, that server first stores it in its internal SQL database. Then it will transmit that message to all clients connected to that server and room, and to all other servers that have clients connected to that room. Those remote servers, in turn, will keep a copy of that message and all its metadata in their own database, by default forever. On encrypted rooms those messages are encrypted, but not their metadata. There is a mechanism to expire entries in Synapse, but it is not enabled by default. So one should generally assume that a message sent on Matrix is never expired.

GDPR in the federation But even if that setting was enabled by default, how do you control it? This is a fundamental problem of the federation: if any user is allowed to join a room (which is the default), those user's servers will log all content and metadata from that room. That includes private, one-on-one conversations, since those are essentially rooms as well. In the context of the GDPR, this is really tricky: who is the responsible party (known as the "data controller") here? It's basically any yahoo who fires up a home server and joins a room. In a federated network, one has to wonder whether GDPR enforcement is even possible at all. But in Matrix in particular, if you want to enforce your right to be forgotten in a given room, you would have to:
  1. enumerate all the users that ever joined the room while you were there
  2. discover all their home servers
  3. start a GDPR procedure against all those servers
I recognize this is a hard problem to solve while still keeping an open ecosystem. But I believe that Matrix should have much stricter defaults towards data retention than right now. Message expiry should be enforced by default, for example. (Note that there are also redaction policies that could be used to implement part of the GDPR automatically, see the privacy policy discussion below on that.) Also keep in mind that, in the brave new peer-to-peer world that Matrix is heading towards, the boundary between server and client is likely to be fuzzier, which would make applying the GDPR even more difficult. Update: this comment links to this post (in german) which apparently studied the question and concluded that Matrix is not GDPR-compliant. In fact, maybe Synapse should be designed so that there's no configurable flag to turn off data retention. A bit like how most system loggers in UNIX (e.g. syslog) come with a log retention system that typically rotate logs after a few weeks or month. Historically, this was designed to keep hard drives from filling up, but it also has the added benefit of limiting the amount of personal information kept on disk in this modern day. (Arguably, syslog doesn't rotate logs on its own, but, say, Debian GNU/Linux, as an installed system, does have log retention policies well defined for installed packages, and those can be discussed. And "no expiry" is definitely a bug.

Matrix.org privacy policy When I first looked at Matrix, five years ago, Element.io was called Riot.im and had a rather dubious privacy policy:
We currently use cookies to support our use of Google Analytics on the Website and Service. Google Analytics collects information about how you use the Website and Service. [...] This helps us to provide you with a good experience when you browse our Website and use our Service and also allows us to improve our Website and our Service.
When I asked Matrix people about why they were using Google Analytics, they explained this was for development purposes and they were aiming for velocity at the time, not privacy (paraphrasing here). They also included a "free to snitch" clause:
If we are or believe that we are under a duty to disclose or share your personal data, we will do so in order to comply with any legal obligation, the instructions or requests of a governmental authority or regulator, including those outside of the UK.
Those are really broad terms, above and beyond what is typically expected legally. Like the current retention policies, such user tracking and ... "liberal" collaboration practices with the state set a bad precedent for other home servers. Thankfully, since the above policy was published (2017), the GDPR was "implemented" (2018) and it seems like both the Element.io privacy policy and the Matrix.org privacy policy have been somewhat improved since. Notable points of the new privacy policies:
  • 2.3.1.1: the "federation" section actually outlines that "Federated homeservers and Matrix clients which respect the Matrix protocol are expected to honour these controls and redaction/erasure requests, but other federated homeservers are outside of the span of control of Element, and we cannot guarantee how this data will be processed"
  • 2.6: users under the age of 16 should not use the matrix.org service
  • 2.10: Upcloud, Mythic Beast, Amazon, and CloudFlare possibly have access to your data (it's nice to at least mention this in the privacy policy: many providers don't even bother admitting to this kind of delegation)
  • Element 2.2.1: mentions many more third parties (Twilio, Stripe, Quaderno, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google, Outplay, PipeDrive, HubSpot, Posthog, Sentry, and Matomo (phew!) used when you are paying Matrix.org for hosting
I'm not super happy with all the trackers they have on the Element platform, but then again you don't have to use that service. Your favorite homeserver (assuming you are not on Matrix.org) probably has their own Element deployment, hopefully without all that garbage. Overall, this is all a huge improvement over the previous privacy policy, so hats off to the Matrix people for figuring out a reasonable policy in such a tricky context. I particularly like this bit:
We will forget your copy of your data upon your request. We will also forward your request to be forgotten onto federated homeservers. However - these homeservers are outside our span of control, so we cannot guarantee they will forget your data.
It's great they implemented those mechanisms and, after all, if there's an hostile party in there, nothing can prevent them from using screenshots to just exfiltrate your data away from the client side anyways, even with services typically seen as more secure, like Signal. As an aside, I also appreciate that Matrix.org has a fairly decent code of conduct, based on the TODO CoC which checks all the boxes in the geekfeminism wiki.

Metadata handling Overall, privacy protections in Matrix mostly concern message contents, not metadata. In other words, who's talking with who, when and from where is not well protected. Compared to a tool like Signal, which goes through great lengths to anonymize that data with features like private contact discovery, disappearing messages, sealed senders, and private groups, Matrix is definitely behind. (Note: there is an issue open about message lifetimes in Element since 2020, but it's not at even at the MSC stage yet.) This is a known issue (opened in 2019) in Synapse, but this is not just an implementation issue, it's a flaw in the protocol itself. Home servers keep join/leave of all rooms, which gives clear text information about who is talking to. Synapse logs may also contain privately identifiable information that home server admins might not be aware of in the first place. Those log rotation policies are separate from the server-level retention policy, which may be confusing for a novice sysadmin. Combine this with the federation: even if you trust your home server to do the right thing, the second you join a public room with third-party home servers, those ideas kind of get thrown out because those servers can do whatever they want with that information. Again, a problem that is hard to solve in any federation. To be fair, IRC doesn't have a great story here either: any client knows not only who's talking to who in a room, but also typically their client IP address. Servers can (and often do) obfuscate this, but often that obfuscation is trivial to reverse. Some servers do provide "cloaks" (sometimes automatically), but that's kind of a "slap-on" solution that actually moves the problem elsewhere: now the server knows a little more about the user. Overall, I would worry much more about a Matrix home server seizure than a IRC or Signal server seizure. Signal does get subpoenas, and they can only give out a tiny bit of information about their users: their phone number, and their registration, and last connection date. Matrix carries a lot more information in its database.

Amplification attacks on URL previews I (still!) run an Icecast server and sometimes share links to it on IRC which, obviously, also ends up on (more than one!) Matrix home servers because some people connect to IRC using Matrix. This, in turn, means that Matrix will connect to that URL to generate a link preview. I feel this outlines a security issue, especially because those sockets would be kept open seemingly forever. I tried to warn the Matrix security team but somehow, I don't think this issue was taken very seriously. Here's the disclosure timeline:
  • January 18: contacted Matrix security
  • January 19: response: already reported as a bug
  • January 20: response: can't reproduce
  • January 31: timeout added, considered solved
  • January 31: I respond that I believe the security issue is underestimated, ask for clearance to disclose
  • February 1: response: asking for two weeks delay after the next release (1.53.0) including another patch, presumably in two weeks' time
  • February 22: Matrix 1.53.0 released
  • April 14: I notice the release, ask for clearance again
  • April 14: response: referred to the public disclosure
There are a couple of problems here:
  1. the bug was publicly disclosed in September 2020, and not considered a security issue until I notified them, and even then, I had to insist
  2. no clear disclosure policy timeline was proposed or seems established in the project (there is a security disclosure policy but it doesn't include any predefined timeline)
  3. I wasn't informed of the disclosure
  4. the actual solution is a size limit (10MB, already implemented), a time limit (30 seconds, implemented in PR 11784), and a content type allow list (HTML, "media" or JSON, implemented in PR 11936), and I'm not sure it's adequate
  5. (pure vanity:) I did not make it to their Hall of fame
I'm not sure those solutions are adequate because they all seem to assume a single home server will pull that one URL for a little while then stop. But in a federated network, many (possibly thousands) home servers may be connected in a single room at once. If an attacker drops a link into such a room, all those servers would connect to that link all at once. This is an amplification attack: a small amount of traffic will generate a lot more traffic to a single target. It doesn't matter there are size or time limits: the amplification is what matters here. It should also be noted that clients that generate link previews have more amplification because they are more numerous than servers. And of course, the default Matrix client (Element) does generate link previews as well. That said, this is possibly not a problem specific to Matrix: any federated service that generates link previews may suffer from this. I'm honestly not sure what the solution is here. Maybe moderation? Maybe link previews are just evil? All I know is there was this weird bug in my Icecast server and I tried to ring the bell about it, and it feels it was swept under the rug. Somehow I feel this is bound to blow up again in the future, even with the current mitigation.

Moderation In Matrix like elsewhere, Moderation is a hard problem. There is a detailed moderation guide and much of this problem space is actively worked on in Matrix right now. A fundamental problem with moderating a federated space is that a user banned from a room can rejoin the room from another server. This is why spam is such a problem in Email, and why IRC networks have stopped federating ages ago (see the IRC history for that fascinating story).

The mjolnir bot The mjolnir moderation bot is designed to help with some of those things. It can kick and ban users, redact all of a user's message (as opposed to one by one), all of this across multiple rooms. It can also subscribe to a federated block list published by matrix.org to block known abusers (users or servers). Bans are pretty flexible and can operate at the user, room, or server level. Matrix people suggest making the bot admin of your channels, because you can't take back admin from a user once given.

The command-line tool There's also a new command line tool designed to do things like:
  • System notify users (all users/users from a list, specific user)
  • delete sessions/devices not seen for X days
  • purge the remote media cache
  • select rooms with various criteria (external/local/empty/created by/encrypted/cleartext)
  • purge history of theses rooms
  • shutdown rooms
This tool and Mjolnir are based on the admin API built into Synapse.

Rate limiting Synapse has pretty good built-in rate-limiting which blocks repeated login, registration, joining, or messaging attempts. It may also end up throttling servers on the federation based on those settings.

Fundamental federation problems Because users joining a room may come from another server, room moderators are at the mercy of the registration and moderation policies of those servers. Matrix is like IRC's +R mode ("only registered users can join") by default, except that anyone can register their own homeserver, which makes this limited. Server admins can block IP addresses and home servers, but those tools are not easily available to room admins. There is an API (m.room.server_acl in /devtools) but it is not reliable (thanks Austin Huang for the clarification). Matrix has the concept of guest accounts, but it is not used very much, and virtually no client or homeserver supports it. This contrasts with the way IRC works: by default, anyone can join an IRC network even without authentication. Some channels require registration, but in general you are free to join and look around (until you get blocked, of course). I have seen anecdotal evidence (CW: Twitter, nitter link) that "moderating bridges is hell", and I can imagine why. Moderation is already hard enough on one federation, when you bridge a room with another network, you inherit all the problems from that network but without the entire abuse control tools from the original network's API...

Room admins Matrix, in particular, has the problem that room administrators (which have the power to redact messages, ban users, and promote other users) are bound to their Matrix ID which is, in turn, bound to their home servers. This implies that a home server administrators could (1) impersonate a given user and (2) use that to hijack the room. So in practice, the home server is the trust anchor for rooms, not the user themselves. That said, if server B administrator hijack user joe on server B, they will hijack that room on that specific server. This will not (necessarily) affect users on the other servers, as servers could refuse parts of the updates or ban the compromised account (or server). It does seem like a major flaw that room credentials are bound to Matrix identifiers, as opposed to the E2E encryption credentials. In an encrypted room even with fully verified members, a compromised or hostile home server can still take over the room by impersonating an admin. That admin (or even a newly minted user) can then send events or listen on the conversations. This is even more frustrating when you consider that Matrix events are actually signed and therefore have some authentication attached to them, acting like some sort of Merkle tree (as it contains a link to previous events). That signature, however, is made from the homeserver PKI keys, not the client's E2E keys, which makes E2E feel like it has been "bolted on" later.

Availability While Matrix has a strong advantage over Signal in that it's decentralized (so anyone can run their own homeserver,), I couldn't find an easy way to run a "multi-primary" setup, or even a "redundant" setup (even if with a single primary backend), short of going full-on "replicate PostgreSQL and Redis data", which is not typically for the faint of heart.

How this works in IRC On IRC, it's quite easy to setup redundant nodes. All you need is:
  1. a new machine (with it's own public address with an open port)
  2. a shared secret (or certificate) between that machine and an existing one on the network
  3. a connect block on both servers
That's it: the node will join the network and people can connect to it as usual and share the same user/namespace as the rest of the network. The servers take care of synchronizing state: you do not need to worry about replicating a database server. (Now, experienced IRC people will know there's a catch here: IRC doesn't have authentication built in, and relies on "services" which are basically bots that authenticate users (I'm simplifying, don't nitpick). If that service goes down, the network still works, but then people can't authenticate, and they can start doing nasty things like steal people's identity if they get knocked offline. But still: basic functionality still works: you can talk in rooms and with users that are on the reachable network.)

User identities Matrix is more complicated. Each "home server" has its own identity namespace: a specific user (say @anarcat:matrix.org) is bound to that specific home server. If that server goes down, that user is completely disconnected. They could register a new account elsewhere and reconnect, but then they basically lose all their configuration: contacts, joined channels are all lost. (Also notice how the Matrix IDs don't look like a typical user address like an email in XMPP. They at least did their homework and got the allocation for the scheme.)

Rooms Users talk to each other in "rooms", even in one-to-one communications. (Rooms are also used for other things like "spaces", they're basically used for everything, think "everything is a file" kind of tool.) For rooms, home servers act more like IRC nodes in that they keep a local state of the chat room and synchronize it with other servers. Users can keep talking inside a room if the server that originally hosts the room goes down. Rooms can have a local, server-specific "alias" so that, say, #room:matrix.org is also visible as #room:example.com on the example.com home server. Both addresses refer to the same room underlying room. (Finding this in the Element settings is not obvious though, because that "alias" are actually called a "local address" there. So to create such an alias (in Element), you need to go in the room settings' "General" section, "Show more" in "Local address", then add the alias name (e.g. foo), and then that room will be available on your example.com homeserver as #foo:example.com.) So a room doesn't belong to a server, it belongs to the federation, and anyone can join the room from any serer (if the room is public, or if invited otherwise). You can create a room on server A and when a user from server B joins, the room will be replicated on server B as well. If server A fails, server B will keep relaying traffic to connected users and servers. A room is therefore not fundamentally addressed with the above alias, instead ,it has a internal Matrix ID, which basically a random string. It has a server name attached to it, but that was made just to avoid collisions. That can get a little confusing. For example, the #fractal:gnome.org room is an alias on the gnome.org server, but the room ID is !hwiGbsdSTZIwSRfybq:matrix.org. That's because the room was created on matrix.org, but the preferred branding is gnome.org now. As an aside, rooms, by default, live forever, even after the last user quits. There's an admin API to delete rooms and a tombstone event to redirect to another one, but neither have a GUI yet. The latter is part of MSC1501 ("Room version upgrades") which allows a room admin to close a room, with a message and a pointer to another room.

Spaces Discovering rooms can be tricky: there is a per-server room directory, but Matrix.org people are trying to deprecate it in favor of "Spaces". Room directories were ripe for abuse: anyone can create a room, so anyone can show up in there. It's possible to restrict who can add aliases, but anyways directories were seen as too limited. In contrast, a "Space" is basically a room that's an index of other rooms (including other spaces), so existing moderation and administration mechanism that work in rooms can (somewhat) work in spaces as well. This enables a room directory that works across federation, regardless on which server they were originally created. New users can be added to a space or room automatically in Synapse. (Existing users can be told about the space with a server notice.) This gives admins a way to pre-populate a list of rooms on a server, which is useful to build clusters of related home servers, providing some sort of redundancy, at the room -- not user -- level.

Home servers So while you can workaround a home server going down at the room level, there's no such thing at the home server level, for user identities. So if you want those identities to be stable in the long term, you need to think about high availability. One limitation is that the domain name (e.g. matrix.example.com) must never change in the future, as renaming home servers is not supported. The documentation used to say you could "run a hot spare" but that has been removed. Last I heard, it was not possible to run a high-availability setup where multiple, separate locations could replace each other automatically. You can have high performance setups where the load gets distributed among workers, but those are based on a shared database (Redis and PostgreSQL) backend. So my guess is it would be possible to create a "warm" spare server of a matrix home server with regular PostgreSQL replication, but that is not documented in the Synapse manual. This sort of setup would also not be useful to deal with networking issues or denial of service attacks, as you will not be able to spread the load over multiple network locations easily. Redis and PostgreSQL heroes are welcome to provide their multi-primary solution in the comments. In the meantime, I'll just point out this is a solution that's handled somewhat more gracefully in IRC, by having the possibility of delegating the authentication layer.

Delegations If you do not want to run a Matrix server yourself, it's possible to delegate the entire thing to another server. There's a server discovery API which uses the .well-known pattern (or SRV records, but that's "not recommended" and a bit confusing) to delegate that service to another server. Be warned that the server still needs to be explicitly configured for your domain. You can't just put:
  "m.server": "matrix.org:443"  
... on https://example.com/.well-known/matrix/server and start using @you:example.com as a Matrix ID. That's because Matrix doesn't support "virtual hosting" and you'd still be connecting to rooms and people with your matrix.org identity, not example.com as you would normally expect. This is also why you cannot rename your home server. The server discovery API is what allows servers to find each other. Clients, on the other hand, use the client-server discovery API: this is what allows a given client to find your home server when you type your Matrix ID on login.

Performance The high availability discussion brushed over the performance of Matrix itself, but let's now dig into that.

Horizontal scalability There were serious scalability issues of the main Matrix server, Synapse, in the past. So the Matrix team has been working hard to improve its design. Since Synapse 1.22 the home server can horizontally scale to multiple workers (see this blog post for details) which can make it easier to scale large servers.

Other implementations There are other promising home servers implementations from a performance standpoint (dendrite, Golang, entered beta in late 2020; conduit, Rust, beta; others), but none of those are feature-complete so there's a trade-off to be made there. Synapse is also adding a lot of feature fast, so it's an open question whether the others will ever catch up. (I have heard that Dendrite might actually surpass Synapse in features within a few years, which would put Synapse in a more "LTS" situation.)

Latency Matrix can feel slow sometimes. For example, joining the "Matrix HQ" room in Element (from matrix.debian.social) takes a few minutes and then fails. That is because the home server has to sync the entire room state when you join the room. There was promising work on this announced in the lengthy 2021 retrospective, and some of that work landed (partial sync) in the 1.53 release already. Other improvements coming include sliding sync, lazy loading over federation, and fast room joins. So that's actually something that could be fixed in the fairly short term. But in general, communication in Matrix doesn't feel as "snappy" as on IRC or even Signal. It's hard to quantify this without instrumenting a full latency test bed (for example the tools I used in the terminal emulators latency tests), but even just typing in a web browser feels slower than typing in a xterm or Emacs for me. Even in conversations, I "feel" people don't immediately respond as fast. In fact, this could be an interesting double-blind experiment to make: have people guess whether they are talking to a person on Matrix, XMPP, or IRC, for example. My theory would be that people could notice that Matrix users are slower, if only because of the TCP round-trip time each message has to take.

Transport Some courageous person actually made some tests of various messaging platforms on a congested network. His evaluation was basically:
  • Briar: uses Tor, so unusable except locally
  • Matrix: "struggled to send and receive messages", joining a room takes forever as it has to sync all history, "took 20-30 seconds for my messages to be sent and another 20 seconds for further responses"
  • XMPP: "worked in real-time, full encryption, with nearly zero lag"
So that was interesting. I suspect IRC would have also fared better, but that's just a feeling. Other improvements to the transport layer include support for websocket and the CoAP proxy work from 2019 (targeting 100bps links), but both seem stalled at the time of writing. The Matrix people have also announced the pinecone p2p overlay network which aims at solving large, internet-scale routing problems. See also this talk at FOSDEM 2022.

Usability

Onboarding and workflow The workflow for joining a room, when you use Element web, is not great:
  1. click on a link in a web browser
  2. land on (say) https://matrix.to/#/#matrix-dev:matrix.org
  3. offers "Element", yeah that's sounds great, let's click "Continue"
  4. land on https://app.element.io/#/room%2F%23matrix-dev%3Amatrix.org and then you need to register, aaargh
As you might have guessed by now, there is a specification to solve this, but web browsers need to adopt it as well, so that's far from actually being solved. At least browsers generally know about the matrix: scheme, it's just not exactly clear what they should do with it, especially when the handler is just another web page (e.g. Element web). In general, when compared with tools like Signal or WhatsApp, Matrix doesn't fare so well in terms of user discovery. I probably have some of my normal contacts that have a Matrix account as well, but there's really no way to know. It's kind of creepy when Signal tells you "this person is on Signal!" but it's also pretty cool that it works, and they actually implemented it pretty well. Registration is also less obvious: in Signal, the app confirms your phone number automatically. It's friction-less and quick. In Matrix, you need to learn about home servers, pick one, register (with a password! aargh!), and then setup encryption keys (not default), etc. It's a lot more friction. And look, I understand: giving away your phone number is a huge trade-off. I don't like it either. But it solves a real problem and makes encryption accessible to a ton more people. Matrix does have "identity servers" that can serve that purpose, but I don't feel confident sharing my phone number there. It doesn't help that the identity servers don't have private contact discovery: giving them your phone number is a more serious security compromise than with Signal. There's a catch-22 here too: because no one feels like giving away their phone numbers, no one does, and everyone assumes that stuff doesn't work anyways. Like it or not, Signal forcing people to divulge their phone number actually gives them critical mass that means actually a lot of my relatives are on Signal and I don't have to install crap like WhatsApp to talk with them.

5 minute clients evaluation Throughout all my tests I evaluated a handful of Matrix clients, mostly from Flathub because almost none of them are packaged in Debian. Right now I'm using Element, the flagship client from Matrix.org, in a web browser window, with the PopUp Window extension. This makes it look almost like a native app, and opens links in my main browser window (instead of a new tab in that separate window), which is nice. But I'm tired of buying memory to feed my web browser, so this indirection has to stop. Furthermore, I'm often getting completely logged off from Element, which means re-logging in, recovering my security keys, and reconfiguring my settings. That is extremely annoying. Coming from Irssi, Element is really "GUI-y" (pronounced "gooey"). Lots of clickety happening. To mark conversations as read, in particular, I need to click-click-click on all the tabs that have some activity. There's no "jump to latest message" or "mark all as read" functionality as far as I could tell. In Irssi the former is built-in (alt-a) and I made a custom /READ command for the latter:
/ALIAS READ script exec \$_->activity(0) for Irssi::windows
And yes, that's a Perl script in my IRC client. I am not aware of any Matrix client that does stuff like that, except maybe Weechat, if we can call it a Matrix client, or Irssi itself, now that it has a Matrix plugin (!). As for other clients, I have looked through the Matrix Client Matrix (confusing right?) to try to figure out which one to try, and, even after selecting Linux as a filter, the chart is just too wide to figure out anything. So I tried those, kind of randomly:
  • Fractal
  • Mirage
  • Nheko
  • Quaternion
Unfortunately, I lost my notes on those, I don't actually remember which one did what. I still have a session open with Mirage, so I guess that means it's the one I preferred, but I remember they were also all very GUI-y. Maybe I need to look at weechat-matrix or gomuks. At least Weechat is scriptable so I could continue playing the power-user. Right now my strategy with messaging (and that includes microblogging like Twitter or Mastodon) is that everything goes through my IRC client, so Weechat could actually fit well in there. Going with gomuks, on the other hand, would mean running it in parallel with Irssi or ... ditching IRC, which is a leap I'm not quite ready to take just yet. Oh, and basically none of those clients (except Nheko and Element) support VoIP, which is still kind of a second-class citizen in Matrix. It does not support large multimedia rooms, for example: Jitsi was used for FOSDEM instead of the native videoconferencing system.

Bots This falls a little aside the "usability" section, but I didn't know where to put this... There's a few Matrix bots out there, and you are likely going to be able to replace your existing bots with Matrix bots. It's true that IRC has a long and impressive history with lots of various bots doing various things, but given how young Matrix is, there's still a good variety:
  • maubot: generic bot with tons of usual plugins like sed, dice, karma, xkcd, echo, rss, reminder, translate, react, exec, gitlab/github webhook receivers, weather, etc
  • opsdroid: framework to implement "chat ops" in Matrix, connects with Matrix, GitHub, GitLab, Shell commands, Slack, etc
  • matrix-nio: another framework, used to build lots more bots like:
    • hemppa: generic bot with various functionality like weather, RSS feeds, calendars, cron jobs, OpenStreetmaps lookups, URL title snarfing, wolfram alpha, astronomy pic of the day, Mastodon bridge, room bridging, oh dear
    • devops: ping, curl, etc
    • podbot: play podcast episodes from AntennaPod
    • cody: Python, Ruby, Javascript REPL
    • eno: generic bot, "personal assistant"
  • mjolnir: moderation bot
  • hookshot: bridge with GitLab/GitHub
  • matrix-monitor-bot: latency monitor
One thing I haven't found an equivalent for is Debian's MeetBot. There's an archive bot but it doesn't have topics or a meeting chair, or HTML logs.

Working on Matrix As a developer, I find Matrix kind of intimidating. The specification is huge. The official specification itself looks somewhat digestable: it's only 6 APIs so that looks, at first, kind of reasonable. But whenever you start asking complicated questions about Matrix, you quickly fall into the Matrix Spec Change specification (which, yes, is a separate specification). And there are literally hundreds of MSCs flying around. It's hard to tell what's been adopted and what hasn't, and even harder to figure out if your specific client has implemented it. (One trendy answer to this problem is to "rewrite it in rust": Matrix are working on implementing a lot of those specifications in a matrix-rust-sdk that's designed to take the implementation details away from users.) Just taking the latest weekly Matrix report, you find that three new MSCs proposed, just last week! There's even a graph that shows the number of MSCs is progressing steadily, at 600+ proposals total, with the majority (300+) "new". I would guess the "merged" ones are at about 150. That's a lot of text which includes stuff like 3D worlds which, frankly, I don't think you should be working on when you have such important security and usability problems. (The internet as a whole, arguably, doesn't fare much better. RFC600 is a really obscure discussion about "INTERFACING AN ILLINOIS PLASMA TERMINAL TO THE ARPANET". Maybe that's how many MSCs will end up as well, left forgotten in the pits of history.) And that's the thing: maybe the Matrix people have a different objective than I have. They want to connect everything to everything, and make Matrix a generic transport for all sorts of applications, including virtual reality, collaborative editors, and so on. I just want secure, simple messaging. Possibly with good file transfers, and video calls. That it works with existing stuff is good, and it should be federated to remove the "Signal point of failure". So I'm a bit worried with the direction all those MSCs are taking, especially when you consider that clients other than Element are still struggling to keep up with basic features like end-to-end encryption or room discovery, never mind voice or spaces...

Conclusion Overall, Matrix is somehow in the space XMPP was a few years ago. It has a ton of features, pretty good clients, and a large community. It seems to have gained some of the momentum that XMPP has lost. It may have the most potential to replace Signal if something bad would happen to it (like, I don't know, getting banned or going nuts with cryptocurrency)... But it's really not there yet, and I don't see Matrix trying to get there either, which is a bit worrisome.

Looking back at history I'm also worried that we are repeating the errors of the past. The history of federated services is really fascinating:. IRC, FTP, HTTP, and SMTP were all created in the early days of the internet, and are all still around (except, arguably, FTP, which was removed from major browsers recently). All of them had to face serious challenges in growing their federation. IRC had numerous conflicts and forks, both at the technical level but also at the political level. The history of IRC is really something that anyone working on a federated system should study in detail, because they are bound to make the same mistakes if they are not familiar with it. The "short" version is:
  • 1988: Finnish researcher publishes first IRC source code
  • 1989: 40 servers worldwide, mostly universities
  • 1990: EFnet ("eris-free network") fork which blocks the "open relay", named Eris - followers of Eris form the A-net, which promptly dissolves itself, with only EFnet remaining
  • 1992: Undernet fork, which offered authentication ("services"), routing improvements and timestamp-based channel synchronisation
  • 1994: DALnet fork, from Undernet, again on a technical disagreement
  • 1995: Freenode founded
  • 1996: IRCnet forks from EFnet, following a flame war of historical proportion, splitting the network between Europe and the Americas
  • 1997: Quakenet founded
  • 1999: (XMPP founded)
  • 2001: 6 million users, OFTC founded
  • 2002: DALnet peaks at 136,000 users
  • 2003: IRC as a whole peaks at 10 million users, EFnet peaks at 141,000 users
  • 2004: (Facebook founded), Undernet peaks at 159,000 users
  • 2005: Quakenet peaks at 242,000 users, IRCnet peaks at 136,000 (Youtube founded)
  • 2006: (Twitter founded)
  • 2009: (WhatsApp, Pinterest founded)
  • 2010: (TextSecure AKA Signal, Instagram founded)
  • 2011: (Snapchat founded)
  • ~2013: Freenode peaks at ~100,000 users
  • 2016: IRCv3 standardisation effort started (TikTok founded)
  • 2021: Freenode self-destructs, Libera chat founded
  • 2022: Libera peaks at 50,000 users, OFTC peaks at 30,000 users
(The numbers were taken from the Wikipedia page and Netsplit.de. Note that I also include other networks launch in parenthesis for context.) Pretty dramatic, don't you think? Eventually, somehow, IRC became irrelevant for most people: few people are even aware of it now. With less than a million users active, it's smaller than Mastodon, XMPP, or Matrix at this point.1 If I were to venture a guess, I'd say that infighting, lack of a standardization body, and a somewhat annoying protocol meant the network could not grow. It's also possible that the decentralised yet centralised structure of IRC networks limited their reliability and growth. But large social media companies have also taken over the space: observe how IRC numbers peak around the time the wave of large social media companies emerge, especially Facebook (2.9B users!!) and Twitter (400M users).

Where the federated services are in history Right now, Matrix, and Mastodon (and email!) are at the "pre-EFnet" stage: anyone can join the federation. Mastodon has started working on a global block list of fascist servers which is interesting, but it's still an open federation. Right now, Matrix is totally open, but matrix.org publishes a (federated) block list of hostile servers (#matrix-org-coc-bl:matrix.org, yes, of course it's a room). Interestingly, Email is also in that stage, where there are block lists of spammers, and it's a race between those blockers and spammers. Large email providers, obviously, are getting closer to the EFnet stage: you could consider they only accept email from themselves or between themselves. It's getting increasingly hard to deliver mail to Outlook and Gmail for example, partly because of bias against small providers, but also because they are including more and more machine-learning tools to sort through email and those systems are, fundamentally, unknowable. It's not quite the same as splitting the federation the way EFnet did, but the effect is similar. HTTP has somehow managed to live in a parallel universe, as it's technically still completely federated: anyone can start a web server if they have a public IP address and anyone can connect to it. The catch, of course, is how you find the darn thing. Which is how Google became one of the most powerful corporations on earth, and how they became the gatekeepers of human knowledge online. I have only briefly mentioned XMPP here, and my XMPP fans will undoubtedly comment on that, but I think it's somewhere in the middle of all of this. It was co-opted by Facebook and Google, and both corporations have abandoned it to its fate. I remember fondly the days where I could do instant messaging with my contacts who had a Gmail account. Those days are gone, and I don't talk to anyone over Jabber anymore, unfortunately. And this is a threat that Matrix still has to face. It's also the threat Email is currently facing. On the one hand corporations like Facebook want to completely destroy it and have mostly succeeded: many people just have an email account to register on things and talk to their friends over Instagram or (lately) TikTok (which, I know, is not Facebook, but they started that fire). On the other hand, you have corporations like Microsoft and Google who are still using and providing email services because, frankly, you still do need email for stuff, just like fax is still around but they are more and more isolated in their own silo. At this point, it's only a matter of time they reach critical mass and just decide that the risk of allowing external mail coming in is not worth the cost. They'll simply flip the switch and work on an allow-list principle. Then we'll have closed the loop and email will be dead, just like IRC is "dead" now. I wonder which path Matrix will take. Could it liberate us from these vicious cycles? Update: this generated some discussions on lobste.rs.

  1. According to Wikipedia, there are currently about 500 distinct IRC networks operating, on about 1,000 servers, serving over 250,000 users. In contrast, Mastodon seems to be around 5 million users, Matrix.org claimed at FOSDEM 2021 to have about 28 million globally visible accounts, and Signal lays claim to over 40 million souls. XMPP claims to have "millions" of users on the xmpp.org homepage but the FAQ says they don't actually know. On the proprietary silo side of the fence, this page says
    • Facebook: 2.9 billion users
    • WhatsApp: 2B
    • Instagram: 1.4B
    • TikTok: 1B
    • Snapchat: 500M
    • Pinterest: 480M
    • Twitter: 397M
    Notable omission from that list: Youtube, with its mind-boggling 2.6 billion users... Those are not the kind of numbers you just "need to convince a brother or sister" to grow the network...

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.

11 December 2021

Molly de Blanc: Applications

The first time I applied for grad school it was a bit of a lark. I was serious about it, I wanted to go, I had goals, and I am happy to be here now. However, it was a little fun. I took a white paper and crisped it up with the help of some friends who read it and provided comments. I wrote a personal statement, got some letters of recommendation, and generally felt pretty good about the process. It wasn t stressful. The second time I applied to grad school it was a slog. For several weeks I gave up most of my free time to application writing and when I wasn t working on applications I thought about how I ought to be doing something about it. Applications are due while you re coming up on the end of your semester or end of the year push at work or both! There just isn t enough time for everything. I think even applying for grad school qualifies you to attend. Here are some things I learned in the application process. Note, I haven t gotten in anywhere (yet), so we ll see how it pans out. You have to do a lot of research. This changes by field, school, and even individual faculty preference. Some possible mentors / advisors like to talk with prospective students ahead of time. On two of my applications I was explicitly asked who I spoke with in the department. On others I was asked to list faculty (in order of preference even!) that I would be interested in working with. Some schools requested in essays to list faculty. In general, it s considered important to explain why a particular school: what about that school attracts you? What resources do they have that you want to take advantage of? What research that they are doing interests you? Faculty profiles and department websites are useful for this, but far from complete. A co-worker suggested I contact someone who, based on their profile, I shared no research interests with. However, we talked and it turns out we had things in common! In general, colleagues, peers, other academics, and friends were the best resource I had for investigating schools and potential faculty. I also went to some Q&A sessions / office hours run by schools / departments / labs. Some really cool people wrote blog posts and / or Tweets soliciting grad students. These are great. Sometimes the people you want to work with aren t taking grad students. Most schools I looked at did not maintain lists of who is taking on grad students starting in the fall, but I think two did. Sometimes I contacted people and got back Sorry, not taking on anyone this year. Try $OtherProfessor. This was actually really helpful! But, it s a downer to learn you re not going to get to work with one of your academic heroes because the timing is wrong. It s expensive and waivers might not help. Most applications in the US cost about $100 (USD). In some fields it s recommended you apply to 8-10 schools. That s a lot of money. I think everywhere I applied had a waiver you could apply for, but I generally didn t qualify. Some waivers require you to submit days to weeks ahead of the deadline. Others require that you participate in certain professional organizations, student organizations, or live locally to the school. These might be less useful than you were hoping. Everyone says your writing sample matters, but only five people will read it. This is what I was told anyway. I was told that my writing sample (which was 20 pages!) will probably only be read by faculty who are thinking of taking me on as an advisee. Someone else might pick it up and read it out of curiosity. I was told stories about how the right writing sample turned eh, maybe candidates into enthusiastic yeses. Everyone says letters of recommendation matter and it s extremely frustrating. My recommenders are all amazing people I have so much respect and admiration for it s wild. They re people I want to be like in my academic career. They also all got their letters in the day they were due. I had a moment where I genuinely thought I was just not going to go to grad school because of how close the deadline was. I ve been told that a great letter matters a lot, but meh letters don t hold you back as much as it sounds like they will. I ve been told that where a recommender is affiliated matters a lot. My personal statement radically changed based on school / program. Two of the schools I applied to had very specific requirements for their personal statements. Other schools wanted me to mostly talk about my research interests. One school had a 350 word personal statement, but a 1,000 word research statement. I wrote a research statement and a personal statement and then used them as the basis for what I submitted to different schools. Each application ended up with something pretty different, and not just because I talked about why each program was exciting to me in different ways. I also applied to different kinds of programs, and presented myself a differently depending on the program s focus and the faculty. For the more social science heavy programs I emphasized the empirical research I did, while for others I leaned more heavily on my philosophical background and theoretical interests. Oh, also, I was told to not use contractions. Getting rid of them in all my materials was super tedious. Diversity Statements are becoming more common. A few of my schools had diversity statements either required or optional. The purpose of these, I was told, is not to play some sort of marginalization Olympics, but to show that you can talk about diversity (and equity and inclusion, etc) without being offensive. It s just as valid to write about your own disability as the disability of a parent (though, ask their permission first). Triple check what s required. I made spreadsheets about what each school required. For example, some people wanted official transcripts, some unofficial. Some places required essays rather than generic personal statements, and I needed to build in enough time to manage that. Ask your friends to help. I hate asking for help, but applying for grad school made me shameless. I asked anyone I could to read over materials, proofread, or just talk with me about what I was writing. People picked up on things like you used the word technology five times in this one sentence and it looks real weird. Some schools have projects where current grad students will even look over materials!

18 September 2021

Mike Gabriel: X2Go, Remmina and X2GoKdrive

In this blog post, I will cover a few related but also different topics around X2Go - the GNU/Linux based remote computing framework. Introduction and Catch Up For those, who haven't come across X2Go, so far... With X2Go [0] you can log into remote GNU/Linux machines graphically and launch headless desktop environments, seamless/published applications or access an already running desktop session (on a local Xserver or running as a headless X2Go desktop session) via X2Go's session shadowing / mirroring feature. Graphical backend: NXv3 For several years, there was only one graphical backend available in X2Go, the NXv3 software. In NXv3, you have a headless or nested (it can do both) Xserver that has some remote magic built-in and is able to transfer the Xserver's graphical data to a remote client (NX proxy). Over the wire, the NX protocol allows for data compression (JPEG, PNG, etc.) and combines it with bitmap caching, so that the overall result is a fast and responsive desktop experience even on low latency and low bandwidth connections. This especially applies to X desktop environments that use many native X protocol operations for drawing windows and widget onto the screen. The more bitmaps involved (e.g. in applications with client-side rendering of window controls and such), the worse the quality of a session experience. The current main maintainer of NVv3 (aka nx-libs [1]) is Ulrich Sibiller. Uli has my and the X2Go community's full appreciation, admiration and gratitude for all the work he does on nx-libs, constantly improving NXv3 without breaking compatibility with legacy use cases (yes, FreeNX is still alive, by the way). NEW: Alternative Graphical Backend: X2Go Kdrive Over the past 1.5 years, Oleksandr Shneyder (Alex), co-founder of X2Go, has been working on a re-implementation of an alternative, less X11-dependent graphical backend. The underlying Xserver technology is the kdrive part of the X.org server project. People on GNU/Linux might have used kdrive technology already: The Xephyr nested Xserver uses the kdrive implementation. The idea of the X2Go Kdrive [2] implementation in X2Go is providing a headless Xserver on the X2Go Server side for running X11 based desktop sessions inside while using an X11-agnostic data protocol for sending the graphical desktop data to the client-side for rendering. Whereas, with NXv3 technology, you need a local Xserver on the client side, with X2Go Kdrive you only need a client app(lication) that can draw bitmaps into some sort of framebuffer, such as a client-side X11 Xserver, a client-side Wayland compositor or (hold your breath) an HTMLv5 canvas in a web browser. X2Go Kdrive Client Implementations During first half of this year, I tested and DEB-packaged Alex's X2Go HTMLv5 client code [3] and it has been available for testing in the X2Go nightly builds archive for a while now. Of course, the native X2Go Client application has X2Go Kdrive support for a while, too, but it requires a Qt5 application in the background, the x2gokdriveclient (which is still only available in X2Go nightly builds or from X2Go Git [4]). X2Go and Remmina As currently posted by the Remmina community [5], one of my employees has been working on finalizing an already existing draft of mine for the last couple of months: Remmina Plugin X2Go. This project has been contracted by BAUR-ITCS UG (haftungsbeschr nkt) already a while back and has been financed via X2Go funding from one of their customers. Unfortunately, I never got around really to finalizing the project. Apologies for this. Daniel Teichmann, who has been in the company for a while now, but just recently switched to an employment model with considerably more work hours per week, now picked up this project two months ago and achieved awesome things on the way. Daniel Teichmann and Antenore Gatta (Remmina core developer, aka tmow) have been cooperating intensely on this, recently, with the objective of getting the X2Go plugin code merged into Remmina asap. We are pretty close to the first touchdown (i.e. code merge) of this endeavour. Thanks to Antenore for his support on this. This is much appreciated. Remmina Plugin X2Go - Current Challenges The X2Go Plugin for Remmina implementation uses Python X2Go (PyHoca-CLI) under the bonnet and basically does a system call to pyhoca-cli according to the session settings configured in the Remmina session profile UI. When using NXv3 based sessions, the session window appears on the client-side Xserver and immediately gets caught by Remmina and embedded into the Remmina frame (via Xembed protocol) where its remote sessions are supposed to appear. (Thanks that GtkSocket is still around in GTK-3). The knowing GTK-3 experts among you may have noticed: GtkSocket is obsolete and has been removed from GTK-4. Also, GtkSocket support is only available in GTK-3 when using its X11 rendering backend. For the X2Go Kdrive implementation, we tested a similar approach (embedding the x2gokdriveclient Qt5 window via Xembed/GtkSocket), but it seems that GtkSocket and Qt5 applications don't work well together and we did not succeed in embedding the Qt5 window of the x2gokdriveclient application into Remmina, so far. Also, this would be a work-around for the bigger problem: We want, long-term, provide X2Go Kdrive support in Remmina, not only for Remmina running with GTK-3/X11, but also when Remmina is used natively on top of Wayland. So, the more sustainable approach for showing an X2Go Kdrive based X2Go session in Remmina would be a GTK-3/4 or a Glib-2.0 + Cairo based rendering client provided as a shared library. This then could be used by Remmina for drawing the session bitmaps into the Remmina session frame. This would require a port of the x2gokdriveclient Qt code into a non-Qt implementation. However, we are running out of funding to make this happen at the moment. More Funding Needed for this Journey As you might guess, such a project as proposed is a project that some people do in their spare time, others do it for a living. I'd love to continue this project and have Daniel Teichmann continue his work on this, so that Remmina might soon be able to provide native X2Go Kdrive Client support. If people read this and are interested in supporting such a project, please get in touch [6]. Thanks so much! light+love
Mike (aka sunweaver) [0] https://wiki.x2go.org/
[1] https://github.com/ArcticaProject/nx-libs
[2] https://code.x2go.org/gitweb?p=x2gokdrive.git;a=tree
[3] https://code.x2go.org/gitweb?p=x2gohtmlclient.git;a=tree
[4] https://code.x2go.org/gitweb?p=x2gokdriveclient.git;a=tree
[5] https://remmina.org/x2go/
[6] https://das-netzwerkteam.de/

5 August 2021

Ian Wienand: Lyte Portable Projector Investigation

I recently picked up this portable projector for a reasonable price. It might also be called a "M5" projector, but I can not find one canonical source. In terms of projection, it performs as well as a 5cm cube could be expected to. They made a poor choice to eschew adding an external video input which severely limits the device's usefulness. The design is nice and getting into it is quite an effort. There is no wasted space! After pulling off the rubber top covering and base, you have to pry the decorative metal shielding off all sides to access the screws to open it. This almost unavoidably bends it so it will never quite be the same. To avoid you having to bother, some photos: Lyte ProjectorIt is fairly locked down. I found a couple of ways in; installing the Disney+ app from the "Aptoide TV" store it ships with does not work, but the app prompts you to update it, which sends you to an action where you can then choose to open the Google Play store. From there, you can install things that work on it's Android 7 OS. This allowed me to install a system-viewer app which revealed its specs: Another weird thing I found was that if you go into the custom launcher "About" page under settings and keep clicking the "OK" button on the version number, it will open the standard Android settings page. From there you can enable developer options. I could not get it connecting to ADB, although you perhaps need a USB OTG cable which I didn't have. It has some sort of built-in Miracast app that I could not get anything to detect. It doesn't have the native Google app store; most of the apps in the provided system don't work. Somehow it runs Netflix via a webview or which is hard to use. If it had HDMI input it would still be a useful little thing to plug things into. You could perhaps sideload some sort of apps to get the screensharing working, or it plays media files off a USB stick or network shares. I don't believe there is any practical way to get a more recent Android on this, leaving it on an accelerated path to e-waste for all but the most boutique users.

21 July 2021

Molly de Blanc: Updates (2)

I feel like I haven t had a lot to say about open source or, in general, tech for a while. From another perspective, I have a whole lot of heady things to say about open source and technology and writing about it seems like a questionable use of time when I have so much other writing and reading and job hunting to do. I will briefly share the two ideas I am obsessed with at the moment, and then try to write more about them later. The Defensible-Charitable-Beneficent Trichotamy I will just jokingly ha ha no but seriously maybe jk suggest calling this the de Blanc-West Theory, considering it s heavily based on ideas from Ben West. Actions fall into one of the following categories: Defensible: When an action is defensible, it is permissible, acceptable, or okay. We might not like it, but you can explain why you had to do it and we can t really object. This could also be considered the bare minimum. Charitable: A charitable action is better than a defensible action in that it produces more good, and it goes above and beyond the minimum. Beneficent: This is a genuinely good action that produces good. It is admirable. I love J.J. Thomson example of Henry Fonda for this. For a full explanation see section three at this web site. For a summary: imagine that you re sick and the only thing that can cure you is Henry Fonda s cool touch on your fevered brow. It is Defensible for Henry Fonda to do nothing he doesn t owe you anything in particular. It is Charitable for, say if Henry Fonda happened to be in the room, to walk across it and touch your forehead. It is Beneficent for Henry Fonda to re-corporealize back into this life and travel to your bedside to sooth your strange illness. P.S. Henry Fonda died in 1982. I don t think these ideas are particularly new, but it s important to think about what we re doing with technology and its design: are our decisions defensible, charitable, or beneficent? Which should they be? Why? The Offsetting Harm-Ameliorating Harm-Doing Good Trichotamy
I ve been doing some research and writing around carbon credits. I owe a lot of thanks to Philip Withnall and Adam Lerner for talking with me through these ideas. Extrapolating from action and policy recommendations, I suggest the following trichotamy: Offsetting harm is attempting to look at the damage you ve done and try to make up for it in some capacity. In the context of, e.g., air travel, this would be purchasing carbon credits. Ameliorating harm is about addressing the particular harm you ve done. Instead of carbon credits, you would be supporting carbon capture technologies or perhaps giving to or otherwise supporting groups and ecosystems that are being harmed by your air travel. Doing Good is Doing Good. This would be like not traveling by air and choosing to still help the harm being caused by carbon emissions. These ideas are also likely not particularly new, but thinking about technology in this context is also useful, especially as we consider technology in the context of climate change.

1 July 2021

Paul Wise: FLOSS Activities June 2021

Focus This month I didn't have any particular focus. I just worked on issues in my info bubble.

Changes

Issues

Review
  • Spam: reported 3 Debian bug reports and 135 Debian mailing list posts
  • Debian wiki: RecentChanges for the month
  • Debian BTS usertags: changes for the month
  • Debian screenshots:
    • approved php-horde endless-sky claws-mail memtester
    • rejected python-gdal/weboob-qt (unrelated software)

Administration
  • Debian: restart bacula director
  • Debian wiki: approve accounts

Communication
  • This month I left freenode, an IRC network I had been on for at least 16 years, for reasons that you probably all read about. I think the biggest lesson I take from this situation and ones happening around the same time is that proper governance in peer production projects is absolutely critical.
  • Respond to queries from Debian users and contributors on the mailing lists and IRC

Sponsors The purple-discord/flower work was sponsored by my employers. All other work was done on a volunteer basis.

26 March 2021

Daniel Lange: The Stallman wars

So, 2021 isn't bad enough yet, but don't despair, people are working to fix that:

Welcome to the Stallman wars Team Cancel: https://rms-open-letter.github.io/ (repo) Team Support: https://rms-support-letter.github.io/ (repo) Current stats are:

Team Cancel:  3028 signers from 1413 individual commit authors
Team Support: 6249 signers from 5018 individual commit authors
Git shortlog (Top 10):
rms_cancel.git (Last update: 2021-04-07 15:42:33 (UTC))
  1228  Neil McGovern
   251  Joan Touzet
    86  Elana Hashman
    71  Molly de Blanc
    36  Shauna
    19  Juke
    18  Stefano Zacchiroli
    17  Alexey Mirages
    16  Devin Halladay
    14  Nader Jafari
rms_support.git (Last update: 2021-04-12 09:25:53 (UTC))
  1678  shenlebantongying
  1564  nukeop
  1550  Ivanq
   826  Victor
   746  Job Bautista
   123  nekonee
    61  Victor Gridnevsky
    38  Patrick Spek
    25  Borys Kabakov
    17  KIM Taeyeob
(last updated 2021-04-12 09:26:15 (UTC)) Technical info:
Signers are counted from their "Signed / Individuals" sections. Commits are counted with git shortlog -s.
Team Cancel also has organizational signatures with Mozilla, Suse and X.Org being among the notable signatories. Debian is in the process of running a GR to join (or not join) that list. The 16 original signers of the Cancel petition are added in their count. Neil McGovern, Juke and shenlebantongying need .mailmap support as they have committed with different names. Further reading:

27 February 2021

Petter Reinholdtsen: Updated Valutakrambod, now also with information from NBX

I have neglected the Valutakrambod library for a while, but decided this weekend to give it a face lift. I fixed a few minor glitches in several of the service drivers, where the API had changed since I last looked at the code. I also added support for fetching the order book from the newcomer Norwegian Bitcoin Exchange. I alsod decided to migrate the project from github to gitlab in the process. If you want a python library for talking to various currency exchanges, check out code for valutakrambod. This is what the output from 'bin/btc-rates-curses -c' looked like a few minutes ago:
           Name Pair           Bid         Ask Spread Ftcd    Age   Freq
       Bitfinex BTCEUR  39229.0000  39246.0000   0.0%   44     44    nan
        Bitmynt BTCEUR  39071.0000  41048.9000   4.8%   43     74    nan
         Bitpay BTCEUR  39326.7000         nan   nan%   39    nan    nan
       Bitstamp BTCEUR  39398.7900  39417.3200   0.0%    0      0      1
           Bl3p BTCEUR  39158.7800  39581.9000   1.1%    0    nan      3
       Coinbase BTCEUR  39197.3100  39621.9300   1.1%   38    nan    nan
         Kraken+BTCEUR  39432.9000  39433.0000   0.0%    0      0      0
        Paymium BTCEUR  39437.2100  39499.9300   0.2%    0   2264    nan
        Bitmynt BTCNOK 409750.9600 420516.8500   2.6%   43     74    nan
         Bitpay BTCNOK 410332.4000         nan   nan%   39    nan    nan
       Coinbase BTCNOK 408675.7300 412813.7900   1.0%   38    nan    nan
        MiraiEx BTCNOK 412174.1800 418396.1500   1.5%   34    nan    nan
            NBX BTCNOK 405835.9000 408921.4300   0.8%   33    nan    nan
       Bitfinex BTCUSD  47341.0000  47355.0000   0.0%   44     53    nan
         Bitpay BTCUSD  47388.5100         nan   nan%   39    nan    nan
       Coinbase BTCUSD  47153.6500  47651.3700   1.0%   37    nan    nan
         Gemini BTCUSD  47416.0900  47439.0500   0.0%   36    336    nan
         Hitbtc BTCUSD  47429.9900  47386.7400  -0.1%    0      0      0
         Kraken+BTCUSD  47401.7000  47401.8000   0.0%    0      0      0
  Exchangerates EURNOK     10.4012     10.4012   0.0%   38  76236    nan
     Norgesbank EURNOK     10.4012     10.4012   0.0%   31  76236    nan
       Bitstamp EURUSD      1.2030      1.2045   0.1%    2      2      1
  Exchangerates EURUSD      1.2121      1.2121   0.0%   38  76236    nan
     Norgesbank USDNOK      8.5811      8.5811   0.0%   31  76236    nan
Yes, I notice the negative spread on Hitbtc. Either I fail to understand their Websocket API or they are sending bogus data. I've seen the same with Kraken, and suspect there is something wrong with the data they send. As usual, if you use Bitcoin and want to show your support of my activities, please send Bitcoin donations to my address 15oWEoG9dUPovwmUL9KWAnYRtNJEkP1u1b.

22 February 2021

Charles Plessy: Containers

I was using a container for a bioinformatics tool released two weeks ago, but my shell script wrapping the tools could not run because the container was built around an old version of Debian (Jessie) that was released in 2015. I was asked to use a container for bioinformatics, based on conda, and found one that distributes coreutils, but it did not include a real version of sed. I try Debian's docker image. No luck; it does not contain ps, which my workflow manager needs. But fortunately I eventually figured out that Ubuntu's Docker image contains coreutils, sed and ps together! In the world of containers, this sounds like a little miracle.

26 December 2020

Russ Allbery: Review: The Biggest Bluff

Review: The Biggest Bluff, by Maria Konnikova
Publisher: Penguin Press
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 0-525-52263-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 335
After a particularly unlucky year for her family, Maria Konnikova was reading about the balance between luck and control in life and discovered, to her surprise, that John von Neumann, one of the foundational thinkers of computer science, was fascinated by poker. He found most card games boring because they relied on luck. Poker, however, he thought was the perfect balance between luck and skill: enough skill to make its effect undeniable, but enough luck that one could not control the game fully regardless of skill. Konnikova decided on a research project: spend one year learning No Limit Texas Hold'em from one of the best poker players in the world, with a goal of competing in the World Series of Poker. She had studied the description-experience gap during her doctoral research in psychology and wanted to see if the experience of randomness in poker would teach her something the description of the randomness of life could not. Before starting this project, she didn't know the basic rules and had never watched a game. Erik Seidel agreed to mentor her, and The Biggest Bluff is her account of that experience. This book is simultaneously frustrating and fascinating in ways that I don't think can be untangled without making it a far different book. Fitting, I suppose, for a book about how our brains entangle luck and skill. First, if you're looking for a book about poker play, this is not one. Konnikova rarely talks about specific hands or tournaments in more detail than her overall trajectory. That was a disappointment. In the few places she does describe some of her betting decisions, analysis of the other players, and tournament strategy, her accounts are engrossing and suspenseful. I would have happily read a book chronicling her poker tournaments and the decisions she made, but this is not that book. What The Biggest Bluff is instead is a psychological and philosophical examination of the process of learning poker. Konnikova uses her experiences as launching points into philosophical digressions. Even the lessons that have limited surface utility outside of poker, such as learning to suppress body language to avoid giving away information, turn into digressions about interpersonal dynamics and personality types. There are interesting tidbits here, but I've read a lot of popular psychology and was more interested in the poker. My frequent reading experience was impatiently waiting for Konnikova to finish lecturing and get back to her narrative. What Konnikova does do though, at a level that I haven't seen before before in a book of this type, is be brutally honest about her mistakes and her learning process. And I do mean brutally: The book opens with her throwing up in a casino bathroom. (This is not a fun book to read if you don't like reading about stress reactions and medical problems. There aren't many of them, but they're... memorable.) Konnikova knows and can explain the psychological state she's trying to reach, but still finds it hard to do in the moment. Correctly reacting to probabilities, cutting losses, and neither being too over-confident or too scared is very hard. Most books of this type elide over the repeated failures in a sort of training montage, which makes the process look easier than it feels. Konnikova tries to realistically show the setbacks and failures, and I think succeeds. That relentless introspection and critical honesty is the best part of this book, but I think it's also behind the stream of consciousness digressions about psychology and philosophy. It's a true portrayal of how Konnikova makes sense of the world. A more polished and streamlined book about the poker would have been more dramatically engrossing, but it might have lost the deep examination of how she combines poker with her knowledge of psychology to change her thinking. The one place where I think that self-reflection may fall a bit short, which I want to mention because I thought it was a missed opportunity, is around knowledge of hand probabilities. Konnikova makes a point, early in the book, of not approaching poker through the memorization and mathematics route and instead trying to find a play style that focuses on analyzing the other players and controlling her own emotions. This is a good hook, but by the end of the book it's not entirely true. The point that I think she was trying to make is that her edge against other poker players at her same level comes more from psychology than from calculation of precise odds in rare situations. This is true. But by the time she reaches high levels of play, she is using statistical simulators, practice tools, and intensive study just like any professional poker player. There is a minimum level of pure knowledge and memorization required that cannot be avoided. It's clear from the few things she says about this that those tools became more interesting to her as she became better at poker, and I wish she would have dug more into why and how that happened. How much of her newfound ability to make decisions and stick to a plan comes from emotional changes, and how much from that background store of confident knowledge? Or maybe those are different ways of looking at the same change? I did appreciate Konnikova's explicit acknowledgment at the end of the book that poker did not, in the end, provide some deep insight into the balance of luck and skill in real life. Learning poker instead gave Konnikova more personal ability to make a plan for the things that she can control and let go of the things she can't. I'm glad that worked for her, but since reading this book I have noticed former poker players who think life is more knowable than it is. Poker combines random chance with psychological play against other people, but it does so in a way and to an extent that is quantifiable. You can make the correct play and still lose a hand, but you can also know when this has happened. When you're used to analyzing the world through that frame and real life fails to provide that certainty, it's tempting to impose it anyway and insist your simplified models are more accurate because they're more comprehensible. But poker is a game, not a model; being more predictable and more constrained than real life is part of what makes it fun. The skill that Konnikova learned from it has a potential downside that she doesn't talk about. I'm not sure how to sum up this book. Konnikova's internal analysis and honesty is truly admirable and illuminating, but it left me wanting to read a different book that was more focused on poker narration. I know there are lots of those books out there, but I doubt they would be written with Konnikova's self-awareness and lack of ego. However, they would probably also lack the moments that made me cringe or that were deeply uncomfortable to read. My feelings are mixed. But if you want popular psychology wrapped around a deeply honest account of the process of learning poker, I suspect this book is one of a kind. Rating: 7 out of 10

21 December 2020

Russ Allbery: Review: Behind the Throne

Review: Behind the Throne, by K.B. Wagers
Series: Indranan War #1
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: August 2016
ISBN: 0-316-30859-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 416
Hail is a gunrunner, an outlaw and criminal, someone who knows how to survive violence and navigate by personal loyalty. That world knows her as Cressen Stone. What her colleagues don't know is that she's also an Imperial Princess. Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol left that world twenty years earlier in secret pursuit of her father's killer and had no intention of returning. But her sisters are dead, her mother's health is failing, and two Imperial Trackers have been sent to bring her back to her rightful position as heir. I'm going to warn up-front that the first half of this novel was rough to the point of being unreadable. Wagers tries much too hard to establish Hail as a reluctant heroine torn between her dislike of royal protocols and her grief and anger at the death of her sisters. The result is excessively melodramatic and, to be frank, badly written. There are a lot of passages like this:
His words slammed into me, burning like the ten thousand volts of a Solarian Conglomerate police Taser.
(no, there's no significance to the Solarian Conglomerate here), or, just three paragraphs later:
The air rushed out of my lungs. Added grief for a niece I'd never known. One more log on the pyre set to burn my freedom to ashes. The hope I'd had of getting out of this mess was lost in that instant, and I couldn't do anything but stare at Emmory in abject shock.
Given how much air rushes out of Hail's lungs and how often she's struck down with guilt or grief, it's hard to believe she doesn't have brain damage. Worse, Hail spends a great deal of the first third of the book whining, which given that the book is written in first person gets old very quickly. Every emotion is overwritten and overstressed as Hail rails against obvious narrative inescapability. It's blatantly telegraphed from the first few pages that Hail is going to drop into the imperial palace like a profane invasion force and shake everything up, but the reader has to endure far too long of Hail being dramatically self-pitying about the plot. I almost gave up on this book in irritation (and probably should have). And then it sort of grew on me, because the other thing Wagers is doing (also not subtly) is a story trope for which I have a particular weakness: The fish out of water who nonetheless turns out to be the person everyone needs because she's systematically and deliberately kind and thoughtful while not taking any shit. Hail left Pashati young and inexperienced, with a strained relationship with her mother and a habit of letting her temper interfere with her ability to negotiate palace politics. She still has the temper, but age, experience, and confidence mean that she's decisive and confident in a way she never was before. The second half of this book is about Hail building her power base and winning loyalty by being loyal and decent. It's still not great writing, but there's something there I enjoyed reading. Wagers's setting is intriguing, although it makes me a bit nervous. The Indranan Empire was settled by colonists of primarily Indian background. The court trappings, mythology, and gods referenced in Behind the Throne are Hindu-derived, and I suspect (although didn't confirm) that the funeral arrangements are as well. Formal wear (and casual wear) for women is a sari. There's a direct reference to the goddess Lakshimi (not Lakshmi, which Wikipedia seems to indicate is the correct spelling, although transliteration is always an adventure). I was happy to see this, since there are more than enough SF novels out there that seem to assume only western countries go into space. But I'm never sure whether the author did enough research or has enough personal knowledge to pull off the references correctly, and I personally wouldn't know the difference. The Indranan Empire is also matriarchal, and here Wagers goes for an inversion of sexism that puts men in roughly the position women were in the 1970s. They can, in theory, do most jobs, but there are many things they're expected not to do, there are some explicit gender lines in power structures, and the role of men in society is a point of political conflict. It's skillfully injected as social background, with a believable pattern of societal prejudice that doesn't necessarily apply to specific men in specific situations. I liked that Wagers did this without giving the Empire itself any feminine-coded characteristics. All admirals are women because the characters believe women are obviously better military leaders, not because of some claptrap about nurturing or caring or some other female-coded reason from our society. That said, this gender role inversion didn't feel that significant to the story. The obvious "sexism is bad, see what it would be like if men were subject to it" message ran parallel to the main plot and never felt that insightful to me. I'm therefore not sure it was successful or worth the injection of sexism into the reading experience, although it certainly is different from the normal fare of space empires. I can't recommend Behind the Throne because a lot of it just isn't very good. But I still kind of want to because I sincerely enjoyed the last third of the book, despite some lingering melodrama. Watching Hail succeed by being a decent, trustworthy, loyal, and intelligent person is satisfying, once she finally stops whining. The destination is probably not worth the journey, but now that I've finished the first book, I'm tempted to grab the second. Followed by After the Crown. Rating: 6 out of 10

29 September 2020

Mike Gabriel: UBports: Packaging of Lomiri Operating Environment for Debian (part 03)

Before and during FOSDEM 2020, I agreed with the people (developers, supporters, managers) of the UBports Foundation to package the Unity8 Operating Environment for Debian. Since 27th Feb 2020, Unity8 has now become Lomiri. Recent Uploads to Debian related to Lomiri Over the past 4 months I worked on the following bits and pieces regarding Lomiri in Debian: The next two big projects / packages ahead are lomiri-ui-toolkit and qtmir. Credits Many big thanks go to Marius and Dalton for their work on the UBports project and being always available for questions, feedback, etc. Thanks to Ratchanan Srirattanamet for providing some of his time for debugging some non-thread safe unit tests (currently unsure, what package we actually looked at...). Thanks for Florian Leeber for being my point of contact for topcis regarding my cooperation with the UBports Foundation. Previous Posts about my Debian UBports Team Efforts

31 August 2020

Jacob Adams: Command Line 101

How to Work in a Text-Only Environment.

What is this thing? When you first open a command-line (note that I use the terms command-line and shell interchangably here, they re basically the same, but command-line is the more general term, and shell is the name for the program that executes commands for you) you ll see something like this: thisfolder This line is called a command prompt and it tells you four pieces of information:
  1. jaadams: The username of the user that is currently running this shell.
  2. bg7: The name of the computer that this shell is running on, important for when you start accessing shells on remote machines.
  3. /tmp/thisfolder: The folder or directory that your shell is currently running in. Like a file explorer (like Window s Explorer or Mac s Finder) a shell always has a working directory, from which all relative paths (see sidenote below) are resolved.
When you first opened a shell, however, you might notice that is looks more like this: home This is a shorthand notation that the shell uses to make this output shorter when possible. ~ stands for your home directory, usually /home/<username>. Like C:\Users\<username>\ on Windows or /Users/<username> on Mac, this directory is where all your files should go by default. Thus a command prompt like this: downloads actually tells you that you are currently in the /home/jaadams/Downloads directory.

Sidenote: The Unix Filesystem and Relative Paths folders on Linux and other Unix-derived systems like MacOS are usually called directories. These directories are represented by paths, strings that indicate where the directory is on the filesystem. The one unusual part is the so-called root directory . All files are stored in this folder or directories under it. Its path is just / and there are no directories above it. For example, the directory called home typically contains all user directories. This is stored in the root directory, and each users specific data is stored in a directory named after that user under home. Thus, the home directory of the user jacob is typically /home/jacob, the directory jacob under the home directory stored in the root directory /. If you re interested in more details about what goes in what directory, man hier has the basics and the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard governs the layout of the filesystem on most Linux distributions. You don t always have to use the full path, however. If the path does not begin with a /, it is assumed that the path actually begins with the path of the current directory. So if you use a path like my/folders/here, and you re in the /home/jacob directory, the path will be treated like /home/jacob/my/folders/here. Each folder also contains the symbolic links .. and .. Symbolic links are a very powerful kind of file that is actually a reference to another file. .. always represents the parent directory of the current directory, so /home/jacob/.. links to /home/. . always links to the current directory, so /home/jacob/. links to /home/jacob.

Running commands To run a command from the command prompt, you type its name and then usually some arguments to tell it what to do. For example, the echo command displays the text passed as arguments.
jacob@lovelace/home/jacob$ echo hello world
hello world
Arguments to commands are space-separated, so in the previous example hello is the first argument and world is the second. If you need an argument to contain spaces, you ll want to put quotes around it, echo "like so". Certain arguments are called flags , or options (options if they take another argument, flags otherwise) usually prefixed with a hyphen, and they change the way a program operates. For example, the ls command outputs the contents of a directory passed as an argument, but if you add -l before the directory, it will give you more details on the files in that directory.
jacob@lovelace/tmp/test$ ls /tmp/test
1  2  3  4  5  6
jacob@lovelace/tmp/test$ ls -l /tmp/test
total 0
-rw-r--r-- 1 jacob jacob 0 Aug 26 22:06 1
-rw-r--r-- 1 jacob jacob 0 Aug 26 22:06 2
-rw-r--r-- 1 jacob jacob 0 Aug 26 22:06 3
-rw-r--r-- 1 jacob jacob 0 Aug 26 22:06 4
-rw-r--r-- 1 jacob jacob 0 Aug 26 22:06 5
-rw-r--r-- 1 jacob jacob 0 Aug 26 22:06 6
jacob@lovelace/tmp/test$
Most commands take different flags to change their behavior in various ways.

File Management
  • cd <path>: Change the current directory of the running shell to <path>.
  • ls <path>: Output the contents of <path>. If no path is passed, it prints the contents of the current directory.
  • touch <filename>: create an new empty file called <filename>. Used on an existing file, it updates the file s last accessed and modified times. Most text editors can also create a new file for you, which is probably more useful.
  • mkdir <directory>: Create a new folder/directory at path <directory>.
  • mv <src> <dest>: Move a file or directory at path <src> to <dest>.
  • cp <src> <dest>: Copy a file or directory at path <src> to <dest>.
  • rm <file>: Remove a file at path <file>.
  • zip -r <zipfile> <contents...>: Create a zip file <zipfile> with contents <contents>. <contents> can be multiple arguments, and you ll usually want to use the -r argument when including directories in your zipfile, as otherwise only the directory will be included and not the files and directories within it.

Searching
  • grep <thing> <file>: Look for the string <thing> in <file>. If no <file> is passed it searches standard input.
  • find <path> -name <name>: Find a file or directory called <name> somwhere under <path>. This command is actually very powerful, but also very complex. For example you can delete all files in a directory older than 30 days with:
    find -mtime +30 -exec rm  \;
    
  • locate <name>: A much easier to use command to find a file with a given name, but it is not usually installed by default.

Outputting Files
  • cat <files...>: Output (concatenate) all the files passed as arguments.
  • head <file>: Output the beginning of <file>
  • tail <file>: Output the end of <file>

How to Find the Right Command All commands (at least on sane Linux distributions like Debian or Ubuntu) are documented with a manual page, in man section 1 (for more information on manual sections, run man intro). This can be accessed using man <command> You can search for the right command using the -k flag, as in man -k <search>. You can also view manual pages in your browser, on sites like https://manpages.debian.org or https://linux.die.net/man. This is not always helpful, however, because some command s descriptions are not particularly useful, and also there are a lot of manual pages, which can make searching for a specific one difficult. For example, finding the right command to search inside text files is quite difficult via man (it s grep). When you can t find what you need with man I recommend falling back to searching the Internet. There are lots of bad Linux tutorials out there, but here are some reputable sources I recommend:
  • https://www.cyberciti.biz: nixCraft has excellent tutorials on all things Linux
  • Hosting providers like Digital Ocean or Linode: Good intro documentation, but can sometimes be outdated
  • https://tldp.org: The Linux Documentation project is great, but it can also be a little outdated sometimes.
  • https://stackoverflow.com: Oftentimes has great answers, but quality varies wildly since anyone can answer.
These are certainly not the only options but they re the sources I would recommend when available.

How to Read a Manual Page Manual pages consist of a series of sections, each with a specific purpose. Instead of attempting to write my own description here, I m going to borrow the excellent one from The Linux Documentation Project
The NAME section is the only required section. Man pages without a name section are as useful as refrigerators at the north pole. This section also has a standardized format consisting of a comma-separated list of program or function names, followed by a dash, followed by a short (usually one line) description of the functionality the program (or function, or file) is supposed to provide. By means of makewhatis(8), the name sections make it into the whatis database files. Makewhatis is the reason the name section must exist, and why it must adhere to the format I described. (Formatting explanation cut for brevity) The SYNOPSIS section is intended to give a short overview on available program options. For functions this sections lists corresponding include files and the prototype so the programmer knows the type and number of arguments as well as the return type. The DESCRIPTION section eloquently explains why your sequence of 0s and 1s is worth anything at all. Here s where you write down all your knowledge. This is the Hall Of Fame. Win other programmers and users admiration by making this section the source of reliable and detailed information. Explain what the arguments are for, the file format, what algorithms do the dirty jobs. The OPTIONS section gives a description of how each option affects program behaviour. You knew that, didn t you? The FILES section lists files the program or function uses. For example, it lists configuration files, startup files, and files the program directly operates on. (Cut details about installing files) The ENVIRONMENT section lists all environment variables that affect your program or function and tells how, of course. Most commonly the variables will hold pathnames, filenames or default options. The DIAGNOSTICS section should give an overview of the most common error messages from your program and how to cope with them. There s no need to explain system error error messages (from perror(3)) or fatal signals (from psignal(3)) as they can appear during execution of any program. The BUGS section should ideally be non-existent. If you re brave, you can describe here the limitations, known inconveniences and features that others may regard as misfeatures. If you re not so brave, rename it the TO DO section ;-) The AUTHOR section is nice to have in case there are gross errors in the documentation or program behaviour (Bzzt!) and you want to mail a bug report. The SEE ALSO section is a list of related man pages in alphabetical order. Conventionally, it is the last section.

Remote Access One of the more powerful uses of the shell is through ssh, the secure shell. This allows you to remotely connect to another computer and run a shell on that machine:
user@host:~$ ssh other@example.com
other@example:~$
The prompt changes to reflect the change in user and host, as you can see in the example above. This allows you to work in a shell on that machine as if it was right in front of you.

Moving Files Between Machines There are several ways you can move files between machines over ssh. The first and easiest is scp, which works much like the cp command except that paths can also take a user@host argument to move files across computers. For example, if you wanted to move a file test.txt to your home directory on another machine, the command would look like:
scp test.txt other@example.com:
(The home directory is the default path) Otherwise you can move files by reversing the order of the arguments and put a path after the colon to move files from another directory on the remote host. For example, if you wanted to fetch the file /etc/issue.net from example.com:
scp other@example.com:/etc/issue.net .
Another option is the sftp command, which gives you a very simple shell-like interface in which you can cd and ls, before either puting files onto the local machine or geting files off of it. The final and most powerful option is rsync which syncs the contents of one directory to another, and doesn t copy files that haven t changed. It s powerful and complex, however, so I recommend reading the USAGE section of its man page.

Long-Running Commands The one problem with ssh is that it will stop any command running in your shell when you disconnect. If you want to leave something on and come back later then this can be a problem. This is where terminal multiplexers come in. tmux and screen both allow you to run a shell in a safe environment where it will continue even if you disconnect from it. You do this by running the command without any arguments, i.e. just tmux or just screen. In tmux you can disconnect from the current session by pressing Ctrl+b then d, and reattach with the tmux attach command. screen works similarly, but with Ctrl+a instead of b and screen -r to reattach.

Command Inputs and Outputs Arguments are not the only way to pass input to a command. They can also take input from what s called standard input , which the shell usually connects to your keyboard. Output can go to two places, standard output and standard error, both of which are directed to the screen by default.

Redirecting I/O Note that I said above that standard input/output/error are only usually connected to the keyboard and the terminal? This is because you can redirect them to other places with the shell operators <, > and the very powerful .

File redirects The operators < and > redirect the input and output of a command to a file. For example, if you wanted a file called list.txt that contained a list of all the files in a directory /this/one/here you could use:
ls /this/one/here > list.txt

Pipelines The pipe character, , allows you to direct the output of one command into the input of another. This can be very powerful. For example, the following pipeline lists the contents of the current directory searches for the string test , then counts the number of results. (wc -l counts the number of lines in its input)
ls   grep test   wc -l
For a better, but even more contrived example, say you have a file myfile, with a bunch of lines of potentially duplicated and unsorted data
test
test
1234
4567
1234
You can sort it and output only the unique lines with sort and uniq:
$ uniq < myfile   sort
1234
1234
4567
test

Save Yourself Some Typing: Globs and Tab-Completion Sometimes you don t want to type out the whole filename when writing out a command. The shell can help you here by autocompleting when you press the tab key. If you have a whole bunch of files with the same suffix, you can refer to them when writing arguments as *.suffix. This also works with prefixes, prefix*, and in fact you can put a * anywhere, *middle*. The shell will expand that * into all the files in that directory that match your criteria (ending with a specific suffix, starting with a specific prefix, and so on) and pass each file as a separate argument to the command. For example, if I have a series of files called 1.txt, 2.txt, and so on up to 9, each containing just the number for which it s named, I could use cat to output all of them like so:
jacob@lovelace/tmp/numbers$ ls
1.txt  2.txt  3.txt  4.txt  5.txt  6.txt  7.txt  8.txt	9.txt
jacob@lovelace/tmp/numbers$ cat *.txt
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
Also the ~ shorthand mentioned above that refers to your home directory can be used when passing a path as an argument to a command.

Ifs and For loops The files in the above example were generated with the following shell commands:
for i in 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
do
echo $i > $i.txt
done
But I ll have to save variables, conditionals and loops for another day because this is already too long. Needless to say the shell is a full programming language, although a very ugly and dangerous one.

20 July 2020

Shirish Agarwal: Hearing loss, pandemic, lockdown

Sorry for not being on blog for sometime, the last few months have been brutal. While I am externally ok, because of the lockdown I sensed major hearing loss. First, I thought it may be a hallucination or something but as it persisted for days, I got myself checked and found out that I got 80% hearing loss in my right ear. How and why I don t know. Is this NIHL or some other kind of hearing loss is yet to be ascertained. I do live what is and used to be one of the busiest roads in the city, now for last few months not so much. On top of it, you have various other noises.

Tinnitus I also experienced Tinnitus which again I perceived to be a hallucination but found it s not. I have no clue if my eiplepsy has anything to do with hearing loss or both are different. I did discover that while today we know that something like Tinnitus exists, just 10-15 years back, people might mistake it for madness. In a way it is madness because you are constantly hearing sound, music etc. 24 7 , that is enough to drive anybody mad. During this brief period, did learn what an Otoscope is . I did get audiometry tests done but need to get at least a second or if possible also a third opinion but those will have to wait as the audio clinics are about 8-10 kms. away. In the open-close-open-close environment just makes it impossible to figure out the time, date and get it done. After that is done then probably get a hearing device, probably a Siemens Signia hearing aid. The hearing aids are damn expensive, almost 50k per piece and they probably have a lifetime of about 5-6 years, so it s a bit of a expensive proposition. I also need a second or/and third opinion on the audiometry profile so I know things are correct. All of these things are gonna take time.

Pandemic Situation in India and Testing Coincidentally, was talking to couple of people about this. It is sad to see that we have the third highest number of covid cases at 1/10th the tests we are doing vis-a-vis U.S.A. According to statistical site ourworldindata , we seem to be testing 0.22 per thousand people compared to 2.28 people per thousand done by United States. Sadly it doesn t give the breakup of the tests, from what I read the PCR tests are better than the antibody tests, a primer shares the difference between the two tests. IIRC, the antibody tests are far cheaper than the swab tests but swab tests are far more accurate as it looks for the virus s genetic material (RNA) . Anyways coming to the numbers, U.S. has a population of roughly 35 crores taking a little bit liberty from numbers given at popclock . India meanwhile has 135 crore or almost four times the population of U.S. and the amount of testing done is 1/10th as shared above. Just goes to share where the GOI priorities lie . We are running out of beds, ventilators and whatever else there is. Whatever resources are there are being used for covid patients and they are being charged a bomb. I have couple of hospitals near my place and the cost of a bed in an isolation ward is upward of INR 100k and if you need a ventilator then add another 50k . And in moment of rarity, the differences between charges of private and public are zero. Meaning there is immense profiteering happening it seems in the medical world. Heck, even the Govt. is on the act where they are charging 18% GST on sanitizers. If this is not looting then I dunno what is.
Example of Medical Bills people have to pay.

China, Nepal & Diplomacy While everybody today knows how China has intruded and captured quite a part of Ladakh, this wasn t the case when they started in April. That time Ajai Shukla had shared this with the top defence personnel but nothing came of it. Then on May 30th he broke/shared the news with the rest of the world and was immediately branded anti-national, person on Chinese payroll and what not. This is when he and Pravin Sawnhey of Force Magazine had both been warning of the same from last year itself. Pravin, has a youtube channel and had been warning India against Chinese intentions from 2015 and even before that. He had warned repeatedly that our obsession with the Pakistan border meant that we were taking eyes of the border with China which spans almost 2300 odd kms. going all the way to Arunachal Pradesh. A good map which shows the conflict can be found at dw.com which I am sharing/reproducing below
India-China Border Areas Copyright DW.com 2020
Note:- I am sharing a neutral party s rendering of the border disputes or somebody who doesn t have much at stake as the two countries have so that things could be looked at little objectively. The Prime Minister on the other hand, made the comment which made galvanising a made-up word into verb . It means to go without coming in. In fact, several news sites shared the statement told by the Prime Minister and the majority of people were shocked. In fact, there had been reports that he gave the current CDS, General Rawat, a person of his own choosing, a peace of his mind. But what lead to this confrontation in the first place ? I think many pieces are part of that puzzle, one of the pieces are surely the cutting of defense budget for the last 6 years, Even this year, if you look at the budget slashes done in the earlier part of the year when he shared how HAL had to raise loans from the market to pay salaries of its own people. Later he shared how the Govt. was planning to slash the defence budget. Interestingly, he had also shared some of the reasons which reaffirm that it is the only the Govt. which can solve some of the issues/conundrum

First, it must recognize that our firms competing for global orders are up against rivals that are being supported by their home governments with tax and export incentives and infrastructure that almost invariably surpasses India s. Our government must provide its aerospace firms with a level playing field, if not a competitive advantage. The greatest deterrent to growth our companies face is the high cost of capital and lack of access to funds. In several cases, Indian MSMEs have had to turn down offers to build components and assemblies for global OEM supply chains simply because the cost of capital to create the shop floor and train the personnel was too high. This resulted in a loss of business and a missed opportunity for creating jobs and skills. To overcome this, the government could create a sector specific A&D Fund to provide low cost capital quickly to enable our MSMEs to grab fleeting business opportunities. Ajai Shukla, blogpost 13th March 2020 . And then reporting on 11th May 2020 itself, CDS Gen. Rawat himself commented on saving the budget, they were in poor taste but still he shared what he thought about it. So, at the end of it one part of the story. The other part of the story probably lies in India s relations with its neighbors and lack of numbers in diplomats and diplomacy. So let me cover both the things one by one .

Diplomats, lack of numbers and hence the hands we are dealth with When Mr. Modi started his first term, he used the term Maximum Governance, Minimum Government but sadly cut those places where it indeed needs more people, one of which is diplomacy. A slightly dated 2012 article/opinion shared writes that India needs to engage with the rest of the world and do with higher number. Cut to 2020 and the numbers more or less remain the same . What Mr. Modi tried to do is instead of using diplomats, he tried to use his charm and hugopolicy for lack of a better term. 6 years later, here we are. After 200 trips abroad, not a single trade agreement to show what he done. I could go on but both time and energy are not on my side hence now switching to Nepal

Nepal, once friend, now enemy ? Nepal had been a friend of India for 70 odd years, what changed in the last few years that it changed from friend to enemy ? There had been two incidents in recent memory that changed the status quo. The first is the 2015 Nepal blockade . Now one could argue it either way but the truth is that Nepal understood that it is heavily dependent on India hence as any sovereign country would do in its interest it also started courting China for imports so there is some balance. The second one though is one of our own making. On December 16, 2014 RBI allowed Nepali citizens to have cash upto INR 25,000/- . Then in 2016 when demonetization was announced, they said that people could exchange only upto INR 4,500/- which was far below the limit shared above. And btw, before people start blaming just RBI for the decision, FEMA decisions are taken jointly by the finance ministry (FE) as well as ministry of external affairs (MEA) . So without them knowing the decision could not have been taken when announcing it. The result of lowering of demonetization is what made Nepal move more into Chinese hands and this has been shared by number of people in numerous articles in different websites. The wire interview with the vice-chairman of Niti Ayog is pretty interesting. The argument that Nepal show give an estimate of how much old money is there falls flat when in demonetization itself, it was thought of that around 30-40% was black money and would not be returned but by RBI s own admissions all 99.3% of the money was returned. Perhaps they should have consulted Prof. Arun Kumar of JNU who has extensively written and studied the topic before doing that fool-hardy step. It is the reason that since then, an economy which was searing at 9% has been contracting ever since, I could give a dozen articles stating that, but for the moment, just one will suffice. The slowing economy and the sharp divisions between people based on either outlook, religion or whatever also encouraged China to attack us. This year is not good for India. The only thing I hope Indians and people all over do is just maintain physical distances, masks and somehow survive till middle of next year without getting infected when probably most of the vaccine candidates have been trialed, results are in and we have a ready vaccine. I do hope that at least for once, ICMR shares data even after the vaccine is approved, whichever vaccine. Till later.

26 June 2020

Chris Lamb: On the pleasure of hating

People love to tell you that they "don't watch sports" but the story of Lance Armstrong provides a fascinating lens through which to observe our culture at large. For example, even granting all that he did and all the context in which he did it, why do sports cheats act like a lightning rod for such an instinctive hatred? After all, the sheer level of distaste directed at people such as Lance eludes countless other criminals in our society, many of whom have taken a lot more with far fewer scruples. The question is not one of logic or rationality, but of proportionality. In some ways it should be unsurprising. In all areas of life, we instinctively prefer binary judgements to moral ambiguities and the sports cheat is a clich of moral bankruptcy cheating at something so seemingly trivial as a sport actually makes it more, not less, offensive to us. But we then find ourselves strangely enthralled by them, drawn together in admiration of their outlaw-like tenacity, placing them strangely close to criminal folk heroes. Clearly, sport is not as unimportant as we like to claim it is. In Lance's case in particular though, there is undeniably a Shakespearean quality to the story and we are forced to let go of our strict ideas of right and wrong and appreciate all the nuance.

There is a lot of this nuance in Marina Zenovich's new documentary. In fact, there's a lot of everything. At just under four hours, ESPN's Lance combines the duration of a Tour de France stage with the depth of the peloton an endurance event compared to the bite-sized hagiography of Michael Jordan's The Last Dance. Even for those who follow Armstrong's story like a mini-sport in itself, Lance reveals new sides to this man for all seasons. For me, not only was this captured in his clumsy approximations at being a father figure but also in him being asked something I had not read in countless tell-all books: did his earlier experiments in drug-taking contribute to his cancer? But even in 2020 there are questions that remain unanswered. By needlessly returning to the sport in 2009, did Lance subconsciously want to get caught? Why does he not admit he confessed to Betsy Andreu back in 1999 but will happily apologise to her today for slurring her publicly on this very point? And why does he remain so vindictive towards former-teammate Floyd Landis? In all of Armstrong's evasions and masterful control of the narrative, there is the gnawing feeling that we don't even know what questions we should be even asking. As ever, the questions are more interesting than the answers.

Lance also reminded me of how professional cycling's obsession with national identity. Although I was intuitively aware of it to some degree, I had not fully grasped how much this kind of stereotyping runs through the veins of the sport itself, just like the drugs themselves. Journalist Daniel Friebe first offers us the portrait of:
Spaniards tend to be modest, very humble. Very unpretentious. And the Italians are loud, vain and outrageous showmen.
Former directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel then asserts that "Belgians are hard workers... they are ambitious to a certain point, but not overly ambitious", and cyclist J rg Jaksche concludes with:
The Germans are very organised and very structured. And then the French, now I have to be very careful because I am German, but the French are slightly superior.
This kind of lazy caricature is nothing new, especially for those brought up on a solid diet of Tintin and Asterix, but although all these examples are seemingly harmless, why does the underlying idea of ascribing moral, social or political significance to genetic lineage remain so durable in today's age of anti-racism? To be sure, culture is not quite the same thing as race, but being judged by the character of one's ancestors rather than the actions of an individual is, at its core, one of the many conflations at the heart of racism. There is certainly a large amount of cognitive dissonance at work, especially when Friebe elaborates:
East German athletes were like incredible robotic figures, fallen off a production line somewhere behind the Iron Curtain...
... but then bermensch Jan Ullrich is immediately described as "emotional" and "struggled to live the life of a professional cyclist 365 days a year". We see the habit to stereotype is so ingrained that even in the face of this obvious contradiction, Friebe unironically excuses Ullrich's failure to live up his German roots due to him actually being "Mediterranean".

I mention all this as I am known within my circles for remarking on these national characters, even collecting stereotypical examples of Italians 'being Italian' and the French 'being French' at times. Contrary to evidence, I don't believe in this kind of innate quality but what I do suspect is that people generally behave how they think they ought to behave, perhaps out of sheer imitation or the simple pleasure of conformity. As the novelist Will Self put it:
It's quite a complicated collective imposture, people pretending to be British and people pretending to be French, and then they get really angry with each other over what they're pretending to be.
The really remarkable thing about this tendency is that even if we consciously notice it there is no seemingly no escape even I could not smirk when I considered that a brash Texan winning the Tour de France actually combines two of America's cherished obsessions: winning... and annoying the French.

10 May 2020

Russ Allbery: Review: Golden Gates

Review: Golden Gates, by Conor Dougherty
Publisher: Penguin
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 0-525-56022-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 249
This review, for reasons that will hopefully become clear later, starts with a personal digression. I have been interested in political theory my entire life. That sounds like something admirable, or at least neutral. It's not. "Interested" means that I have opinions that are generally stronger than my depth of knowledge warrants. "Interested" means that I like thinking about and casting judgment on how politics should be done without doing the work of politics myself. And "political theory" is different than politics in important ways, not the least of which is that political actions have rarely been a direct danger to me or my family. I have the luxury of arguing about politics as a theory. In short, I'm at high risk of being one of those people who has an opinion about everything and shares it on Twitter. I'm still in the process (to be honest, near the beginning of the process) of making something useful out of that interest. I've had some success when I become enough a part of a community that I can do some of the political work, understand the arguments at a level deeper than theory, and have to deal with the consequences of my own opinions. But those communities have been on-line and relatively low stakes. For the big political problems, the ones that involve governments and taxes and laws, those that decide who gets medical treatment and income support and who doesn't, to ever improve, more people like me need to learn enough about the practical details that we can do the real work of fixing them, rather than only making our native (and generally privileged) communities better for ourselves. I haven't found my path helping with that work yet. But I do have a concrete, challenging, local political question that makes me coldly furious: housing policy. Hence this book. Golden Gates is about housing policy in the notoriously underbuilt and therefore incredibly expensive San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. I wanted to deepen that emotional reaction to the failures of housing policy with facts and analysis. Golden Gates does provide some of that. But this also turns out to be a book about the translation of political theory into practice, about the messiness and conflict that results, and about the difficult process of measuring success. It's also a book about how substantial agreement on the basics of necessary political change can still founder on the shoals of prioritization, tribalism, and people who are interested in political theory. In short, it's a book about the difficulty of changing the world instead of arguing about how to change it. This is not a direct analysis of housing policy, although Dougherty provides the basics as background. Rather, it's the story of the political fight over housing told primarily through two lenses: Sonja Trauss, founder of BARF (the Bay Area Renters' Federation); and a Redwood City apartment complex, the people who fought its rent increases, and the nun who eventually purchased it. Around that framework, Dougherty writes about the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the history of California's Proposition 13, a fight over a development in Lafayette, the logistics challenge of constructing sufficient housing even when approved, and the political career of Scott Wiener, the hated opponent of every city fighting for the continued ability to arbitrarily veto any new housing. One of the things Golden Gates helped clarify for me is that there are three core interest groups that have to be part of any discussion of Bay Area housing: homeowners who want to limit or eliminate local change, renters who are vulnerable to gentrification and redevelopment, and the people who want to live in that area and can't (which includes people who want to move there, but more sympathetically includes all the people who work there but can't afford to live locally, such as teachers, day care workers, food service workers, and, well, just about anyone who doesn't work in tech). (As with any political classification, statements about collectives may not apply to individuals; there are numerous people who appear to fall into one group but who vote in alignment with another.) Dougherty makes it clear that housing policy is intractable in part because the policies that most clearly help one of those three groups hurt the other two. As advertised by the subtitle, Dougherty's focus is on the fight for more housing. Those who already own homes whose values have been inflated by artificial scarcity, or who want to preserve such stratified living conditions as low-density, large-lot single-family dwellings within short mass-transit commute of one of the densest cities in the United States, don't get a lot of sympathy or focus here except as opponents. I understand this choice; I also don't have much sympathy. But I do wish that Dougherty had spent more time discussing the unsustainable promise that California has implicitly made to homeowners: housing may be impossibly expensive, but if you can manage to reach that pinnacle of financial success, the ongoing value of your home is guaranteed. He does mention this in passing, but I don't think he puts enough emphasis on the impact that a single huge, illiquid investment that is heavily encouraged by government policy has on people's attitude towards anything that jeopardizes that investment. The bulk of this book focuses on the two factions trying to make housing cheaper: Sonja Trauss and others who are pushing for construction of more housing, and tenant groups trying to manage the price of existing housing for those who have to rent. The tragedy of Bay Area housing is that even the faintest connection of housing to the economic principle of supply and demand implies that the long-term goals of those two groups align. Building more housing will decrease the cost of housing, at least if you build enough of it over a long enough period of time. But in the short term, particularly given the amount of Bay Area land pre-emptively excluded from housing by environmental protection and the actions of the existing homeowners, building more housing usually means tearing down cheap lower-density housing and replacing it with expensive higher-density housing. And that destroys people's lives. I'll admit my natural sympathy is with Trauss on pure economic grounds. There simply aren't enough places to live in the Bay Area, and the number of people in the area will not decrease. To the marginal extent that growth even slows, that's another tale of misery involving "super commutes" of over 90 minutes each way. But the most affecting part of this book was the detailed look at what redevelopment looks like for the people who thought they had housing, and how it disrupts and destroys existing communities. It's impossible to read those stories and not be moved. But it's equally impossible to not be moved by the stories of people who live in their cars during the week, going home only on weekends because they have to live too far away from their jobs to commute. This is exactly the kind of politics that I lose when I take a superficial interest in political theory. Even when I feel confident in a guiding principle, the hard part of real-world politics is bringing real people with you in the implementation and mitigating the damage that any choice of implementation will cause. There are a lot of details, and those details matter. Without the right balance between addressing a long-term deficit and providing short-term protection and relief, an attempt to alleviate unsustainable long-term misery creates more short-term misery for those least able to afford it. And while I personally may have less sympathy for the relatively well-off who have clawed their way into their own mortgage, being cavalier with their goals and their financial needs is both poor ethics and poor politics. Mobilizing political opponents who have resources and vote locally isn't a winning strategy. Dougherty is a reporter, not a housing or public policy expert, so Golden Gates poses problems and tells stories rather than describes solutions. This book didn't lead me to a brilliant plan for fixing the Bay Area housing crunch, or hand me a roadmap for how to get effectively involved in local politics. What it did do is tell stories about what political approaches have worked, how they've worked, what change they've created, and the limitations of that change. Solving political problems is work. That work requires understanding people and balancing concerns, which in turn requires a lot of empathy, a lot of communication, and sometimes finding a way to make unlikely allies. I'm not sure how broad the appeal of this book will be outside of those who live in the region. Some aspects of the fight for housing generalize, but the Bay Area (and I suspect every region) has properties specific to it or to the state of California. It has also reached an extreme of housing shortage that is rivaled in the United States only by New York City, which changes the nature of the solutions. But if you want to seriously engage with Bay Area housing policy, knowing the background explained here is nearly mandatory. There are some flaws I wish Dougherty would have talked more about traffic and transit policy, although I realize that could be another book but this is an important story told well. If this somewhat narrow topic is within your interests, highly recommended. Rating: 8 out of 10

5 November 2017

Russ Allbery: Review: Sweep in Peace

Review: Sweep in Peace, by Ilona Andrews
Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #2
Publisher: NYLA
Copyright: 2015
ISBN: 1-943772-32-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 302
This is the sequel to Clean Sweep. You could pick up the background as you go along, but the character relationships benefit from reading the series in order. Dina's inn is doing a bit better, but it still desperately needs guests. That means she's not really in a position to say no when an Arbitrator shows up at her door and asks her to host a peace summit. Lucky for the Arbitrator, since every other inn on Earth did say no. Nexus has been the site of a viciously bloody conflict between the vampires, the Hope-Crushing Horde, and the Merchants of Baha-char for years. All sides have despaired of finding any form of peace. The vampires and the Horde have both deeply entrenched themselves in a cycle of revenge. The Merchants have the most strategic position and an apparently unstoppable warrior. The situation is hopeless; by far the most likely outcome will be open warfare inside the inn, which would destroy its rating and probably Dina's future as an innkeeper. Dina will need all of her power and caution just to stop that; peace seems beyond any possibility, but thankfully isn't her problem. Maybe the Arbitrator can work some miracle if she can just keep everyone alive. And well fed. Which is another problem. She has enough emergency money for the food, but somehow cook for forty people from four different species while keeping them all from killing each other? Not a chance. She's going to have to hire someone somehow, someone good, even though she can't afford to pay. Sweep in Peace takes this series farther out of urban fantasy territory and farther into science fiction, and also ups the stakes (and the quality of the plot) a notch. We get three moderately interesting alien species with only slight trappings of fantasy, a wonderful alien chef who seems destined to become a regular in the series, and a legitimately tricky political situation. The politics and motives aren't going to win any awards for deep and subtle characterization, but that isn't what the book is going for. It's trying to throw enough challenges at Dina to let her best characteristics shine, and it does that rather well. The inn continues to be wonderful, although I hope it becomes more of a character in its own right as the series continues. Dina's reshaping of it for guests, and her skill at figuring out the rooms her guests would enjoy, is my favorite part of these books. She cares about making rooms match the personality of her guests, and I love books that give the character a profession that matters to them even if it's unrelated to the plot. I do wish Andrews would find a few other ways for Dina to use her powers for combat beyond tentacles and burying people in floors, but that's mostly a quibble. You should still not expect great literature. I guessed the big plot twist several chapters before it happened, and the resolution is, well, not how these sorts of political situations resolve in the real world. But there is not a stupid love affair, there are several interesting characters, and one of the recurring characters gets pretty solid and somewhat unusual characterization. And despite taking the plot in a more serious direction, Sweep in Peace retains its generally lighthearted tone and firm conviction in Dina's ability to handle just about anything. Also, the chef is wonderful. One note: Partway into the book, I started getting that "oh, this is a crossover" feeling (well-honed by years of reading comic books). As near as I can tell from a bit of research, Andrews pulled in some of their characters from the Edge series. This was a bit awkward, in the "who are these people and why do they seem to have more backstory than any of the other supporting characters" cross-over sort of way, but the characters that were pulled in were rather intriguing. I might have to go read the Edge books now. Anyway, if you liked Clean Sweep, this is better in pretty much every way. Recommended. Followed by One Fell Sweep. Rating: 8 out of 10

1 September 2017

Russ Allbery: Review: Regeneration

Review: Regeneration, by Julie E. Czerneda
Series: Species Imperative #3
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: 2006
ISBN: 0-7564-0345-6
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 543
This is the third book of the Species Imperative trilogy, and this is the type of trilogy that's telling a single story in three books. You don't want to read this out of order, and I'll have to be cautious about aspects of the plot to not spoil the earlier books. Mac is still recovering from the effects of the first two books of the series, but she's primarily worried about a deeply injured friend. Worse, that friend is struggling to explain or process what's happened, and the gaps in her memory and her very ability to explain may point at frightening, lingering risks to humanity. As much as she wants to, Mac can't give her friend all of her focus, since she's also integral to the team trying to understand the broader implications of the events of Migration. Worse, some of the non-human species have their own contrary interpretations that, if acted on, Mac believes would be desperately risky for humanity and all the other species reachable through the transects. That set of competing priorities and motivations eventually sort themselves out into a tense and rewarding multi-species story, but they get off to an awkward start. The first 150 pages of Regeneration are long on worry, uncertainty, dread, and cryptic conversations, and short on enjoyable reading. Czerneda's recaps of the previous books are appreciated, but they weren't very smoothly integrated into the story. (I renew my occasional request for series authors to include a simple plot summary of the previous books as a prefix, without trying to weave it into the fiction.) I was looking forward to this book after the excellent previous volumes, but struggled to get into the story. That does change. It takes a bit too long, with a bit too much nameless dread, a bit too much of an irritating subplot between Fourteen and Oversight that I didn't think added anything to the book, and not enough of Mac barreling forward doing sensible things. But once Mac gets back into space, with a destination and a job and a collection of suspicious (or arrogant) humans and almost-incomprehensible aliens to juggle, Czerneda hits her stride. Czerneda doesn't entirely avoid Planet of the Hats problems with her aliens, but I think she does better than most of science fiction. Alien species in this series do tend to be a bit all of a type, and Mac does figure them out by drawing conclusions from biology, but those conclusions are unobvious and based on Mac's mix of biological and human social intuition. They refreshingly aren't as simple as biology completely shaping culture. (Czerneda's touch is more subtle than James White's Sector General, for example.) And Mac has a practical, determined, and selfless approach that's deeply likable and admirable. It's fun as a reader to watch her win people over by just being competent, thoughtful, observant, and unrelentingly ethical. But the best part of this book, by far, are the Sinzi. They first appeared in the second book, Migration, and seemed to follow the common SF trope of a wise elder alien race that can bring some order to the universe and that humanity can learn from. They, or more precisely the one Sinzi who appeared in Migration, was very good at that role. But Czerneda had something far more interesting planned, and in Regeneration they become truly alien in their own right, with their own nearly incomprehensible way of viewing the universe. There are so many ways that this twist can go wrong, and Czerneda avoids all of them. She doesn't undermine their gravitas, nor does she elevate them to the level of Arisians or other semi-angelic wise mentors of other series. Czerneda makes them different in profound ways that are both advantage and disadvantage, pulls that difference into the plot as a complicating element, and has Mac stumble yet again into a role that is accidentally far more influential than she intends. Mac is the perfect character to do that to: she has just the right mix of embarrassment, ethics, seat-of-the-pants blunt negotiation skills, and a strong moral compass. Given a lever and a place to stand, one can believe that Mac can move the world, and the Sinzi are an absolutely fascinating lever. There are also three separate, highly differentiated Sinzi in this story, with different goals, life experience, personalities, and levels of gravitas. Czerneda's aliens are good in general, but her focus is usually more on biology than individual differentiation. The Sinzi here combine the best of both types of character building. I think the ending of Regeneration didn't entirely work. After all the intense effort the characters put into understanding the complexity of the universe over the course of the series, the denouement has a mopping-up feel and a moral clarity that felt a bit too easy. But the climax has everything I was hoping for, there's a lot more of Mac being Mac, and I loved every moment of the Sinzi twist. Now I want a whole new series exploring the implications of the Sinzi's view of the universe on the whole history of galactic politics that sat underneath this story. But I'll settle for moments of revelation that sent shivers down my spine. This is a bit of an uneven book that falls short of its potential, but I'll remember it for a long time. Add it on to a deeply rewarding series, and I will recommend the whole package unreservedly. The Species Imperative is excellent science fiction that should be better-known than it is. I still think the romance subplot was unfortunate, and occasionally the aliens get too cartoony (Fourteen, in particular, goes a bit too far in that direction), but Czerneda never lingers too long on those elements. And the whole work is some of the best writing about working scientific research and small-group politics that I've read. Highly recommended, but read the whole series in order. Rating: 9 out of 10

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