Search Results: "ogi"

29 September 2022

Russell Coker: Links September 2022

Tony Kern wrote an insightful document about the crash of a B-52 at Fairchild air base in 1994 as a case study of failed leadership [1]. Cory Doctorow wrote an insightful medium article We Should Not Endure a King describing the case for anti-trust laws [2]. We need them badly. Insightful Guardian article about the way reasonable responses to the bad situations people are in are diagnosed as mental health problems [3]. Providing better mental healthcare is good, but the government should also work on poverty etc. Cory Doctorow wrote an insightful Locus article about some of the issues that have to be dealt with in applying anti-trust legislation to tech companies [4]. We really need this to be done. Ars Technica has an interesting article about Stable Diffusion, an open source ML system for generating images [5], the results that it can produce are very impressive. One interesting thing is that the license has a set of conditions for usage which precludes exploiting or harming minors or generating false information [6]. This means it will need to go in the non-free section of Debian at best. Dan Wang wrote an interesting article on optimism as human capital [7] which covers the reasons that people feel inspired to create things.

25 September 2022

Shirish Agarwal: Rama II, Arthur C. Clarke, Aliens

Rama II This would be more of a short post about the current book I am reading. Now people who have seen Arrival would probably be more at home. People who have also seen Avatar would also be familiar to the theme or concept I am sharing about. Now before I go into detail, it seems that Arthur C. Clarke wanted to use a powerful god or mythological character for the name and that is somehow the RAMA series started. Now the first book in the series explores an extraterrestrial spaceship that earth people see/connect with. The spaceship is going somewhere and is doing an Earth flyby so humans don t have much time to explore the spaceship and it is difficult to figure out how the spaceship worked. The spaceship is around 40 km. long. They don t meet any living Ramans but mostly automated systems and something called biots. As I m still reading it, I can t really say what happens next. Although in Rama or Rama I, the powers that be want to destroy it while in the end last they don t. Whether they could have destroyed it or not would be whole another argument. What people need to realize is that the book is a giant What IF scenario.

Aliens If there were any intelligent life in the Universe, I don t think they will take the pain of visiting Earth. And the reasons are far more mundane than anything else. Look at how we treat each other. One of the largest democracies on Earth, The U.S. has been so divided. While the progressives have made some good policies, the Republicans are into political stunts, consider the political stunt of sending Refugees to Martha s Vineyard. The ex-president also made a statement that he can declassify anything just by thinking about it. Now understand this, a refugee is a legal migrant whose papers would be looked into by the American Govt. and till the time he/she/their application is approved or declined they can work, have a house, or do whatever to support themselves. There is a huge difference between having refugee status and being an undocumented migrant. And it isn t as if the Republicans don t know this, they did it because they thought they will be able to get away with it. Both the above episodes don t throw us in a good light. If we treat others like the above, how can we expect to be treated? And refugees always have a hard time, not just in the U.S, , the UK you name it. The UK just some months ago announced a controversial deal where they will send Refugees to Rwanda while their refugee application is accepted or denied, most of them would be denied. The Indian Government is more of the same. A friend, a casual acquaintance Nishant Shah shared the same issues as I had shared a few weeks back even though he s an NRI. So, it seems we are incapable of helping ourselves as well as helping others. On top of it, we have the temerity of using the word alien for them. Now, just for a moment, imagine you are an intelligent life form. An intelligent life-form that could coax energy from the stars, why would you come to Earth, where the people at large have already destroyed more than half of the atmosphere and still arguing about it with the other half. On top of it, we see a list of authoritarian figures like Putin, Xi Jinping whose whole idea is to hold on to power for as long as they can, damn the consequences. Mr. Modi is no different, he is the dumbest of the lot and that s saying something. Most of the projects made by him are in disarray, Pune Metro, my city giving an example. And this is when Pune was the first applicant to apply for a Metro. Just like the UK, India too has tanked the economy under his guidance. Every time they come closer to target dates, the targets are put far into the future, for e.g. now they have said 2040 for a good economy. And just like in other countries, he has some following even though he has a record of failure in every sector of the economy, education, and defense, the list is endless. There isn t a single accomplishment by him other than screwing with other religions. Most of my countrymen also don t really care or have a bother to see how the economy grows and how exports play a crucial part otherwise they would be more alert. Also, just like the UK, India too gave tax cuts to the wealthy, most people don t understand how economies function and the PM doesn t care. The media too is subservient and because nobody asks the questions, nobody seems to be accountable :(.

Religion There is another aspect that also has been to the fore, just like in medieval times, I see a great fervor for religion happening here, especially since the pandemic and people are much more insecure than ever before. Before, I used to think that insecurity and religious appeal only happen in the uneducated, and I was wrong. I have friends who are highly educated and yet still are blinded by religion. In many such cases or situations, I find their faith to be a sham. If you have faith, then there shouldn t be any room for doubt or insecurity. And if you are not in doubt or insecure, you won t need to talk about your religion. The difference between the two is that a person is satiated himself/herself/themselves with thirst and hunger. That person would be in a relaxed mode while the other person would continue to create drama as there is no peace in their heart. Another fact is none of the major religions, whether it is Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or even Hinduism has allowed for the existence of extraterrestrials. We have already labeled them as aliens even before meeting them & just our imagination. And more often than not, we end up killing them. There are and have been scores of movies that have explored the idea. Independence day, Aliens, Arrival, the list goes on and on. And because our religions have never thought about the idea of ET s and how they will affect us, if ET s do come, all the religions and religious practices would panic and die. That is the possibility why even the 1947 Roswell Incident has been covered up . If the above was not enough, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans would always be a black mark against humanity. From the alien perspective, if you look at the technology that they have vis-a-vis what we have, they will probably think of us as spoilt babies and they wouldn t be wrong. Spoilt babies with nuclear weapons are not exactly a healthy mix

Earth To add to our fragile ego, we didn t even leave earth even though we have made sure we exploit it as much as we can. We even made the anthropocentric or homocentric view that makes man the apex animal and to top it we have this weird idea that extraterrestrials come here or will invade for water. A species that knows how to get energy out of stars but cannot make a little of H2O. The idea belies logic and again has been done to death. Why we as humans are so insecure even though we have been given so much I fail to understand. I have shared on numerous times the Kardeshev Scale on this blog itself. The above are some of the reasons why Arthur C. Clarke s works are so controversial and this is when I haven t even read the whole book. It forces us to ask questions that we normally would never think about. And I have to repeat that when these books were published for the first time, they were new ideas. All the movies, from Stanley Kubrick s 2001: Space Odyssey, Aliens, Arrival, and Avatar, somewhere or the other reference some aspect of this work. It is highly possible that I may read and re-read the book couple of times before beginning the next one. There is also quite a bit of human drama, but then that is to be expected. I have to admit I did have some nice dreams after reading just the first few pages, imagining being given the opportunity to experience an Extraterrestrial spaceship that is beyond our wildest dreams. While the Governments may try to cover up or something, the ones who get to experience that spacecraft would be unimaginable. And if they were able to share the pictures or a Livestream, it would be nothing short of amazing. For those who want to, there is a lot going on with the New James Webb Telescope. I am sure it would give rise to more questions than answers.

20 September 2022

Simon Josefsson: Privilege separation of GSS-API credentials for Apache

To protect web resources with Kerberos you may use Apache HTTPD with mod_auth_gssapi however, all web scripts (e.g., PHP) run under Apache will have access to the Kerberos long-term symmetric secret credential (keytab). If someone can get it, they can impersonate your server, which is bad. The gssproxy project makes it possible to introduce privilege separation to reduce the attack surface. There is a tutorial for RPM-based distributions (Fedora, RHEL, AlmaLinux, etc), but I wanted to get this to work on a DPKG-based distribution (Debian, Ubuntu, Trisquel, PureOS, etc) and found it worthwhile to document the process. I m using Ubuntu 22.04 below, but have tested it on Debian 11 as well. I have adopted the gssproxy package in Debian, and testing this setup is part of the scripted autopkgtest/debci regression testing. First install the required packages:
root@foo:~# apt-get update
root@foo:~# apt-get install -y apache2 libapache2-mod-auth-gssapi gssproxy curl
This should give you a working and running web server. Verify it is operational under the proper hostname, I ll use foo.sjd.se in this writeup.
root@foo:~# curl --head http://foo.sjd.se/
HTTP/1.1 200 OK
The next step is to create a keytab containing the Kerberos V5 secrets for your host, the exact steps depends on your environment (usually kadmin ktadd or ipa-getkeytab), but use the string HTTP/foo.sjd.se and then confirm using something like the following.
root@foo:~# ls -la /etc/gssproxy/httpd.keytab
-rw------- 1 root root 176 Sep 18 06:44 /etc/gssproxy/httpd.keytab
root@foo:~# klist -k /etc/gssproxy/httpd.keytab -e
Keytab name: FILE:/etc/gssproxy/httpd.keytab
KVNO Principal
---- --------------------------------------------------------------------------
   2 HTTP/foo.sjd.se@GSSPROXY.EXAMPLE.ORG (aes256-cts-hmac-sha1-96) 
   2 HTTP/foo.sjd.se@GSSPROXY.EXAMPLE.ORG (aes128-cts-hmac-sha1-96) 
root@foo:~# 
The file should be owned by root and not be in the default /etc/krb5.keytab location, so Apache s libapache2-mod-auth-gssapi will have to use gssproxy to use it.

Then configure gssproxy to find the credential and use it with Apache.
root@foo:~# cat<<EOF > /etc/gssproxy/80-httpd.conf
[service/HTTP]
mechs = krb5
cred_store = keytab:/etc/gssproxy/httpd.keytab
cred_store = ccache:/var/lib/gssproxy/clients/krb5cc_%U
euid = www-data
process = /usr/sbin/apache2
EOF
For debugging, it may be useful to enable more gssproxy logging:
root@foo:~# cat<<EOF > /etc/gssproxy/gssproxy.conf
[gssproxy]
debug_level = 1
EOF
root@foo:~#
Restart gssproxy so it finds the new configuration, and monitor syslog as follows:
root@foo:~# tail -F /var/log/syslog &
root@foo:~# systemctl restart gssproxy
You should see something like this in the log file:
Sep 18 07:03:15 foo gssproxy[4076]: [2022/09/18 05:03:15]: Exiting after receiving a signal
Sep 18 07:03:15 foo systemd[1]: Stopping GSSAPI Proxy Daemon
Sep 18 07:03:15 foo systemd[1]: gssproxy.service: Deactivated successfully.
Sep 18 07:03:15 foo systemd[1]: Stopped GSSAPI Proxy Daemon.
Sep 18 07:03:15 foo gssproxy[4092]: [2022/09/18 05:03:15]: Debug Enabled (level: 1)
Sep 18 07:03:15 foo systemd[1]: Starting GSSAPI Proxy Daemon
Sep 18 07:03:15 foo gssproxy[4093]: [2022/09/18 05:03:15]: Kernel doesn't support GSS-Proxy (can't open /proc/net/rpc/use-gss-proxy: 2 (No such file or directory))
Sep 18 07:03:15 foo gssproxy[4093]: [2022/09/18 05:03:15]: Problem with kernel communication! NFS server will not work
Sep 18 07:03:15 foo systemd[1]: Started GSSAPI Proxy Daemon.
Sep 18 07:03:15 foo gssproxy[4093]: [2022/09/18 05:03:15]: Initialization complete.
The NFS-related errors is due to a default gssproxy configuration file, it is harmless and if you don t use NFS with GSS-API you can silence it like this:
root@foo:~# rm /etc/gssproxy/24-nfs-server.conf
root@foo:~# systemctl try-reload-or-restart gssproxy
The log should now indicate that it loaded the keytab:
Sep 18 07:18:59 foo systemd[1]: Reloading GSSAPI Proxy Daemon 
Sep 18 07:18:59 foo gssproxy[4182]: [2022/09/18 05:18:59]: Received SIGHUP; re-reading config.
Sep 18 07:18:59 foo gssproxy[4182]: [2022/09/18 05:18:59]: Service: HTTP, Keytab: /etc/gssproxy/httpd.keytab, Enctype: 18
Sep 18 07:18:59 foo gssproxy[4182]: [2022/09/18 05:18:59]: New config loaded successfully.
Sep 18 07:18:59 foo systemd[1]: Reloaded GSSAPI Proxy Daemon.
To instruct Apache or actually, the MIT Kerberos V5 GSS-API library used by mod_auth_gssap loaded by Apache to use gssproxy instead of using /etc/krb5.keytab as usual, Apache needs to be started in an environment that has GSS_USE_PROXY=1 set. The background is covered by the gssproxy-mech(8) man page and explained by the gssproxy README.

When systemd is used the following can be used to set the environment variable, note the final command to reload systemd.
root@foo:~# mkdir -p /etc/systemd/system/apache2.service.d
root@foo:~# cat<<EOF > /etc/systemd/system/apache2.service.d/gssproxy.conf
[Service]
Environment=GSS_USE_PROXY=1
EOF
root@foo:~# systemctl daemon-reload
The next step is to configure a GSS-API protected Apache resource:
root@foo:~# cat<<EOF > /etc/apache2/conf-available/private.conf
<Location /private>
  AuthType GSSAPI
  AuthName "GSSAPI Login"
  Require valid-user
</Location>
Enable the configuration and restart Apache the suggested use of reload is not sufficient, because then it won t be restarted with the newly introduced GSS_USE_PROXY variable. This just applies to the first time, after the first restart you may use reload again.
root@foo:~# a2enconf private
Enabling conf private.
To activate the new configuration, you need to run:
systemctl reload apache2
root@foo:~# systemctl restart apache2
When you have debug messages enabled, the log may look like this:
Sep 18 07:32:23 foo systemd[1]: Stopping The Apache HTTP Server 
Sep 18 07:32:23 foo gssproxy[4182]: [2022/09/18 05:32:23]: Client [2022/09/18 05:32:23]: (/usr/sbin/apache2) [2022/09/18 05:32:23]: connected (fd = 10)[2022/09/18 05:32:23]: (pid = 4651) (uid = 0) (gid = 0)[2022/09/18 05:32:23]:
Sep 18 07:32:23 foo gssproxy[4182]: message repeated 4 times: [ [2022/09/18 05:32:23]: Client [2022/09/18 05:32:23]: (/usr/sbin/apache2) [2022/09/18 05:32:23]: connected (fd = 10)[2022/09/18 05:32:23]: (pid = 4651) (uid = 0) (gid = 0)[2022/09/18 05:32:23]:]
Sep 18 07:32:23 foo systemd[1]: apache2.service: Deactivated successfully.
Sep 18 07:32:23 foo systemd[1]: Stopped The Apache HTTP Server.
Sep 18 07:32:23 foo systemd[1]: Starting The Apache HTTP Server
Sep 18 07:32:23 foo gssproxy[4182]: [2022/09/18 05:32:23]: Client [2022/09/18 05:32:23]: (/usr/sbin/apache2) [2022/09/18 05:32:23]: connected (fd = 10)[2022/09/18 05:32:23]: (pid = 4657) (uid = 0) (gid = 0)[2022/09/18 05:32:23]:
root@foo:~# Sep 18 07:32:23 foo gssproxy[4182]: message repeated 8 times: [ [2022/09/18 05:32:23]: Client [2022/09/18 05:32:23]: (/usr/sbin/apache2) [2022/09/18 05:32:23]: connected (fd = 10)[2022/09/18 05:32:23]: (pid = 4657) (uid = 0) (gid = 0)[2022/09/18 05:32:23]:]
Sep 18 07:32:23 foo systemd[1]: Started The Apache HTTP Server.
Finally, set up a dummy test page on the server:
root@foo:~# echo OK > /var/www/html/private
To verify that the server is working properly you may acquire tickets locally and then use curl to retrieve the GSS-API protected resource. The "--negotiate" enables SPNEGO and "--user :" asks curl to use username from the environment.
root@foo:~# klist
Ticket cache: FILE:/tmp/krb5cc_0
Default principal: jas@GSSPROXY.EXAMPLE.ORG
Valid starting Expires Service principal
09/18/22 07:40:37 09/19/22 07:40:37 krbtgt/GSSPROXY.EXAMPLE.ORG@GSSPROXY.EXAMPLE.ORG
root@foo:~# curl --negotiate --user : http://foo.sjd.se/private
OK
root@foo:~#
The log should contain something like this:
Sep 18 07:56:00 foo gssproxy[4872]: [2022/09/18 05:56:00]: Client [2022/09/18 05:56:00]: (/usr/sbin/apache2) [2022/09/18 05:56:00]: connected (fd = 10)[2022/09/18 05:56:00]: (pid = 5042) (uid = 33) (gid = 33)[2022/09/18 05:56:00]:
Sep 18 07:56:00 foo gssproxy[4872]: [CID 10][2022/09/18 05:56:00]: gp_rpc_execute: executing 6 (GSSX_ACQUIRE_CRED) for service "HTTP", euid: 33,socket: (null)
Sep 18 07:56:00 foo gssproxy[4872]: [CID 10][2022/09/18 05:56:00]: gp_rpc_execute: executing 6 (GSSX_ACQUIRE_CRED) for service "HTTP", euid: 33,socket: (null)
Sep 18 07:56:00 foo gssproxy[4872]: [CID 10][2022/09/18 05:56:00]: gp_rpc_execute: executing 1 (GSSX_INDICATE_MECHS) for service "HTTP", euid: 33,socket: (null)
Sep 18 07:56:00 foo gssproxy[4872]: [CID 10][2022/09/18 05:56:00]: gp_rpc_execute: executing 6 (GSSX_ACQUIRE_CRED) for service "HTTP", euid: 33,socket: (null)
Sep 18 07:56:00 foo gssproxy[4872]: [CID 10][2022/09/18 05:56:00]: gp_rpc_execute: executing 9 (GSSX_ACCEPT_SEC_CONTEXT) for service "HTTP", euid: 33,socket: (null)
The Apache log will look like this, notice the authenticated username shown.
127.0.0.1 - jas@GSSPROXY.EXAMPLE.ORG [18/Sep/2022:07:56:00 +0200] "GET /private HTTP/1.1" 200 481 "-" "curl/7.81.0"
Congratulations, and happy hacking!

Matthew Garrett: Handling WebAuthn over remote SSH connections

Being able to SSH into remote machines and do work there is great. Using hardware security tokens for 2FA is also great. But trying to use them both at the same time doesn't work super well, because if you hit a WebAuthn request on the remote machine it doesn't matter how much you mash your token - it's not going to work.

But could it?

The SSH agent protocol abstracts key management out of SSH itself and into a separate process. When you run "ssh-add .ssh/id_rsa", that key is being loaded into the SSH agent. When SSH wants to use that key to authenticate to a remote system, it asks the SSH agent to perform the cryptographic signatures on its behalf. SSH also supports forwarding the SSH agent protocol over SSH itself, so if you SSH into a remote system then remote clients can also access your keys - this allows you to bounce through one remote system into another without having to copy your keys to those remote systems.

More recently, SSH gained the ability to store SSH keys on hardware tokens such as Yubikeys. If configured appropriately, this means that even if you forward your agent to a remote site, that site can't do anything with your keys unless you physically touch the token. But out of the box, this is only useful for SSH keys - you can't do anything else with this support.

Well, that's what I thought, at least. And then I looked at the code and realised that SSH is communicating with the security tokens using the same library that a browser would, except it ensures that any signature request starts with the string "ssh:" (which a genuine WebAuthn request never will). This constraint can actually be disabled by passing -O no-restrict-websafe to ssh-agent, except that was broken until this weekend. But let's assume there's a glorious future where that patch gets backported everywhere, and see what we can do with it.

First we need to load the key into the security token. For this I ended up hacking up the Go SSH agent support. Annoyingly it doesn't seem to be possible to make calls to the agent without going via one of the exported methods here, so I don't think this logic can be implemented without modifying the agent module itself. But this is basically as simple as adding another key message type that looks something like:
type ecdsaSkKeyMsg struct  
       Type        string  sshtype:"17 25" 
       Curve       string
       PubKeyBytes []byte
       RpId        string
       Flags       uint8
       KeyHandle   []byte
       Reserved    []byte
       Comments    string
       Constraints []byte  ssh:"rest" 
 
Where Type is ssh.KeyAlgoSKECDSA256, Curve is "nistp256", RpId is the identity of the relying party (eg, "webauthn.io"), Flags is 0x1 if you want the user to have to touch the key, KeyHandle is the hardware token's representation of the key (basically an opaque blob that's sufficient for the token to regenerate the keypair - this is generally stored by the remote site and handed back to you when it wants you to authenticate). The other fields can be ignored, other than PubKeyBytes, which is supposed to be the public half of the keypair.

This causes an obvious problem. We have an opaque blob that represents a keypair. We don't have the public key. And OpenSSH verifies that PubKeyByes is a legitimate ecdsa public key before it'll load the key. Fortunately it only verifies that it's a legitimate ecdsa public key, and does nothing to verify that it's related to the private key in any way. So, just generate a new ECDSA key (ecdsa.GenerateKey(elliptic.P256(), rand.Reader)) and marshal it ( elliptic.Marshal(ecKey.Curve, ecKey.X, ecKey.Y)) and we're good. Pass that struct to ssh.Marshal() and then make an agent call.

Now you can use the standard agent interfaces to trigger a signature event. You want to pass the raw challenge (not the hash of the challenge!) - the SSH code will do the hashing itself. If you're using agent forwarding this will be forwarded from the remote system to your local one, and your security token should start blinking - touch it and you'll get back an ssh.Signature blob. ssh.Unmarshal() the Blob member to a struct like
type ecSig struct  
        R *big.Int
        S *big.Int
 
and then ssh.Unmarshal the Rest member to
type authData struct  
        Flags    uint8
        SigCount uint32
 
The signature needs to be converted back to a DER-encoded ASN.1 structure (eg,
var b cryptobyte.Builder
b.AddASN1(asn1.SEQUENCE, func(b *cryptobyte.Builder)  
        b.AddASN1BigInt(ecSig.R)
        b.AddASN1BigInt(ecSig.S)
 )
signatureDER, _ := b.Bytes()
, and then you need to construct the Authenticator Data structure. For this, take the RpId used earlier and generate the sha256. Append the one byte Flags variable, and then convert SigCount to big endian and append those 4 bytes. You should now have a 37 byte structure. This needs to be CBOR encoded (I used github.com/fxamacker/cbor and just called cbor.Marshal(data, cbor.EncOptions )).

Now base64 encode the sha256 of the challenge data, the DER-encoded signature and the CBOR-encoded authenticator data and you've got everything you need to provide to the remote site to satisfy the challenge.

There are alternative approaches - you can use USB/IP to forward the hardware token directly to the remote system. But that means you can't use it locally, so it's less than ideal. Or you could implement a proxy that communicates with the key locally and have that tunneled through to the remote host, but at that point you're just reinventing ssh-agent.

And you should bear in mind that the default behaviour of blocking this sort of request is for a good reason! If someone is able to compromise a remote system that you're SSHed into, they can potentially trick you into hitting the key to sign a request they've made on behalf of an arbitrary site. Obviously they could do the same without any of this if they've compromised your local system, but there is some additional risk to this. It would be nice to have sensible MAC policies that default-denied access to the SSH agent socket and only allowed trustworthy binaries to do so, or maybe have some sort of reasonable flatpak-style portal to gate access. For my threat model I think it's a worthwhile security tradeoff, but you should evaluate that carefully yourself.

Anyway. Now to figure out whether there's a reasonable way to get browsers to work with this.

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17 September 2022

Russ Allbery: Effective altruism and the control trap

William MacAskill has been on a book tour for What We Owe to the Future, which has put effective altruism back in the news. That plus the decision by GiveWell to remove GiveDirectly from their top charity list got me thinking about charity again. I think effective altruism, by embracing long-termism, is falling into an ethical trap, and I'm going to start heavily discounting their recommendations for donations. Background Some background first for people who have no idea what I'm talking about. Effective altruism is the idea that we should hold charities accountable for effectiveness. It's not sufficient to have an appealing mission. A charity should demonstrate that the money they spend accomplishes the goals they claimed it would. There is a lot of debate around defining "effective," but as a basic principle, this is sound. Mainstream charity evaluators such as Charity Navigator measure overhead and (arguable) waste, but they don't ask whether the on-the-ground work of the charity has a positive effect proportional to the resources it's expending. This is a good question to ask. GiveWell is a charity research organization that directs money for donors based on effective altruism principles. It's one of the central organizations in effective altruism. GiveDirectly is a charity that directly transfers money from donors to poor people. It doesn't attempt to build infrastructure, buy specific things, or fund programs. It identifies poor people and gives them cash with no strings attached. Long-termism is part of the debate over what "effectiveness" means. It says we should value impact on future generations more highly than we tend to do. (In other words, we should have a much smaller future discount rate.) A sloppy but intuitive expression of long-termism is that (hopefully) there will be far more humans living in the future than are living today, and therefore a "greatest good for the greatest number" moral philosophy argues that we should invest significant resources into making the long-term future brighter. This has obvious appeal to those of us who are concerned about the long-term impacts of climate change, for example. There is a lot of overlap between the communities of effective altruism, long-termism, and "rationalism." One way this becomes apparent is that all three communities have a tendency to obsess over the risks of sentient AI taking over the world. I'm going to come back to that. Psychology of control GiveWell, early on, discovered that GiveDirectly was measurably more effective than most charities. Giving money directly to poor people without telling them how to spend it produced more benefits for those people and their surrounding society than nearly all international aid charities. GiveDirectly then became the baseline for GiveWell's evaluations, and GiveWell started looking for ways to be more effective than that. There is some logic to thinking more effectiveness is possible. Some problems are poorly addressed by markets and too large for individual spending. Health care infrastructure is an obvious example. That said, there's also a psychological reason to look for other charities. Part of the appeal of charity is picking a cause that supports your values (whether that be raw effectiveness or something else). Your opinions and expertise are valued alongside your money. In some cases, this may be objectively true. But in all cases, it's more flattering to the ego than giving poor people cash. At that point, the argument was over how to address immediate and objectively measurable human problems. The innovation of effective altruism is to tie charitable giving to a research feedback cycle. You measure the world, see if it is improving, and adjust your funding accordingly. Impact is measured by its effects on actual people. Effective altruism was somewhat suspicious of talking directly to individuals and preferred "objective" statistical measures, but the point was to remain in contact with physical reality. Enter long-termism: what if you could get more value for your money by addressing problems that would affect vast numbers of future people, instead of the smaller number of people who happen to be alive today? Rather than looking at the merits of that argument, look at its psychology. Real people are messy. They do things you don't approve of. They have opinions that don't fit your models. They're hard to "objectively" measure. But people who haven't been born yet are much tidier. They're comfortably theoretical; instead of having to go to a strange place with unfamiliar food and languages to talk to people who aren't like you, you can think hard about future trends in the comfort of your home. You control how your theoretical future people are defined, so the results of your analysis will align with your philosophical and ideological beliefs. Problems affecting future humans are still extrapolations of problems visible today in the world, though. They're constrained by observations of real human societies, despite the layer of projection and extrapolation. We can do better: what if the most serious problem facing humanity is the possible future development of rogue AI? Here's a problem that no one can observe or measure because it's never happened. It is purely theoretical, and thus under the control of the smart philosopher or rich western donor. We don't know if a rogue AI is possible, what it would be like, how one might arise, or what we could do about it, but we can convince ourselves that all those things can be calculated with some probability bar through the power of pure logic. Now we have escaped the uncomfortable psychological tension of effective altruism and returned to the familiar world in which the rich donor can define both the problem and the solution. Effectiveness is once again what we say it is. William MacAskill, one of the originators of effective altruism, now constantly talks about the threat of rogue AI. In a way, it's quite sad. Where to give money? The mindset of long-termism is bad for the human brain. It whispers to you that you're smarter than other people, that you know what's really important, and that you should retain control of more resources because you'll spend them more wisely than others. It's the opposite of intellectual humility. A government funding agency should take some risks on theoretical solutions to real problems, and maybe a few on theoretical solutions to theoretical problems (although an order of magnitude less). I don't think this is a useful way for an individual donor to think. So, if I think effective altruism is abandoning the one good idea it had and turning back into psychological support for the egos of philosophers and rich donors, where does this leave my charitable donations? To their credit, GiveWell so far seems uninterested in shifting from concrete to theoretical problems. However, they believe they can do better by picking projects than giving people money, and they're committing to that by dropping GiveDirectly (while still praising them). They may be right. But I'm increasingly suspicious of the level of control donors want to retain. It's too easy to trick oneself into thinking you know better than the people directly affected. I have two goals when I donate money. One is to make the world a better, kinder place. The other is to redistribute wealth. I have more of something than I need, and it should go to someone who does need it. The net effect should be to make the world fairer and more equal. The first goal argues for effective altruism principles: where can I give money to have the most impact on making the world better? The second goal argues for giving across an inequality gradient. I should find the people who are struggling the most and transfer as many resources to them as I can. This is Peter Singer's classic argument for giving money to the global poor. I think one can sometimes do better than transferring money, but doing so requires a deep understanding of the infrastructure and economies of scale that are being used as leverage. The more distant one is from a society, the more dubious I think one should be of one's ability to evaluate that, and the more wary one should be of retaining any control over how resources are used. Therefore, I'm pulling my recurring donation to GiveWell. Half of it is going to go to GiveDirectly, because I think it is an effective way of redistributing wealth while giving up control. The other half is going to my local foodbank, because they have a straightforward analysis of how they can take advantage of economy of scale, and because I have more tools available (such as local news) to understand what problem they're solving and if they're doing so effectively. I don't know that those are the best choices. There are a lot of good ones. But I do feel strongly that the best charity comes from embracing the idea that I do not have special wisdom, other people know more about what they need than I do, and deploying my ego and logic from the comfort of my home is not helpful. Find someone who needs something you have an excess of. Give it to them. Treat them as equals. Don't retain control. You won't go far wrong.

14 September 2022

Russell Coker: Storing Local Secrets

In the operation of a normal Linux system there are many secrets stored on behalf of a user. Wifi passwords, passwords from web sites, etc. Ideally you want them to be quickly and conveniently accessible to the rightful user but also be as difficult as possible for hostile parties to access. The solution in GNOME and KDE is to have a wallet that is encrypted to store such passwords, the idea is that if a hostile party gets access to a PC that doesn t use full disk encryption then the secrets will be protected. This is an OK feature. In early versions it required entering a password every time you logged in. The current default mode of operation is to have the login password used to decrypt the wallet which is very convenient. The problem is the case where the user login password has a scope larger than the local PC, EG a domain login password for Active Directory, Kerberos, or similar systems. In such a case if an attacker gets the encrypted wallet that could facilitate a brute force attack on the password used for domain logins. I think that a better option for this would be to store wallets in a directory that the user can t access directly, EG a mode 1770 directory with group wallet . Then when logging in a PAM process running as root could open the wallet and pass a file handle to a process running in the context of the user. For access apart from login there could be SETGID programs to manage it which could require authenticating the user s password before any operation that exports the data so that a vulnerability in a web browser or other Internet facing program can t just grab the file contents. Storing the data in a file that needs a SETGID or root owned process to access it doesn t preclude the possibility of encrypting that file. The same encryption options would be available including encrypting with the login password and unlocking at login time via PAM. The difference is that a brute force attack to discover the login password would first require breaking the security of one of those SETGID programs to get access to the raw data direct attacks by running the wallet open command repeatedly could be managed by the usual rate limiting mechanisms and logging in the system logs. The same methods could be used for protecting the secret keys for GPG and SSH which by default are readable by all processes running in the user context and encrypted with a passphrase. The next issue to consider is where to store such an restricted directory for wallets. Under the user home directory would give the advantage of having the same secrets operate over a network filesystem and not need anything special in backup configuration. Under /var/lib would give the advantage of better isolation from all the less secret (in a cryptographic sense) data in the user home directories. What do you think?

11 September 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Hogfather

Review: Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #20
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 1996
Printing: February 2014
ISBN: 0-06-227628-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 402
Hogfather is the 20th Discworld novel and not a very good place to start. I recommend at least reading Soul Music first for a proper introduction to Susan, and you may want to start with Mort. When we last saw Susan, she was a student at the Quirm College for Young Ladies. Now she's a governess for two adorable youngsters, a job that includes telling them stories and dealing quite capably with monsters in the cellar. (She uses a poker.) It also includes answering questions like whether the Hogfather really exists or whether the presents just come from your parents.
"Look at it this way, then," she said, and took a deep mental breath. "Wherever people are obtuse and absurd... and wherever they have, by even the most generous standards, the attention span of a small chicken in a hurricane and the investigative ability of a one-legged cockroach... and wherever people are inanely credulous, pathetically attached to the certainties of the nursery and, in general, have as much grasp of the physical universe as an oyster has of mountaineering... yes, Twyla: there is a Hogfather.
Meanwhile, the Auditors, last seen meddling with Death in Reaper Man, approach the Assassin's Guild in Ankh-Morpork to hire the assassination of the Hogfather. This rather unusual assignment falls to Mister Teatime, an orphan who was taken in by the guild at an early age and trained to be an assassin. Teatime is a little unnerving, mostly because he enjoys being an assassin. Rather a lot. Hogfather has two major things to recommend it: it's a Death novel, and it features Susan, who is one of my favorite Discworld characters. It also has two major strikes against it, at least for me. The first is relatively minor but, for me, the most irritating. A bit of the way into the story, Pratchett introduces the Oh God of Hangovers fair, that's a good pun and then decides that's a good excuse for nausea and vomiting jokes. A lot of nausea and vomiting jokes. Look. I know a lot of people don't mind this. But I beg authors (and, even more so, filmmakers and cartoonists) to consider whether a joke that some of your audience might like is worth making other parts of your audience feel physically ill while trying to enjoy your work. It's not at all a pleasant experience, and while I handle it better in written form, it still knocks me out of the story and makes me want to skip over scenes with the obnoxious character who won't shut up about it. Thankfully this does stop by the end of the book, but there are several segments in the middle that were rather unpleasant. The second is that Pratchett tries to convince the reader of the mythical importance of the Santa Claus myth (for which Hogfather is an obvious stand-in, if with a Discworld twist), an effort for which I am a highly unsympathetic audience. I'm with Susan above, with an extra helping of deep dislike for telling children who trust you something that's literally untrue. Pratchett does try: he has Death makes a memorable and frequently-quoted point near the end of the book (transcribed below) that I don't entirely agree with but still respect. But still, the book is very invested in convincing Susan that people believing mythology is critically important to humanity, and I have so many problems with the literalness of "believing" and the use of trusting children for this purpose by adults who know better. There are few topics that bring out my grumpiness more than Santa Claus. Grumbling aside, though, I did enjoy this book anyway. Susan is always a delight, and I could read about her adventures as a governess for as long as Pratchett wanted to write them. Death is filling in for the Hogfather for most of the book, which is hilarious because he's far too good at it, in his painfully earnest and literal way, to be entirely safe. I was less fond of Albert's supporting role (who I am increasingly coming to dislike as a character), but the entire scene of Death as a mall Santa is brilliant. And Teatime is an effective, creepy villain, something that the Discworld series doesn't always deliver. The powers arrayed on Discworld are so strong that it can be hard to design a villain who effectively challenges them, but Teatime has a sociopathic Professor Moriarty energy with added creepiness that fills that role in this book satisfyingly. As is typical for Pratchett (at least for me), the plot was serviceable but not the highlight. Pratchett plays in some interesting ways with a child's view of the world, the Unseen University bumbles around as a side plot, and it comes together at the end in a way that makes sense, but the journey is the fun of the story. The conclusion felt a bit gratuitous, there mostly to wrap up the story than something that followed naturally from the previous plot. But it does feature one of the most quoted bits in Discworld:
"All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable." REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE. "Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little " YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES. "So we can believe the big ones?" YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING. "They're not the same at all!" YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME...SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED. "Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point " MY POINT EXACTLY.
Here's the thing, though: Susan is right. They're not the same sort of thing at all, and Pratchett doesn't present an argument that they are. Death's response is great, but it's also a non sequitur: it is true and correct but has nothing to do with Susan's argument. Justice is not a lie in the sense that Santa Claus is a lie: justice is something that humans can create, just like humans can create gift-giving or a tradition of imaginative story-telling. But this is not at all the same thing as encouraging children to believe in the literal existence of a fat man in red who comes down chimneys to deliver gifts by magic. And Death isn't even correct in Discworld! If one pays careful attention to the story, the consequences he's thinks would follow from the Auditors' attempt on the Hogfather not only don't happen, the exact opposite happens. This is the point of the Unseen University subplot, and it's also what happened in Reaper Man. The Auditors may be trying to kill mythology, but what the books show is that the real danger comes from the backlash. The force they're meddling with is far more powerful and persistent than they are. Death appears to be, by the stated events of the story, completely incorrect in his analysis of Discworld's metaphysics. Maybe Pratchett knows this? He did write a story that contradicts Death's analysis if one reads it carefully. But if so, this is not obvious from the text, or from Susan's reaction to Death's speech, which makes the metaphysics weirdly unsatisfying. So, overall, a mixed bag. Most of the book is very fun, but the metaphysics heavily rest on a pet peeve of mine, and I really could have done without the loving descriptions of the effects of hangovers. This is one of the more famous Discworld novels for the above quote, and on its own this is deserved (it's a great quote), but I think the logic is muddled and the story itself contradicts the implications. A rather odd reading experience. Followed by Jingo in publication order, and Thief of Time thematically. Rating: 7 out of 10

9 September 2022

Reproducible Builds: Reproducible Builds in August 2022

Welcome to the August 2022 report from the Reproducible Builds project! In these reports we outline the most important things that we have been up to over the past month. As a quick recap, whilst anyone may inspect the source code of free software for malicious flaws, almost all software is distributed to end users as pre-compiled binaries. The motivation behind the reproducible builds effort is to ensure no flaws have been introduced during this compilation process by promising identical results are always generated from a given source, thus allowing multiple third-parties to come to a consensus on whether a build was compromised. As ever, if you are interested in contributing to the project, please visit our Contribute page on our website.

Community news As announced last month, registration is currently open for our in-person summit this year which is due to be held between November 1st November 3rd. The event will take place in Venice (Italy). Very soon we intend to pick a venue reachable via the train station and an international airport. However, the precise venue will depend on the number of attendees. Please see the announcement email for information about how to register.
The US National Security Agency (NSA), Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have released a document called Securing the Software Supply Chain: Recommended Practices Guide for Developers (PDF) as part of their Enduring Security Framework (ESF) work. The document expressly recommends having reproducible builds as part of advanced recommended mitigations, along with hermetic builds. Page 31 (page 35 in the PDF) says:
Reproducible builds provide additional protection and validation against attempts to compromise build systems. They ensure the binary products of each build system match: i.e., they are built from the same source, regardless of variable metadata such as the order of input files, timestamps, locales, and paths. Reproducible builds are those where re-running the build steps with identical input artifacts results in bit-for-bit identical output. Builds that cannot meet this must provide a justification why the build cannot be made reproducible.
The full press release is available online.
On our mailing list this month, Marc Prud hommeaux posted a feature request for diffoscope which additionally outlines a project called The App Fair, an autonomous distribution network of free and open-source macOS and iOS applications, where validated apps are then signed and submitted for publication .
Author/blogger Cory Doctorow posted published a provocative blog post this month titled Your computer is tormented by a wicked god . Touching on Ken Thompson s famous talk, Reflections on Trusting Trust , the early goals of Secure Computing and UEFI firmware interfaces:
This is the core of a two-decade-old debate among security people, and it s one that the benevolent God faction has consistently had the upper hand in. They re the curated computing advocates who insist that preventing you from choosing an alternative app store or side-loading a program is for your own good because if it s possible for you to override the manufacturer s wishes, then malicious software may impersonate you to do so, or you might be tricked into doing so. [..] This benevolent dictatorship model only works so long as the dictator is both perfectly benevolent and perfectly competent. We know the dictators aren t always benevolent. [ ] But even if you trust a dictator s benevolence, you can t trust in their perfection. Everyone makes mistakes. Benevolent dictator computing works well, but fails badly. Designing a computer that intentionally can t be fully controlled by its owner is a nightmare, because that is a computer that, once compromised, can attack its owner with impunity.

Lastly, Chengyu HAN updated the Reproducible Builds website to correct an incorrect Git command. [ ]

Debian In Debian this month, the essential and required package sets became 100% reproducible in Debian bookworm on the amd64 and arm64 architectures. These two subsets of the full Debian archive refer to Debian package priority levels as described in the 2.5 Priorities section of the Debian Policy there is no canonical minimal installation package set in Debian due to its diverse methods of installation. As it happens, these package sets are not reproducible on the i386 architecture because the ncurses package on that architecture is not yet reproducible, and the sed package currently fails to build from source on armhf too. The full list of reproducible packages within these package sets can be viewed within our QA system, such as on the page of required packages in amd64 and the list of essential packages on arm64, both for Debian bullseye.
It recently has become very easy to install reproducible Debian Docker containers using podman on Debian bullseye:
$ sudo apt install podman
$ podman run --rm -it debian:bullseye bash
The (pre-built) image used is itself built using debuerrotype, as explained on docker.debian.net. This page also details how to build the image yourself and what checksums are expected if you do so.
Related to this, it has also become straightforward to reproducibly bootstrap Debian using mmdebstrap, a replacement for the usual debootstrap tool to create Debian root filesystems:
$ SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH=$(date --utc --date=2022-08-29 +%s) mmdebstrap unstable > unstable.tar
This works for (at least) Debian unstable, bullseye and bookworm, and is tested automatically by a number of QA jobs set up by Holger Levsen (unstable, bookworm and bullseye)
Work has also taken place to ensure that the canonical debootstrap and cdebootstrap tools are also capable of bootstrapping Debian reproducibly, although it currently requires a few extra steps:
  1. Clamping the modification time of files that are newer than $SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH to be not greater than SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH.
  2. Deleting a few files. For debootstrap, this requires the deletion of /etc/machine-id, /var/cache/ldconfig/aux-cache, /var/log/dpkg.log, /var/log/alternatives.log and /var/log/bootstrap.log, and for cdebootstrap we also need to delete the /var/log/apt/history.log and /var/log/apt/term.log files as well.
This process works at least for unstable, bullseye and bookworm and is now being tested automatically by a number of QA jobs setup by Holger Levsen [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]. As part of this work, Holger filed two bugs to request a better initialisation of the /etc/machine-id file in both debootstrap [ ] and cdebootstrap [ ].
Elsewhere in Debian, 131 reviews of Debian packages were added, 20 were updated and 27 were removed this month, adding to our extensive knowledge about identified issues. Chris Lamb added a number of issue types, including: randomness_in_browserify_output [ ], haskell_abi_hash_differences [ ], nondeterministic_ids_in_html_output_generated_by_python_sphinx_panels [ ]. Lastly, Mattia Rizzolo removed the deterministic flag from the captures_kernel_variant flag [ ].

Other distributions Vagrant Cascadian posted an update of the status of Reproducible Builds in GNU Guix, writing that:
Ignoring the pesky unknown packages, it is more like ~93% reproducible and ~7% unreproducible... that feels a bit better to me! These numbers wander around over time, mostly due to packages moving back into an "unknown" state while the build farms catch up with each other... although the above numbers seem to have been pretty consistent over the last few days.
The post itself contains a lot more details, including a brief discussion of tooling. Elsewhere in GNU Guix, however, Vagrant updated a number of packages such as itpp [ ], perl-class-methodmaker [ ], libnet [ ], directfb [ ] and mm-common [ ], as well as updated the version of reprotest to 0.7.21 [ ]. In openSUSE, Bernhard M. Wiedemann published his usual openSUSE monthly report.

diffoscope diffoscope is our in-depth and content-aware diff utility. Not only can it locate and diagnose reproducibility issues, it can provide human-readable diffs from many kinds of binary formats. This month, Chris Lamb prepared and uploaded versions 220 and 221 to Debian, as well as made the following changes:
  • Update external_tools.py to reflect changes to xxd and the vim-common package. [ ]
  • Depend on the dedicated xxd package now, not the vim-common package. [ ]
  • Don t crash if we can open a PDF file using the PyPDF library, but cannot subsequently parse the annotations within. [ ]
In addition, Vagrant Cascadian updated diffoscope in GNU Guix, first to to version 220 [ ] and later to 221 [ ].

Community news The Reproducible Builds project aims to fix as many currently-unreproducible packages as possible as well as to send all of our patches upstream wherever appropriate. This month we created a number of patches, including:

Testing framework The Reproducible Builds project runs a significant testing framework at tests.reproducible-builds.org, to check packages and other artifacts for reproducibility. This month, Holger Levsen made the following changes:
  • Debian-related changes:
    • Temporarily add Debian unstable deb-src lines to enable test builds a Non-maintainer Upload (NMU) campaign targeting 708 sources without .buildinfo files found in Debian unstable, including 475 in bookworm. [ ][ ]
    • Correctly deal with the Debian Edu packages not being installable. [ ]
    • Finally, stop scheduling stretch. [ ]
    • Make sure all Ubuntu nodes have the linux-image-generic kernel package installed. [ ]
  • Health checks & view:
    • Detect SSH login problems. [ ]
    • Only report the first uninstallable package set. [ ]
    • Show new bootstrap jobs. [ ] and debian-live jobs. [ ] in the job health view.
    • Fix regular expression to detect various zombie jobs. [ ]
  • New jobs:
    • Add a new job to test reproducibility of mmdebstrap bootstrapping tool. [ ][ ][ ][ ]
    • Run our new mmdebstrap job remotely [ ][ ]
    • Improve the output of the mmdebstrap job. [ ][ ][ ]
    • Adjust the mmdebstrap script to additionally support debootstrap as well. [ ][ ][ ]
    • Work around mmdebstrap and debootstrap keeping logfiles within their artifacts. [ ][ ][ ]
    • Add support for testing cdebootstrap too and add such a job for unstable. [ ][ ][ ]
    • Use a reproducible value for SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH for all our new bootstrap jobs. [ ]
  • Misc changes:
    • Send the create_meta_pkg_sets notification to #debian-reproducible-changes instead of #debian-reproducible. [ ]
In addition, Roland Clobus re-enabled the tests for live-build images [ ] and added a feature where the build would retry instead of give up when the archive was synced whilst building an ISO [ ], and Vagrant Cascadian added logging to report the current target of the /bin/sh symlink [ ].

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

8 September 2022

Antoine Beaupr : Complaint about Canada's phone cartel

I have just filed a complaint with the CRTC about my phone provider's outrageous fees. This is a copy of the complaint.
I am traveling to Europe, specifically to Ireland, for a 6 days for a work meeting. I thought I could use my phone there. So I looked at my phone provider's services in Europe, and found the "Fido roaming" services: https://www.fido.ca/mobility/roaming The fees, at the time of writing, at fifteen (15!) dollars PER DAY to get access to my regular phone service (not unlimited!!). If I do not use that "roaming" service, the fees are: That is absolutely outrageous. Any random phone plan in Europe will be cheaper than this, by at least one order of magnitude. Just to take any example: https://www.tescomobile.ie/sim-only-plans.aspx Those fine folks offer a one-time, prepaid plan for 15 for 28 days which includes: I think it's absolutely scandalous that telecommunications providers in Canada can charge so much money, especially since the most prohibitive fee (the "non-prepaid" plans) are automatically charged if I happen to forget to remove my sim card or put my phone in "airplane mode". As advised, I have called customer service at Fido for advice on how to handle this situation. They have confirmed those are the only plans available for travelers and could not accommodate me otherwise. I have notified them I was in the process of filing this complaint. I believe that Canada has become the technological dunce of the world, and I blame the CRTC for its lack of regulation in that matter. You should not allow those companies to grow into such a cartel that they can do such price-fixing as they wish. I haven't investigated Fido's competitors, but I will bet at least one of my hats that they do not offer better service. I attach a screenshot of the Fido page showing those outrageous fees.
I have no illusions about this having any effect. I thought of filing such a complain after the Rogers outage as well, but felt I had less of a standing there because I wasn't affected that much (e.g. I didn't have a life-threatening situation myself). This, however, was ridiculous and frustrating enough to trigger this outrage. We'll see how it goes...
"We will respond to you within 10 working days."

Response from CRTC They did respond within 10 days. Here is the full response:
Dear Antoine Beaupr : Thank you for contacting us about your mobile telephone international roaming service plan rates concern with Fido Solutions Inc. (Fido). In Canada, mobile telephone service is offered on a competitive basis. Therefore, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is not involved in Fido's terms of service (including international roaming service plan rates), billing and marketing practices, quality of service issues and customer relations. If you haven't already done so, we encourage you to escalate your concern to a manager if you believe the answer you have received from Fido's customer service is not satisfactory. Based on the information that you have provided, this may also appear to be a Competition Bureau matter. The Competition Bureau is responsible for administering and enforcing the Competition Act, and deals with issues such as false or misleading representations, deceptive marketing practices and collusion. You can reach the Competition Bureau by calling 1-800-348-5358 (toll-free), by TTY (for deaf and hard of hearing people) by calling 1-866-694-8389 (toll-free). For more contact information, please visit http://www.competitionbureau.gc.ca/eic/site/cb-bc.nsf/eng/00157.html When consumers are not satisfied with the service they are offered, we encourage them to compare the products and services of other providers in their area and look for a company that can better match their needs. The following tool helps to show choices of providers in your area: https://crtc.gc.ca/eng/comm/fourprov.htm Thank you for sharing your concern with us.
In other words, complain with Fido, or change providers. Don't complain to us, we don't manage the telcos, they self-regulate. Great job, CRTC. This is going great. This is exactly why we're one of the most expensive countries on the planet for cell phone service.

Live chat with Fido Interestingly, the day after I received that response from the CRTC, I received this email from Fido, while traveling:
Date: Tue, 13 Sep 2022 10:10:00 -0400 From: Fido DONOTREPLY@fido.ca To: REDACTED Subject: Courriel d avis d itin rance Fido Roaming Welcome Confirmation Fido Date : 13 septembre 2022
Num ro de compte : [redacted] Bonjour
Antoine Beaupr ! Nous vous crivons pour vous indiquer qu au moins un utilisateur inscrit votre compte s est r cemment connect un r seau en itin rance.
Vous trouverez ci-dessous le message texte de bienvenue en itin rance envoy l utilisateur (ou aux utilisateurs), qui contenait les tarifs d itin rance
applicables. Message texte de bienvenue en itin rance Destinataire : REDACTED Date et heure : 2022-09-13 / 10:10:00
Allo, ici Fido : Bienvenue destination! Vous tes inscrit Fido Nomade alors utilisez vos donn es, parlez et textez comme vous le faites la
maison. Depuis le 1 mars 2022 le tarif cette destination pour 15 $/jour (+ taxes) et valide tous les jours jusqu' 23 h 59 HE, peu importe le fuseau
horaire dans lequel vous vous trouvez. Bon voyage! Des questions? Consultez fido.ca/m/itinerance ou composez +15149333436 (sans frais). Besoin d aide?
  • PLANIFIEZ UN VOYAGE AVEC Fido NomadeMC
    D couvrez nos options d itin rance et restez en contact l tranger sans vous soucier de votre
    facture.
D tails
  • G rez votre compte
    G rez vos produits et services Fido la maison ou sur la route gr ce Mon
    Compte.
D tails Ce courriel est produit automatiquement; veuillez ne pas y r pondre. Ce courriel (et toute pi ce jointe) est confidentiel. Si vous n tes pas le destinataire,
veuillez supprimer le pr sent message et en d truire toute copie. FIDO SOLUTIONS 800, RUE DE LA GAUCHETI RE OUEST
BUREAU 4000 MONTR AL (QU BEC) H5A 1K3
Fido
I found that message utterly confusing (and yes, I can read french). Basically, it says that some user (presumably me!) connected to the network with roaming. I did just disabled airplane mode on my phone to debug a Syncthing bug but had not enabled roaming. So this message seemed to say that I would be charged 15$ (per DAY!) for roaming from now on. Confused, I tried their live chat to try to clarify things, worried I would get charged even more for calling tech support on *611. This is a transcript of the chat:
F: Hi! What are we doing today? Type in your question or choose from the options below: * Track my Equipment Order * View Bill Online * Payment Options * iPhone 14 Pre-Order A: i received a message about roaming while abroad but i did not enable roaming on my phone, will i be charged anyways? F: I think I know what you re asking for. Select the topic that best matches your request or try rephrasing your question. A: no F: Thank you, this will help us to improve! Would you like to chat with a specialist? Chat with a specialist I'll get a specialist to help you with this. It appears that you're not signed in. Your session may have timed out. To save time and identify your account details, please sign in to My Account.
  • Sign in
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Have any questions specific to your Fido account? To service you faster, please identify yourself by completing the form below. A: Personal info Form submitted F: Thank you! I'll connect you with the next available specialist. Your chat is being transferred to a Live Chat agent. Thanks for your patience. We are here to assist you and we kindly ask that our team members be treated with respect and dignity. Please note that abuse directed towards any Consumer Care Specialist will not be tolerated and will result in the termination of your conversation with us. All of our agents are with other customers at the moment. Your chat is in a priority sequence and someone will be with you as soon as possible. Thanks! Thanks for continuing to hold. An agent will be with you as soon as possible. Thank you for your continued patience. We re getting more Live Chat requests than usual so it s taking longer to answer. Your chat is still in a priority sequence and will be answered as soon as an agent becomes available. Thank you so much for your patience we're sorry for the wait. Your chat is still in a priority sequence and will be answered as soon as possible. Hi, I'm [REDACTED] from Fido in [REDACTED]. May I have your name please? A: hi i am antoine, nice to meet you sorry to use the live chat, but it's not clear to me i can safely use my phone to call support, because i am in ireland and i'm worried i'll get charged for the call F: Thank You Antoine , I see you waited to speak with me today, thank you for your patience.Apart from having to wait, how are you today? A: i am good thank you
[... delay ...]
A: should i restate my question? F: Yes please what is the concern you have? A: i have received an email from fido saying i someone used my phone for roaming it's in french (which is fine), but that's the gist of it i am traveling to ireland for a week i do not want to use fido's services here... i have set the phon eto airplane mode for most of my time here F: The SMS just says what will be the charges if you used any services. A: but today i have mistakenly turned that off and did not turn on roaming well it's not a SMS, it's an email F: Yes take out the sim and keep it safe.Turun off or On for roaming you cant do it as it is part of plan. A: wat F: if you used any service you will be charged if you not used any service you will not be charged. A: you are saying i need to physically take the SIM out of the phone? i guess i will have a fun conversation with your management once i return from this trip not that i can do that now, given that, you know, i nee dto take the sim out of this phone fun times F: Yes that is better as most of the customer end up using some kind of service and get charged for roaming. A: well that is completely outrageous roaming is off on the phone i shouldn't get charged for roaming, since roaming is off on the phone i also don't get why i cannot be clearly told whether i will be charged or not the message i have received says i will be charged if i use the service and you seem to say i could accidentally do that easily can you tell me if i have indeed used service sthat will incur an extra charge? are incoming text messages free? F: I understand but it is on you if you used some data SMS or voice mail you can get charged as you used some services.And we cant check anything for now you have to wait for next bill. and incoming SMS are free rest all service comes under roaming. That is the reason I suggested take out the sim from phone and keep it safe or always keep the phone or airplane mode. A: okay can you confirm whether or not i can call fido by voice for support? i mean for free F: So use your Fido sim and call on +1-514-925-4590 on this number it will be free from out side Canada from Fido sim. A: that is quite counter-intuitive, but i guess i will trust you on that thank you, i think that will be all F: Perfect, Again, my name is [REDACTED] and it s been my pleasure to help you today. Thank you for being a part of the Fido family and have a great day! A: you too
So, in other words:
  1. they can't tell me if I've actually been roaming
  2. they can't tell me how much it's going to cost me
  3. I should remove the SIM card from my phone (!?) or turn on airplane mode, but the former is safer
  4. I can call Fido support, but not on the usual *611, and instead on that long-distance-looking phone number, and yes, that means turning off airplane mode and putting the SIM card in, which contradicts step 3
Also notice how the phone number from the live chat (+1-514-925-4590) is different than the one provided in the email (15149333436). So who knows what would have happened if I would have called the latter. The former is mentioned in their contact page. I guess the next step is to call Fido over the phone and talk to a manager, which is what the CRTC told me to do in the first place... I ended up talking with a manager (another 1h phone call) and they confirmed there is no other package available at Fido for this. At best they can provide me with a credit if I mistakenly use the roaming by accident to refund me, but that's it. The manager also confirmed that I cannot know if I have actually used any data before reading the bill, which is issued on the 15th of every month, but only available... three days later, at which point I'll be back home anyways. Fantastic.

6 September 2022

Shirish Agarwal: Debian on Phone

History Before I start, the game I was talking about is called Cell To Singularity. Now I haven t gone much in the game as I have shared but think that the Singularity it refers to is the Technological Singularity that people think will happen. Whether that will happen or not is open to debate to one and all. This is going to be a bit long one. Confession Time :- When I was sharing in the blog post, I had no clue that we actually had sessions on it in this year s Debconf. I just saw the schedule yesterday and then came to know. Then I saw Guido s two talks, one at Debconf as well as one as Froscon. In fact, saw the Froscon talk first, and then the one at Debconf. Both the talks are nearly the same except for a thing here or a thing there. Now because I was not there so my understanding and knowledge would be disadvantageously asymmetrical to Guido and others who were there and could talk and share more. Having a Debian mobile or Debian on the mobile could also make Debian more popular and connectable to the masses, one of the things that were not pointed out in the Debian India BOF sadly. At the same time, there are some facts that are not on the table and hence not thought about. Being a B.Com person, I have been following not just the technical but also how the economics work and smartphone penetration in India is pretty low or historically been very low, say around 3-4% while the majority that people use, almost 90-95% of the market uses what are called non-smartphones or dumbphones. Especially during the pandemic and even after that the dumbphones market actually went up while smartphones stagnated and even came down. There is a lot of inventory at most of the dealers that they can t get rid of. From a dealer perspective, it probably makes more sense to buy and sell dumbphones more in number as the turnaround of capital is much faster and easier than for smartphones. I have seen people spend a number of hours and rightly so in order to make their minds up on a smartphone while for a dumbphone, it is a 10-minute thing. Ask around, figure out who is selling at the cheapest, and just buy. Most of these low-end phones are coming from China. In fact, even in the middle and getting even into smartphones, the Chinese are the masters from whom we buy, even as they have occupied Indian territory. In the top five, Samsung comes at number three of four (sharing about Samsung as a fan and having used them.) even though battery times are atrocious, especially with Android 12L. The only hope that most of the smartphone manufacturers have is lowering the sticker prices and hoping that 5G Adoption picks up and that is what they are betting on but that comes with its own share of drawbacks as can be seen.

GNOME, MATE, memory leaks, Payments FWIW, while I do have GNOME and do use a couple of tools from the GNOME stack, I hate GNOME with a passion. I have been a mate user for almost a decade now and really love the simplicity that mate has vis-a-vis GNOME. And with each release, MATE has only become better. So, it would be nice if we can have MATE on the mobile phone. How adaptive the apps might be on the smaller area, I dunno. It would be interesting to find out if and how people are looking at debugging memory leaks on mobile phones. Although finding memory leaks on any platform is good, finding them and fixing them on a mobile phone is pretty much critical as most phones have fixed & relatively small amounts of memory and it is and can get quickly exhausted. One of the things that were asked in the Q&A was about payments. The interesting thing is both UK and India are the same or markedly similar in regard as far as contactless payments being concerned. What most Indians have or use is basically UPI which is basically backed by your bank. Unlike in some other countries where you have a selection of wallets and even temporary/permanent virtual accounts whereby you can minimize your risks in case your mobile gets stolen or something, here we don t have that. There are three digital wallets that I know Paytm Not used (have heard it s creepy, but don t really know), Google pay (Unfortunately, this is the one I use, they bought multiple features, and in the last couple of years have really taken the game away from Paytm but also creepy.). The last one is Samsung Pay (haven t really used it as their find my phone app. always crashes, dunno how it is supposed to work.) But I do find that the apps. are vulnerable. Every day there is some or other news of fraud happening. Previously, only States like Bihar and Jharkhand used to be infamous for cybercrime as a hub, but now even States like Andhra Pradesh have joined and surpassed them :(. People have lost lakhs and crores, this is just a few days back. Some more info. on UPI can be found here and GitHub has a few implementation examples that anybody could look at and run away with it.

Balancing on three things For any new mobile phone to crack the market, it has to balance three things. One, achieve economies of scale. Unless, that is not taken care of or done, however good or bad the product might be, it remains a niche and dies after some time. While Guido shared about Openmoko and N900, one of the more interesting bits from a user perspective at least was the OLPC project. There are many nuances that the short article didn t go through. While I can t say for other countries, at least in India, no education initiative happens without corruption. And perhaps Nicholas s hands were tied while other manufacturers would and could do to achieve their sales targets. In India, it flopped because there was no way for volunteers to buy or get OLPC unless they were part of a school or college. There was some traction in FOSS communities, but that died down once OLPC did the partnership with MS-Windows, and proverbially broke the camel s back. FWIW, I think the idea, the concept, and even the machine were far ahead of their time. The other two legs are support and Warranty Without going into any details, I can share and tell there were quite a few OLPC type attempts using conventional laptops or using Android and FOSS or others or even using one of the mainstream distributions but the problems have always been polishing, training and support. Guido talked about privacy as a winning feature but fails to take into account that people want to know that their privacy isn t being violated. If a mobile phone answers to Hey Google does it mean it was passively gathering, storing, and sending info to third parties, we just don t know. The mobile phone could be part of the right to repair profile while at the same time it can force us to ask many questions about the way things currently are and going to be. Six months down the line all the flagships of all companies are working on being able to take and share through satellites (Satellite Internet) and perhaps maybe a few non-flagships. Of course, if you are going to use a satellite, then you are going to drain that much more quickly. In all and every event there are always gonna be tradeoffs. The Debian-mobile mailing list doesn t seem to have many takers. The latest I could find there is written by Paul Wise. I am in a similar boat (Samsung; SM-M526B; Lahaina; arm64-v8a) v12. It is difficult to know which release would work on your machine, make sure that the building from the source is not tainted and pristine and needs a way to backup and restore if you need to. I even tried installing GNURoot Debian and the Xserver alternative they had shared but was unable to use the touch interface on the fakeroot instance  . The system talks about a back key but what back key I have no clue.

Precursor Events Debconf 2023 As far as precursor events are concerned before Debconf 23 in India, all the festivals that we have could be used to showcase Debian. In fact, the ongoing Ganesh Chaturthi would have been the perfect way to showcase Debian and apps. according to the audience. Even the festival of Durga Puja, Diwali etc. can be used. When commercial organizations use the same festivals, why can t we? What perhaps we would need to figure out is the funding part as well as getting permissions from Municipal authorities. One of the things for e.g. that we could do is buy either a permanent 24 monitor or a 34 TV and use that to display Debian and apps. The bigger, the better. Something that we could use day to day and also is used for events. This would require significant amounts of energy so we could approach companies, small businesses and individuals both for volunteering as well as helping out with funding. Somebody asked how we could do online stuff and why it is somewhat boring. What could be done for e.g. instead of 4-5 hrs. of things, break it into manageable 45 minute pieces. 4-5 hrs. is long and is gonna fatigue the best of people. Make it into 45-minute negotiable chunks, and intersphere it with jokes, hacks, anecdotes, and war stories. People do not like or want to be talked down to but rather converse. One of the things that I saw many of the artists do is have shows and limit the audience to 20-24 people on zoom call or whatever videoconferencing system you have and play with them. The passive audience enjoys the play between the standup guy and the crowd he works on, some of them may be known to him personally so he can push that envelope a bit more. The same thing can be applied here. Share the passion, and share why we are doing something. For e.g. you could do smem -t -k less and give a whole talk about how memory is used and freed during a session, how are things different on desktop and ARM as far as memory architecture is concerned (if there is). What is being done on the hardware side, what is on the software side and go on and on. Then share about troubleshooting applications. Valgrind is super slow and makes life hell, is there some better app ? Doesn t matter if you are a front-end or a back-end developer you need to know this and figure out the best way to deal with in your app/program. That would have lot of value. And this is just an e.g. to help trigger more ideas from the community. I am sure others probably have more fun ideas as to what can be done. I am stopping here now otherwise would just go on, till later. Feel free to comment, feedback. Hope it generates some more thinking and excitement on the grey cells.

2 September 2022

John Goerzen: Dead USB Drives Are Fine: Building a Reliable Sneakernet

OK, you re probably thinking. John, you talk a lot about things like Gopher and personal radios, and now you want to talk about building a reliable network out of USB drives? Well, yes. In fact, I ve already done it.

What is sneakernet? Normally, sneakernet is a sort of tongue-in-cheek reference to using disconnected storage to transport data or messages. By disconnect storage I mean anything like CD-ROMs, hard drives, SD cards, USB drives, and so forth. There are times when loading up 12TB on a device and driving it across town is just faster and easier than using the Internet for the same. And, sometimes you need to get data to places that have no Internet at all. Another reason for sneakernet is security. For instance, if your backup system is online, and your systems being backed up are online, then it could become possible for an attacker to destroy both your primary copy of data and your backups. Or, you might use a dedicated computer with no network connection to do GnuPG (GPG) signing.

What about reliable sneakernet, then? TCP is often considered a reliable protocol. That means that the sending side is generally able to tell if its message was properly received. As with most reliable protocols, we have these components:
  1. After transmitting a piece of data, the sender retains it.
  2. After receiving a piece of data, the receiver sends an acknowledgment (ACK) back to the sender.
  3. Upon receiving the acknowledgment, the sender removes its buffered copy of the data.
  4. If no acknowledgment is received at the sender, it retransmits the data, in case it gets lost in transit.
  5. It reorders any packets that arrive out of order, so that the recipient s data stream is ordered correctly.
Now, a lot of the things I just mentioned for sneakernet are legendarily unreliable. USB drives fail, CD-ROMs get scratched, hard drives get banged up. Think about putting these things in a bicycle bag or airline luggage. Some of them are going to fail. You might think, well, I ll just copy files to a USB drive instead of move them, and once I get them onto the destination machine, I ll delete them from the source. Congratulations! You are a human retransmit algorithm! We should be able to automate this! And we can.

Enter NNCP NNCP is one of those things that almost defies explanation. It is a toolkit for building asynchronous networks. It can use as a carrier: a pipe, TCP network connection, a mounted filesystem (specifically intended for cases like this), and much more. It also supports multi-hop asynchronous routing and asynchronous meshing, but these are beyond the scope of this particular article. NNCP s transports that involve live communication between two hops already had all the hallmarks of being reliable; there was a positive ACK and retransmit. As of version 8.7.0, NNCP s ACKs themselves can also be asynchronous meaning that every NNCP transport can now be reliable. Yes, that s right. Your ACKs can flow over tapes and USB drives if you want them to. I use this for archiving and backups. If you aren t already familiar with NNCP, you might take a look at my NNCP page. I also have a lot of blog posts about NNCP. Those pages describe the basics of NNCP: the packet (the unit of transmission in NNCP, which can be tiny or many TB), the end-to-end encryption, and so forth. The new command we will now be interested in is nncp-ack.

The Basic Idea Here are the basic steps to processing this stuff with NNCP:
  1. First, we use nncp-xfer -rx to process incoming packets from the USB (or other media) device. This moves them into the NNCP inbound queue, deleting them from the media device, and verifies the packet integrity.
  2. We use nncp-ack -node $NODE to create ACK packets responding to the packets we just loaded into the rx queue. It writes a list of generated ACKs onto fd 4, which we save off for later use.
  3. We run nncp-toss -seen to process the incoming queue. The use of -seen causes NNCP to remember the hashes of packets seen before, so a duplicate of an already-seen packet will not be processed twice. This command also processes incoming ACKs for packets we ve sent out previously; if they pass verification, the relevant packets are removed from the local machine s tx queue.
  4. Now, we use nncp-xfer -keep -tx -mkdir -node $NODE to send outgoing packets to a given node by writing them to a given directory on the media device. -keep causes them to remain in the outgoing queue.
  5. Finally, we use the list of generated ACK packets saved off in step 2 above. That list is passed to nncp-rm -node $NODE -pkt < $FILE to remove those specific packets from the outbound queue. The reason is that there will never be an ACK of ACK packet (that would create an infinite loop), so if we don t delete them in this manner, they would hang around forever.
You can see these steps follow the same basic outline on upstream s nncp-ack page. One thing to keep in mind: if anything else is running nncp-toss, there is a chance of a race condition between steps 1 and 2 (if nncp-toss gets to it first, it might not get an ack generated). This would sort itself out eventually, presumably, as the sender would retransmit and it would be ACKed later.

Further ideas NNCP guarantees the integrity of packets, but not ordering between packets; if you need that, you might look into my Filespooler program. It is designed to work with NNCP and can provide ordered processing.

An example script Here is a script you might try for this sort of thing. It may have more logic than you need really, you just need the steps above but hopefully it is clear.
#!/bin/bash
set -eo pipefail
MEDIABASE="/media/$USER"
# The local node name
NODENAME=" hostname "
# All nodes.  NODENAME should be in this list.
ALLNODES="node1 node2 node3"
RUNNNCP=""
# If you need to sudo, use something like RUNNNCP="sudo -Hu nncp"
NNCPPATH="/usr/local/nncp/bin"
ACKPATH=" mktemp -d "
# Process incoming packets.
#
# Parameters: $1 - the path to scan.  Must contain a directory
# named "nncp".
procrxpath ()  
    while [ -n "$1" ]; do
        BASEPATH="$1/nncp"
        shift
        if ! [ -d "$BASEPATH" ]; then
            echo "$BASEPATH doesn't exist; skipping"
            continue
        fi
        echo " *** Incoming: processing $BASEPATH"
        TMPDIR=" mktemp -d "
        # This rsync and the one below can help with
        # certain permission issues from weird foreign
        # media.  You could just eliminate it and
        # always use $BASEPATH instead of $TMPDIR below.
        rsync -rt "$BASEPATH/" "$TMPDIR/"
        # You may need these next two lines if using sudo as above.
        # chgrp -R nncp "$TMPDIR"
        # chmod -R g+rwX "$TMPDIR"
        echo "     Running nncp-xfer -rx"
        $RUNNNCP $NNCPPATH/nncp-xfer -progress -rx "$TMPDIR"
        for NODE in $ALLNODES; do
                if [ "$NODE" != "$NODENAME" ]; then
                        echo "     Running nncp-ack for $NODE"
                        # Now, we generate ACK packets for each node we will
                        # process.  nncp-ack writes a list of the created
                        # ACK packets to fd 4.  We'll use them later.
                        # If using sudo, add -C 5 after $RUNNNCP.
                        $RUNNNCP $NNCPPATH/nncp-ack -progress -node "$NODE" \
                           4>> "$ACKPATH/$NODE"
                fi
        done
        rsync --delete -rt "$TMPDIR/" "$BASEPATH/"
        rm -fr "$TMPDIR"
    done
 
proctxpath ()  
    while [ -n "$1" ]; do
        BASEPATH="$1/nncp"
        shift
        if ! [ -d "$BASEPATH" ]; then
            echo "$BASEPATH doesn't exist; skipping"
            continue
        fi
        echo " *** Outgoing: processing $BASEPATH"
        TMPDIR=" mktemp -d "
        rsync -rt "$BASEPATH/" "$TMPDIR/"
        # You may need these two lines if using sudo:
        # chgrp -R nncp "$TMPDIR"
        # chmod -R g+rwX "$TMPDIR"
        for DESTHOST in $ALLNODES; do
            if [ "$DESTHOST" = "$NODENAME" ]; then
                continue
            fi
            # Copy outgoing packets to this node, but keep them in the outgoing
            # queue with -keep.
            $RUNNNCP $NNCPPATH/nncp-xfer -keep -tx -mkdir -node "$DESTHOST" -progress "$TMPDIR"
            # Here is the key: that list of ACK packets we made above - now we delete them.
            # There will never be an ACK for an ACK, so they'd keep sending forever
            # if we didn't do this.
            if [ -f "$ACKPATH/$DESTHOST" ]; then
                echo "nncp-rm for node $DESTHOST"
                $RUNNNCP $NNCPPATH/nncp-rm -debug -node "$DESTHOST" -pkt < "$ACKPATH/$DESTHOST"
            fi
        done
        rsync --delete -rt "$TMPDIR/" "$BASEPATH/"
        rm -rf "$TMPDIR"
        # We only want to write stuff once.
        return 0
    done
 
procrxpath "$MEDIABASE"/*
echo " *** Initial tossing..."
# We make sure to use -seen to rule out duplicates.
$RUNNNCP $NNCPPATH/nncp-toss -progress -seen
proctxpath "$MEDIABASE"/*
echo "You can unmount devices now."
echo "Done."

This post is also available on my webiste, where it may be periodically updated.

1 September 2022

Emmanuel Kasper: OpenShift vs. AWS product mapping

If you know the Amazon Web Services portfolio, and you are interested in OpenShift or the OKD OpenShift community distribution, this is a table of corresponding technologies. OpenShift is Red Hat s Kubernetes distribution: it is basically the upstream Kubernetes delivered with monitoring, logging, CI/CD, underlying OS, tested upgrade paths not found with a manual kubernetes.io kubeadm install.
AWS OpenShift OpenShift upstream project
Cloud Trail Kubernetes API Server audit log Kubernetes
Cloud Watch OpenShift Monitoring Prometheus
AWS Artifact Compliance Operator OpenSCAP
AWS Trusted Advisor Insights
AWS Marketplace OpenShift Operator Hub
AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) Red Hat SSO Keycloack
AWS Elastisc Beanstalk OpenShift Source2Image (S2I) Source2Image (S2I)
AWS S3 ODF Rados Gateway Rook RGW
AWS Elastic Bloc Storage ODF Rados Block Device Rook RBD
AWS Elastic File System ODF Ceph FS Rook CephFS
Amazon Simple Notification Service OpenShift Streams for Apache Kafka Apache Kafka
Amazon Guard Duty API Server audit log review, ACS Runtime detection Stackrox
Amazon Inspector Quay.io container scanner, ACS Vulnerability Assessment Clair, Stackrox
AWS Lambda Openshift Serverless* Knative
AWS Key Management System could be done with Hashicorp Vault Vault
AWS WAF NGINX Ingress Controller Operator with ModSecurity NGINX ModSecurity
Amazon Elasticache Redis Enterprise Operator Redis, memcached as alternative
AWS Relational Database Service Crunchy Data Operator PostgreSQL
* OpenShift Serverless requires the application to be packaged as a container, something AWS Lamda does not require.

Shirish Agarwal: Culture, Books, Friends

Culture Just before I start, I would like to point out that this post may or would probably be NSFW. Again, what is SFW (Safe at Work) and NSFW that so much depends on culture and perception of culture from wherever we are or wherever we take birth? But still, to be on the safe side I have put it as NSFW. Now there have been a few statements and ideas that gave me a pause. This will be a sort of chaotic blog post as I am in such a phase today. For e.g. while I do not know which culture or which country this comes from, somebody shared that in some cultures one can talk/comment May your poop be easy and with a straight face. I dunno which culture is this but if somebody asked me that I would just die from laughing or maybe poop there itself. While I can understand if it is a constipated person, but a whole culture? Until and unless their DNA is really screwed, I don t think so but then what do I know? I do know that we shit when we have extreme reactions of either joy or fear. And IIRC, this comes from mammal response when they were in dangerous situations and we got the same as humans evolved. I would really be interested to know which culture is that. I did come to know that the Japanese do wish that you may not experience hard work or something to that effect while ironically they themselves are becoming extinct due to hard work and not enough relaxation, toxic workplace is common in Japan according to social scientists and population experts. Another term that I couldn t figure out is The Florida Man Strikes again and this term is usually used when somebody does something stupid or something weird. While it is exclusively used in the American context, I am curious to know how that came about. Why does Florida have such people or is it an exaggeration? I have heard the term e.g. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas . Think it is also called Sin city although why just Vegas is beyond me?

Omicron-8712 Blood pressure machine I felt so stupid. I found another site or e-commerce site called Wellness Forever. They had the blood pressure machine I wanted, an Omron-8172. I bought it online and they delivered the same within half an hour. Amazon took six days and in the end, didn t deliver it at all. I tried taking measurements from it yesterday. I have yet to figure out what it all means but I did get measurements of 109 SYS, 88 DIA and Pulse is 72. As far as the pulse is concerned, guess that is normal, the others just don t know. If only I had known this couple of months ago. I was able to register the product as well as download and use the Omron Connect app. For roughly INR 2.5k you have a sort of health monitoring system. It isn t Star Trek Tricorder in any shape or form but it will have to do while the tricorder gets invented. And while we are on the subject let s not forget Elizabeth Holmes and the scam called Theranos. It really is something to see How Elizabeth Holmes modeled so much of herself on Steve Jobs mimicking how he left college/education halfway. A part of me is sad that Theranos is not real. Joe Scott just a few days ago shared some perspectives on the same just a few days ago. The idea in itself is pretty seductive, to say the least, and that is the reason the scam went on for more than a decade and perhaps would have been longer if some people hadn t gotten the truth out. I do see potentially, something like that coming on as A.I. takes a bigger role in automating testing. Half a decade to a decade from now, who knows if there is an algorithm that is able to do what is needed? If such a product were to come to the marketplace at a decent price, it would revolutionize medicine, especially in countries like India, South Africa, and all sorts of remote places. Especially, with all sorts of off-grid technologies coming and maturing in the marketplace. Before I forget, there is a game called Cell on Android that tells or shares about the evolution of life on earth. It also shares credence to the idea that life has come 6 times on Earth and has been destroyed multiple times by asteroids. It is in the idle sort of game format, so you can see the humble beginnings from the primordial soup to various kinds of cells and bacteria to finally a mammal. This is where I am and a long way to go.

Indian Bureaucracy One of the few things that Britishers gave to India, is the bureaucracy and the bureaucracy tests us in myriad ways. It would be full 2 months on 5th September and I haven t yet got a death certificate. And I need that for a sundry number of things. The same goes for a disability certificate. What is and was interesting is my trip to the local big hospital called Sassoon Hospital. My mum had shared incidents that occurred in the 1950s when she and the family had come to Pune. According to her, when she was alive, while Sassoon was the place to be, it was big and chaotic and you never knew where you are going. That was in 1950, I had the same experience in 2022. The term/adage the more things change, the more they remain the same seems to be held true for Sassoon Hospital. Btw, those of you who think the Devil exists, he is totally a fallacy. There is a popular myth that the devil comes to deal that he/she/they come to deal with you when somebody close to you passes, I was waiting desperately for him when mum passed. Any deal that he/she/they would have offered me I would have gladly taken, but all my wait was all for nothing. While I believe evil exists, that is manifested by humans and nobody else. The whole idea and story of the devil is just to control young children and nothing beyond that

Debconf 2023, friends, JPEGOptim, and EV s Quite a number of friends had gone to Albania this year as India won the right to host Debconf for the year 2023. While I did lurk on the Debconf orga IRC channel, I m not sure how helpful I would be currently. One news that warmed my heart is some people would be coming to India to check the site way before and make sure things go smoothly. Nothing like having more eyes (in this case bodies) to throw at a problem and hopefully it will be sorted. While I have not been working for the last couple of years, one of the things that I had to do and have been doing is moving a lot of stuff online. This is in part due to the Government s own intention of having everything on the cloud. One of the things I probably may have shared it more than enough times is that the storage most of these sites give is like the 1990s. I tried jpegoptim and while it works, it degrades the quality of the image quite a bit. The whole thing seems backward, especially as newer and newer smartphones are capturing more data per picture (megapixel resolution), case in point Samsung Galaxy A04 that is being introduced. But this is not only about newer phones, even my earlier phone, Samsung J-5/500 which I bought in 2016 took images at 5 MB. So it is not a new issue but a continuous issue. And almost all Govt. sites have the upper band fixed at 1 MB. But this is not limited to Govt. sites alone, most sites in India are somewhat frozen in the 1990s. And it isn t as if resources for designing web pages using HTML5, CSS3, Javascript, Python, or Java aren t available. If worse comes to worst, one can even use amp to make his, her or their point. But this is if they want to do stuff. I would be sharing a few photos with commentary, there are still places where I can put photos apart from social media

Friends Last week, Saturday suddenly all the friends decided to show up. I have no clue one way or the other why but am glad they showed up.
Mahendra, Akshat, Shirish and Sagar Sukhose (Mangesh's friend). Mahendra, Akshat, Shirish and Sagar Sukhose (Mangesh s friend) at Bal Gandharva..
Electric scooter as shared by Akshat seen in Albania Electric scooter as shared by Akshat seen in Albania
Somebody making a  real-life replica of Wall Street on F.C. Road (Commercial, all glass)Somebody making a real-life replica of Wall Street on F.C. Road (Commercial, all glass)
Ganesh Idol near my houseGanesh Idol near my house
Wearing new clothesWearing new clothes
I will have to be a bit rapid about what I am sharing above so here goes nothing

1. The first picture shows Mahendra, Akshat, me, and Sagar Sukhose (Mangesh s friend). The picture was taken by Mangesh Diwate. We talked quite a bit of various things that could be done in Debian. A few of the things that I shared were (bringing more stuff from BSD to Debian, I am sure there s still quite a lot of security software that could be advantageous to have in Debian.) The best person to talk to or guide about this would undoubtedly be Paul Wise or as he is affectionally called Pabs. He is one of the shy ones and yet knows so much about how things work. The one and only time I met him is 2016. The other thing that we talked about is porting Debian to one of the phones. This has been done in the past and done by a Puneitie some 4-5 years back. While I don t recollect the gentleman s name, I remember that the porting was done on a Motorola phone as that was the easiest to do. He had tried some other mobile but that didn t work. Making Debian available on phone is hard work. Just to have an idea, I went to the xda developers forum and found out that while M51 has been added, my specific phone model is not there. A Samsung Galaxy M52G Android (samsung; SM-M526B; lahaina; arm64-v8a) v12 . You look at the chat and you understand how difficult the process might be. One of the other ideas that Akshat pitched was Debian Astro, this is something that is close to the heart of many, including me. I also proposed to have some kind of web app or something where we can find and share about the various astronomy and related projects done by various agencies. While there is a NASA app, nothing comes close to JSR and that site just shares stuff, no speculation. There are so many projects taken or being done by the EU, JAXA, ISRO, and even middle-east countries are trying but other than people who are following some of the developments, we hear almost nothing. Even the Chinese have made some long strides but most people know nothing about the same. And it s sad to know that those developments are not being known, shared, or even speculated about as much as say NASA or SpaceX is. How do we go about it and how do we get people to contribute or ask questions around it would be interesting. 2. The second picture was something that was shared by Akshat. Akshat was sharing how in Albania people are moving on these electric scooters . I dunno if that is the right word for it or what. I had heard from a couple of friends who had gone to Vietnam a few years ago how most people in Vietnam had modified their scooters and they were snaking lines of electric wires charging scooters. I have no clue whether they were closer to Vespa or something like above. In India, the Govt. is in partnership with the oil, gas, and coal mafia just as it was in Australia (the new Govt. in Australia is making changes) the same thing is here. With the humongous profits that the oil sector provides the petro states and others, Corruption is bound to happen. We talk and that s the extent of things. 3. The third picture is from a nearby area called F.C. Road or Fergusson College Road. The area has come up quite sharply (commercially) in the last few years. Apparently, Mr. Kushal is making a real-life replica of Wall Street which would be given to commercial tenants. Right now the real estate market is tight in India, we will know how things pan out in the next few years. 4. Number four is an image of a Ganesh idol near my house. There is a 10-day festival of the elephant god that people used to celebrate every year. For the last couple of years because of the pandemic, people were unable to celebrate the festival as it is meant to celebrate. This time some people are going overboard while others are cautious and rightfully so. 5. Last and not least, one of the things that people do at this celebration is to have new clothes, so I shared a photo of a gentleman who had bought and was wearing new clothes. While most countries around the world are similar, Latin America is very similar to India in many ways, perhaps Gunnar can share. especially about religious activities. The elephant god is known for his penchant for sweets and that can be seen from his rounded stomach, that is also how he is celebrated. He is known to make problems disappear or that is supposed to be his thing. We do have something like 4 billion gods, so each one has to be given some work or quality to justify the same

30 August 2022

John Goerzen: The PC & Internet Revolution in Rural America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 August 2022

Antoine Beaupr : How to nationalize the internet in Canada

Rogers had a catastrophic failure in July 2022. It affected emergency services (as in: people couldn't call 911, but also some 911 services themselves failed), hospitals (which couldn't access prescriptions), banks and payment systems (as payment terminals stopped working), and regular users as well. The outage lasted almost a full day, and Rogers took days to give any technical explanation on the outage, and even when they did, details were sparse. So far the only detailed account is from outside actors like Cloudflare which seem to point at an internal BGP failure. Its impact on the economy has yet to be measured, but it probably cost millions of dollars in wasted time and possibly lead to life-threatening situations. Apart from holding Rogers (criminally?) responsible for this, what should be done in the future to avoid such problems? It's not the first time something like this has happened: it happened to Bell Canada as well. The Rogers outage is also strangely similar to the Facebook outage last year, but, to its credit, Facebook did post a fairly detailed explanation only a day later. The internet is designed to be decentralised, and having large companies like Rogers hold so much power is a crucial mistake that should be reverted. The question is how. Some critics were quick to point out that we need more ISP diversity and competition, but I think that's missing the point. Others have suggested that the internet should be a public good or even straight out nationalized. I believe the solution to the problem of large, private, centralised telcos and ISPs is to replace them with smaller, public, decentralised service providers. The only way to ensure that works is to make sure that public money ends up creating infrastructure controlled by the public, which means treating ISPs as a public utility. This has been implemented elsewhere: it works, it's cheaper, and provides better service.

A modest proposal Global wireless services (like phone services) and home internet inevitably grow into monopolies. They are public utilities, just like water, power, railways, and roads. The question of how they should be managed is therefore inherently political, yet people don't seem to question the idea that only the market (i.e. "competition") can solve this problem. I disagree. 10 years ago (in french), I suggested we, in Qu bec, should nationalize large telcos and internet service providers. I no longer believe is a realistic approach: most of those companies have crap copper-based networks (at least for the last mile), yet are worth billions of dollars. It would be prohibitive, and a waste, to buy them out. Back then, I called this idea "R seau-Qu bec", a reference to the already nationalized power company, Hydro-Qu bec. (This idea, incidentally, made it into the plan of a political party.) Now, I think we should instead build our own, public internet. Start setting up municipal internet services, fiber to the home in all cities, progressively. Then interconnect cities with fiber, and build peering agreements with other providers. This also includes a bid on wireless spectrum to start competing with phone providers as well. And while that sounds really ambitious, I think it's possible to take this one step at a time.

Municipal broadband In many parts of the world, municipal broadband is an elegant solution to the problem, with solutions ranging from Stockholm's city-owned fiber network (dark fiber, layer 1) to Utah's UTOPIA network (fiber to the premises, layer 2) and municipal wireless networks like Guifi.net which connects about 40,000 nodes in Catalonia. A good first step would be for cities to start providing broadband services to its residents, directly. Cities normally own sewage and water systems that interconnect most residences and therefore have direct physical access everywhere. In Montr al, in particular, there is an ongoing project to replace a lot of old lead-based plumbing which would give an opportunity to lay down a wired fiber network across the city. This is a wild guess, but I suspect this would be much less expensive than one would think. Some people agree with me and quote this as low as 1000$ per household. There is about 800,000 households in the city of Montr al, so we're talking about a 800 million dollars investment here, to connect every household in Montr al with fiber and incidentally a quarter of the province's population. And this is not an up-front cost: this can be built progressively, with expenses amortized over many years. (We should not, however, connect Montr al first: it's used as an example here because it's a large number of households to connect.) Such a network should be built with a redundant topology. I leave it as an open question whether we should adopt Stockholm's more minimalist approach or provide direct IP connectivity. I would tend to favor the latter, because then you can immediately start to offer the service to households and generate revenues to compensate for the capital expenditures. Given the ridiculous profit margins telcos currently have 8 billion $CAD net income for BCE (2019), 2 billion $CAD for Rogers (2020) I also believe this would actually turn into a profitable revenue stream for the city, the same way Hydro-Qu bec is more and more considered as a revenue stream for the state. (I personally believe that's actually wrong and we should treat those resources as human rights and not money cows, but I digress. The point is: this is not a cost point, it's a revenue.) The other major challenge here is that the city will need competent engineers to drive this project forward. But this is not different from the way other public utilities run: we have electrical engineers at Hydro, sewer and water engineers at the city, this is just another profession. If anything, the computing science sector might be more at fault than the city here in its failure to provide competent and accountable engineers to society... Right now, most of the network in Canada is copper: we are hitting the limits of that technology with DSL, and while cable has some life left to it (DOCSIS 4.0 does 4Gbps), that is nowhere near the capacity of fiber. Take the town of Chattanooga, Tennessee: in 2010, the city-owned ISP EPB finished deploying a fiber network to the entire town and provided gigabit internet to everyone. Now, 12 years later, they are using this same network to provide the mind-boggling speed of 25 gigabit to the home. To give you an idea, Chattanooga is roughly the size and density of Sherbrooke.

Provincial public internet As part of building a municipal network, the question of getting access to "the internet" will immediately come up. Naturally, this will first be solved by using already existing commercial providers to hook up residents to the rest of the global network. But eventually, networks should inter-connect: Montr al should connect with Laval, and then Trois-Rivi res, then Qu bec City. This will require long haul fiber runs, but those links are not actually that expensive, and many of those already exist as a public resource at RISQ and CANARIE, which cross-connects universities and colleges across the province and the country. Those networks might not have the capacity to cover the needs of the entire province right now, but that is a router upgrade away, thanks to the amazing capacity of fiber. There are two crucial mistakes to avoid at this point. First, the network needs to remain decentralised. Long haul links should be IP links with BGP sessions, and each city (or MRC) should have its own independent network, to avoid Rogers-class catastrophic failures. Second, skill needs to remain in-house: RISQ has already made that mistake, to a certain extent, by selling its neutral datacenter. Tellingly, MetroOptic, probably the largest commercial dark fiber provider in the province, now operates the QIX, the second largest "public" internet exchange in Canada. Still, we have a lot of infrastructure we can leverage here. If RISQ or CANARIE cannot be up to the task, Hydro-Qu bec has power lines running into every house in the province, with high voltage power lines running hundreds of kilometers far north. The logistics of long distance maintenance are already solved by that institution. In fact, Hydro already has fiber all over the province, but it is a private network, separate from the internet for security reasons (and that should probably remain so). But this only shows they already have the expertise to lay down fiber: they would just need to lay down a parallel network to the existing one. In that architecture, Hydro would be a "dark fiber" provider.

International public internet None of the above solves the problem for the entire population of Qu bec, which is notoriously dispersed, with an area three times the size of France, but with only an eight of its population (8 million vs 67). More specifically, Canada was originally a french colony, a land violently stolen from native people who have lived here for thousands of years. Some of those people now live in reservations, sometimes far from urban centers (but definitely not always). So the idea of leveraging the Hydro-Qu bec infrastructure doesn't always work to solve this, because while Hydro will happily flood a traditional hunting territory for an electric dam, they don't bother running power lines to the village they forcibly moved, powering it instead with noisy and polluting diesel generators. So before giving me fiber to the home, we should give power (and potable water, for that matter), to those communities first. So we need to discuss international connectivity. (How else could we consider those communities than peer nations anyways?c) Qu bec has virtually zero international links. Even in Montr al, which likes to style itself a major player in gaming, AI, and technology, most peering goes through either Toronto or New York. That's a problem that we must fix, regardless of the other problems stated here. Looking at the submarine cable map, we see very few international links actually landing in Canada. There is the Greenland connect which connects Newfoundland to Iceland through Greenland. There's the EXA which lands in Ireland, the UK and the US, and Google has the Topaz link on the west coast. That's about it, and none of those land anywhere near any major urban center in Qu bec. We should have a cable running from France up to Saint-F licien. There should be a cable from Vancouver to China. Heck, there should be a fiber cable running all the way from the end of the great lakes through Qu bec, then up around the northern passage and back down to British Columbia. Those cables are expensive, and the idea might sound ludicrous, but Russia is actually planning such a project for 2026. The US has cables running all the way up (and around!) Alaska, neatly bypassing all of Canada in the process. We just look ridiculous on that map. (Addendum: I somehow forgot to talk about Teleglobe here was founded as publicly owned company in 1950, growing international phone and (later) data links all over the world. It was privatized by the conservatives in 1984, along with rails and other "crown corporations". So that's one major risk to any effort to make public utilities work properly: some government might be elected and promptly sell it out to its friends for peanuts.)

Wireless networks I know most people will have rolled their eyes so far back their heads have exploded. But I'm not done yet. I want wireless too. And by wireless, I don't mean a bunch of geeks setting up OpenWRT routers on rooftops. I tried that, and while it was fun and educational, it didn't scale. A public networking utility wouldn't be complete without providing cellular phone service. This involves bidding for frequencies at the federal level, and deploying a rather large amount of infrastructure, but it could be a later phase, when the engineers and politicians have proven their worth. At least part of the Rogers fiasco would have been averted if such a decentralized network backend existed. One might even want to argue that a separate institution should be setup to provide phone services, independently from the regular wired networking, if only for reliability. Because remember here: the problem we're trying to solve is not just technical, it's about political boundaries, centralisation, and automation. If everything is ran by this one organisation again, we will have failed. However, I must admit that phone services is where my ideas fall a little short. I can't help but think it's also an accessible goal maybe starting with a virtual operator but it seems slightly less so than the others, especially considering how closed the phone ecosystem is.

Counter points In debating these ideas while writing this article, the following objections came up.

I don't want the state to control my internet One legitimate concern I have about the idea of the state running the internet is the potential it would have to censor or control the content running over the wires. But I don't think there is necessarily a direct relationship between resource ownership and control of content. Sure, China has strong censorship in place, partly implemented through state-controlled businesses. But Russia also has strong censorship in place, based on regulatory tools: they force private service providers to install back-doors in their networks to control content and surveil their users. Besides, the USA have been doing warrantless wiretapping since at least 2003 (and yes, that's 10 years before the Snowden revelations) so a commercial internet is no assurance that we have a free internet. Quite the contrary in fact: if anything, the commercial internet goes hand in hand with the neo-colonial internet, just like businesses did in the "good old colonial days". Large media companies are the primary censors of content here. In Canada, the media cartel requested the first site-blocking order in 2018. The plaintiffs (including Qu becor, Rogers, and Bell Canada) are both content providers and internet service providers, an obvious conflict of interest. Nevertheless, there are some strong arguments against having a centralised, state-owned monopoly on internet service providers. FDN makes a good point on this. But this is not what I am suggesting: at the provincial level, the network would be purely physical, and regional entities (which could include private companies) would peer over that physical network, ensuring decentralization. Delegating the management of that infrastructure to an independent non-profit or cooperative (but owned by the state) would also ensure some level of independence.

Isn't the government incompetent and corrupt? Also known as "private enterprise is better skilled at handling this, the state can't do anything right" I don't think this is a "fait accomplit". If anything, I have found publicly ran utilities to be spectacularly reliable here. I rarely have trouble with sewage, water, or power, and keep in mind I live in a city where we receive about 2 meters of snow a year, which tend to create lots of trouble with power lines. Unless there's a major weather event, power just runs here. I think the same can happen with an internet service provider. But it would certainly need to have higher standards to what we're used to, because frankly Internet is kind of janky.

A single monopoly will be less reliable I actually agree with that, but that is not what I am proposing anyways. Current commercial or non-profit entities will be free to offer their services on top of the public network. And besides, the current "ha! diversity is great" approach is exactly what we have now, and it's not working. The pretense that we can have competition over a single network is what led the US into the ridiculous situation where they also pretend to have competition over the power utility market. This led to massive forest fires in California and major power outages in Texas. It doesn't work.

Wouldn't this create an isolated network? One theory is that this new network would be so hostile to incumbent telcos and ISPs that they would simply refuse to network with the public utility. And while it is true that the telcos currently do also act as a kind of "tier one" provider in some places, I strongly feel this is also a problem that needs to be solved, regardless of ownership of networking infrastructure. Right now, telcos often hold both ends of the stick: they are the gateway to users, the "last mile", but they also provide peering to the larger internet in some locations. In at least one datacenter in downtown Montr al, I've seen traffic go through Bell Canada that was not directly targeted at Bell customers. So in effect, they are in a position of charging twice for the same traffic, and that's not only ridiculous, it should just be plain illegal. And besides, this is not a big problem: there are other providers out there. As bad as the market is in Qu bec, there is still some diversity in Tier one providers that could allow for some exits to the wider network (e.g. yes, Cogent is here too).

What about Google and Facebook? Nationalization of other service providers like Google and Facebook is out of scope of this discussion. That said, I am not sure the state should get into the business of organising the web or providing content services however, but I will point out it already does do some of that through its own websites. It should probably keep itself to this, and also consider providing normal services for people who don't or can't access the internet. (And I would also be ready to argue that Google and Facebook already act as extensions of the state: certainly if Facebook didn't exist, the CIA or the NSA would like to create it at this point. And Google has lucrative business with the US department of defense.)

What does not work So we've seen one thing that could work. Maybe it's too expensive. Maybe the political will isn't there. Maybe it will fail. We don't know yet. But we know what does not work, and it's what we've been doing ever since the internet has gone commercial.

Subsidies The absurd price we pay for data does not actually mean everyone gets high speed internet at home. Large swathes of the Qu bec countryside don't get broadband at all, and it can be difficult or expensive, even in large urban centers like Montr al, to get high speed internet. That is despite having a series of subsidies that all avoided investing in our own infrastructure. We had the "fonds de l'autoroute de l'information", "information highway fund" (site dead since 2003, archive.org link) and "branchez les familles", "connecting families" (site dead since 2003, archive.org link) which subsidized the development of a copper network. In 2014, more of the same: the federal government poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a program called connecting Canadians to connect 280 000 households to "high speed internet". And now, the federal and provincial governments are proudly announcing that "everyone is now connected to high speed internet", after pouring more than 1.1 billion dollars to connect, guess what, another 380 000 homes, right in time for the provincial election. Of course, technically, the deadline won't actually be met until 2023. Qu bec is a big area to cover, and you can guess what happens next: the telcos threw up their hand and said some areas just can't be connected. (Or they connect their CEO but not the poor folks across the lake.) The story then takes the predictable twist of giving more money out to billionaires, subsidizing now Musk's Starlink system to connect those remote areas. To give a concrete example: a friend who lives about 1000km away from Montr al, 4km from a small, 2500 habitant village, has recently got symmetric 100 mbps fiber at home from Telus, thanks to those subsidies. But I can't get that service in Montr al at all, presumably because Telus and Bell colluded to split that market. Bell doesn't provide me with such a service either: they tell me they have "fiber to my neighborhood", and only offer me a 25/10 mbps ADSL service. (There is Vid otron offering 400mbps, but that's copper cable, again a dead technology, and asymmetric.)

Conclusion Remember Chattanooga? Back in 2010, they funded the development of a fiber network, and now they have deployed a network roughly a thousand times faster than what we have just funded with a billion dollars. In 2010, I was paying Bell Canada 60$/mth for 20mbps and a 125GB cap, and now, I'm still (indirectly) paying Bell for roughly the same speed (25mbps). Back then, Bell was throttling their competitors networks until 2009, when they were forced by the CRTC to stop throttling. Both Bell and Vid otron still explicitly forbid you from running your own servers at home, Vid otron charges prohibitive prices which make it near impossible for resellers to sell uncapped services. Those companies are not spurring innovation: they are blocking it. We have spent all this money for the private sector to build us a private internet, over decades, without any assurance of quality, equity or reliability. And while in some locations, ISPs did deploy fiber to the home, they certainly didn't upgrade their entire network to follow suit, and even less allowed resellers to compete on that network. In 10 years, when 100mbps will be laughable, I bet those service providers will again punt the ball in the public courtyard and tell us they don't have the money to upgrade everyone's equipment. We got screwed. It's time to try something new.

Updates There was a discussion about this article on Hacker News which was surprisingly productive. Trigger warning: Hacker News is kind of right-wing, in case you didn't know. Since this article was written, at least two more major acquisitions happened, just in Qu bec: In the latter case, vMedia was explicitly saying it couldn't grow because of "lack of access to capital". So basically, we have given those companies a billion dollars, and they are not using that very money to buy out their competition. At least we could have given that money to small players to even out the playing field. But this is not how that works at all. Also, in a bizarre twist, an "analyst" believes the acquisition is likely to help Rogers acquire Shaw. Also, since this article was written, the Washington Post published a review of a book bringing similar ideas: Internet for the People The Fight for Our Digital Future, by Ben Tarnoff, at Verso books. It's short, but even more ambitious than what I am suggesting in this article, arguing that all big tech companies should be broken up and better regulated:
He pulls from Ethan Zuckerman s idea of a web that is plural in purpose that just as pool halls, libraries and churches each have different norms, purposes and designs, so too should different places on the internet. To achieve this, Tarnoff wants governments to pass laws that would make the big platforms unprofitable and, in their place, fund small-scale, local experiments in social media design. Instead of having platforms ruled by engagement-maximizing algorithms, Tarnoff imagines public platforms run by local librarians that include content from public media.
(Links mine: the Washington Post obviously prefers to not link to the real web, and instead doesn't link to Zuckerman's site all and suggests Amazon for the book, in a cynical example.) And in another example of how the private sector has failed us, there was recently a fluke in the AMBER alert system where the entire province was warned about a loose shooter in Saint-Elz ar except the people in the town, because they have spotty cell phone coverage. In other words, millions of people received a strongly toned, "life-threatening", alert for a city sometimes hours away, except the people most vulnerable to the alert. Not missing a beat, the CAQ party is promising more of the same medicine again and giving more money to telcos to fix the problem, suggesting to spend three billion dollars in private infrastructure.

18 August 2022

Lukas M rdian: Netplan v0.105 is now available

I m happy to announce that Netplan version 0.105 is now available on GitHub and is soon to be deployed into an Ubuntu/Debian installation near you! Six month and exactly 100 commits after the previous version, this release is brought to you by 7 free software contributors from around the globe. Changelog Bug fixes

14 August 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Still Not Safe

Review: Still Not Safe, by Robert L. Wears & Kathleen M. Sutcliffe
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Copyright: November 2019
ISBN: 0-19-027128-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 232
Still Not Safe is an examination of the recent politics and history of patient safety in medicine. Its conclusions are summarized by the opening paragraph of the preface:
The American moral and social philosopher Eric Hoffer reportedly said that every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket. The reform movement to make healthcare safer is clearly a great cause, but patient safety efforts are increasingly following Hoffer's path.
Robert Wears was Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Florida specializing in patient safety. Kathleen Sutcliffe is Professor of Medicine and Business at Johns Hopkins. This book is based on research funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for which both Wears and Sutcliffe were primary investigators. (Wears died in 2017, but the acknowledgments imply that at least early drafts of the book existed by that point and it was indeed co-written.) The anchor of the story of patient safety in Still Not Safe is the 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine entitled To Err is Human, to which the authors attribute an explosion of public scrutiny of medical safety. The headline conclusion of that report, which led nightly news programs after its release, was that 44,000 to 120,000 people died each year in the United States due to medical error. This report prompted government legislation, funding for new safety initiatives, a flurry of follow-on reports, and significant public awareness of medical harm. What it did not produce, in the authors' view, is significant improvements in patient safety. The central topic of this book is an analysis of why patient safety efforts have had so little measurable effect. The authors attribute this to three primary causes: an unwillingness to involve safety experts from outside medicine or absorb safety lessons from other disciplines, an obsession with human error that led to profound misunderstandings of the nature of safety, and the misuse of safety concerns as a means to centralize control of medical practice in the hands of physician-administrators. (The term used by the authors is "managerial, scientific-bureaucratic medicine," which is technically accurate but rather awkward.) Biggest complaint first: This book desperately needed examples, case studies, or something to make these ideas concrete. There are essentially none in 230 pages apart from passing mentions of famous cases of medical error that added to public pressure, and a tantalizing but maddeningly nonspecific discussion of the atypically successful effort to radically improve the safety of anesthesia. Apparently anesthesiologists involved safety experts from outside medicine, avoided a focus on human error, turned safety into an engineering problem, and made concrete improvements that had a hugely positive impact on the number of adverse events for patients. Sounds fascinating! Alas, I'm just as much in the dark about what those improvements were as I was when I started reading this book. Apart from a vague mention of some unspecified improvements to anesthesia machines, there are no concrete descriptions whatsoever. I understand that the authors were probably leery of giving too many specific examples of successful safety initiatives since one of their core points is that safety is a mindset and philosophy rather than a replicable set of actions, and copying the actions of another field without understanding their underlying motivations or context within a larger system is doomed to failure. But you have to give the reader something, or the book starts feeling like a flurry of abstract assertions. Much is made here of the drawbacks of a focus on human error, and the superiority of the safety analysis done in other fields that have moved beyond error-centric analysis (and in some cases have largely discarded the word "error" as inherently unhelpful and ambiguous). That leads naturally to showing an analysis of an adverse incident through an error lens and then through a more nuanced safety lens, making the differences concrete for the reader. It was maddening to me that the authors never did this. This book was recommended to me as part of a discussion about safety and reliability in tech and the need to learn from safety practices in other fields. In that context, I didn't find it useful, although surprisingly that's because the thinking in medicine (at least as presented by these authors) seems behind the current thinking in distributed systems. The idea that human error is not a useful model for approaching reliability is standard in large tech companies, nearly all of which use blameless postmortems for exactly that reason. Tech, similar to medicine, does have a tendency to be insular and not look outside the field for good ideas, but the approach to large-scale reliability in tech seems to have avoided the other traps discussed here. (Security is another matter, but security is also adversarial, which creates different problems that I suspect require different tools.) What I did find fascinating in this book, although not directly applicable to my own work, is the way in which a focus on human error becomes a justification for bureaucratic control and therefore a concentration of power in a managerial layer. If the assumption is that medical harm is primarily caused by humans making avoidable mistakes, and therefore the solution is to prevent humans from making mistakes through better training, discipline, or process, this creates organizations that are divided into those who make the rules and those who follow the rules. The long-term result is a practice of medicine in which a small number of experts decide the correct treatment for a given problem, and then all other practitioners are expected to precisely follow that treatment plan to avoid "errors." (The best distributed systems approaches may avoid this problem, but this failure mode seems nearly universal in technical support organizations.) I was startled by how accurate that portrayal of medicine felt. My assumption prior to reading this book was that the modern experience of medicine as an assembly line with patients as widgets was caused by the pressure for higher "productivity" and thus shorter visit times, combined with (in the US) the distorting effects of our broken medical insurance system. After reading this book, I've added a misguided way of thinking about medical error and risk avoidance to that analysis. One of the authors' points (which, as usual, I wish they'd made more concrete with a case study) is that the same thought process that lets a doctor make a correct diagnosis and find a working treatment is the thought process that may lead to an incorrect diagnosis or treatment. There is not a separable state of "mental error" that can be eliminated. Decision-making processes are more complicated and more integrated than that. If you try to prevent "errors" by eliminating flexibility, you also eliminate vital tools for successfully treating patients. The authors are careful to point out that the prior state of medicine in which each doctor was a force to themselves and there was no role for patient safety as a discipline was also bad for safety. Reverting to the state of medicine before the advent of the scientific-bureaucratic error-avoiding culture is also not a solution. But, rather at odds with other popular books about medicine, the authors are highly critical of safety changes focused on human error prevention, such as mandatory checklists. In their view, this is exactly the sort of attempt to blindly copy the machinery of safety in another field (in this case, air travel) without understanding the underlying purpose and system of which it's a part. I am not qualified to judge the sharp dispute over whether there is solid clinical evidence that checklists are helpful (these authors claim there is not; I know other books make different claims, and I suspect it may depend heavily on how the checklist is used). But I found the authors' argument that one has to design systems holistically for safety, not try to patch in safety later by turning certain tasks into rote processes and humans into machines, to be persuasive. I'm not willing to recommend this book given how devoid it is of concrete examples. I was able to fill in some of that because of prior experience with the literature on site reliability engineering, but a reader who wasn't previously familiar with discussions of safety or reliability may find much of this book too abstract to be comprehensible. But I'm not sorry I read it. I hadn't previously thought about the power dynamics of a focus on error, and I think that will be a valuable observation to keep in mind. Rating: 6 out of 10

30 July 2022

Ian Jackson: chiark s skip-skip-cross-up-grade

Two weeks ago I upgraded chiark from Debian jessie i386 to bullseye amd64, after nearly 30 years running Debian i386. This went really quite well, in fact! Background chiark is my colo - a server I run, which lives in a data centre in London. It hosts ~200 users with shell accounts, various websites and mailing lists, moderators for a number of USENET newsgroups, and countless other services. chiark s internal setup is designed to enable my users to do a maximum number of exciting things with a minimum of intervention from me. chiark s OS install dates to 1993, when I installed Debian 0.93R5, the first version of Debian to advertise the ability to be upgraded without reinstalling. I think that makes it one of the oldest Debian installations in existence. Obviously it s had several new hardware platforms too. (There was a prior install of Linux on the initial hardware, remnants of which can maybe still be seen in some obscure corners of chiark s /usr/local.) chiark s install is also at the very high end of the installation complexity, and customisation, scale: reinstalling it completely would be an enormous amount of work. And it s unique. chiark s upgrade history chiark s last major OS upgrade was to jessie (Debian 8, released in April 2015). That was in 2016. Since then we have been relying on Debian s excellent security support posture, and the Debian LTS and more recently Freexian s Debian ELTS projects and some local updates, The use of ELTS - which supports only a subset of packages - was particularly uncomfortable. Additionally, chiark was installed with 32-bit x86 Linux (Debian i386), since that was what was supported and available at the time. But 32-bit is looking very long in the tooth. Why do a skip upgrade So, I wanted to move to the fairly recent stable release - Debian 11 (bullseye), which is just short of a year old. And I wanted to crossgrade (as its called) to 64-bit. In the past, I have found I have had greater success by doing direct upgrades, skipping intermediate releases, rather than by following the officially-supported path of going via every intermediate release. Doing a skip upgrade avoids exposure to any packaging bugs which were present only in intermediate release(s). Debian does usually fix bugs, but Debian has many cautious users, so it is not uncommon for bugs to be found after release, and then not be fixed until the next one. A skip upgrade avoids the need to try to upgrade to already-obsolete releases (which can involve messing about with multiple snapshots from snapshot.debian.org. It is also significantly faster and simpler, which is important not only because it reduces downtime, but also because it removes opportunities (and reduces the time available) for things to go badly. One downside is that sometimes maintainers aggressively remove compatibility measures for older releases. (And compatibililty packages are generally removed quite quickly by even cautious maintainers.) That means that the sysadmin who wants to skip-upgrade needs to do more manual fixing of things that haven t been dealt with automatically. And occasionally one finds compatibility problems that show up only when mixing very old and very new software, that no-one else has seen. Crossgrading Crossgrading is fairly complex and hazardous. It is well supported by the low level tools (eg, dpkg) but the higher-level packaging tools (eg, apt) get very badly confused. Nowadays the system is so complex that downloading things by hand and manually feeding them to dpkg is impractical, other than as a very occasional last resort. The approach, generally, has been to set the system up to want to be the new architecture, run apt in a download-only mode, and do the package installation manually, with some fixing up and retrying, until the system is coherent enough for apt to work. This is the approach I took. (In current releases, there are tools that will help but they are only in recent releases and I wanted to go direct. I also doubted that they would work properly on chiark, since it s so unusual.) Peril and planning Overall, this was a risky strategy to choose. The package dependencies wouldn t necessarily express all of the sequencing needed. But it still seemed that if I could come up with a working recipe, I could do it. I restored most of one of chiark s backups onto a scratch volume on my laptop. With the LVM snapshot tools and chroots. I was able to develop and test a set of scripts that would perform the upgrade. This was a very effective approach: my super-fast laptop, with local caches of the package repositories, was able to do many edit, test, debug cycles. My recipe made heavy use of snapshot.debian.org, to make sure that it wouldn t rot between testing and implementation. When I had a working scheme, I told my users about the planned downtime. I warned everyone it might take even 2 or 3 days. I made sure that my access arrangemnts to the data centre were in place, in case I needed to visit in person. (I have remote serial console and power cycler access.) Reality - the terrible rescue install My first task on taking the service down was the check that the emergency rescue installation worked: chiark has an ancient USB stick in the back, which I can boot to from the BIOS. The idea being that many things that go wrong could be repaired from there. I found that that install was too old to understand chiark s storage arrangements. mdadm tools gave very strange output. So I needed to upgrade it. After some experiments, I rebooted back into the main install, bringing chiark s service back online. I then used the main install of chiark as a kind of meta-rescue-image for the rescue-image. The process of getting the rescue image upgraded (not even to amd64, but just to something not totally ancient) was fraught. Several times I had to rescue it by copying files in from the main install outside. And, the rescue install was on a truly ancient 2G USB stick which was terribly terribly slow, and also very small. I hadn t done any significant planning for this subtask, because it was low-risk: there was little way to break the main install. Due to all these adverse factors, sorting out the rescue image took five hours. If I had known how long it would take, at the beginning, I would have skipped it. 5 hours is more than it would have taken to go to London and fix something in person. Reality - the actual core upgrade I was able to start the actual upgrade in the mid-afternoon. I meticulously checked and executed the steps from my plan. The terrifying scripts which sequenced the critical package updates ran flawlessly. Within an hour or so I had a system which was running bullseye amd64, albeit with many important packages still missing or unconfigured. So I didn t need the rescue image after all, nor to go to the datacentre. Fixing all the things Then I had to deal with all the inevitable fallout from an upgrade. Notable incidents: exim4 has a new tainting system This is to try to help the sysadmin avoid writing unsafe string interpolations. ( Little Bobby Tables. ) This was done by Exim upstream in a great hurry as part of a security response process. The new checks meant that the mail configuration did not work at all. I had to turn off the taint check completely. I m fairly confident that this is correct, because I am hyper-aware of quoting issues and all of my configuration is written to avoid the problems that tainting is supposed to avoid. One particular annoyance is that the approach taken for sqlite lookups makes it totally impossible to use more than one sqlite database. I think the sqlite quoting operator which one uses to interpolate values produces tainted output? I need to investigate this properly. LVM now ignores PVs which are directly contained within LVs by default chiark has LVM-on-RAID-on-LVM. This generally works really well. However, there was one edge case where I ended up without the intermediate RAID layer. The result is LVM-on-LVM. But recent versions of the LVM tools do not look at PVs inside LVs, by default. This is to help you avoid corrupting the state of any VMs you have on your system. I didn t know that at the time, though. All I knew was that LVM was claiming my PV was unusable , and wouldn t explain why. I was about to start on a thorough reading of the 15,000-word essay that is the commentary in the default /etc/lvm/lvm.conf to try to see if anything was relevant, when I received a helpful tipoff on IRC pointing me to the scan_lvs option. I need to file a bug asking for the LVM tools to explain why they have declared a PV unuseable. apache2 s default config no longer read one of my config files I had to do a merge (of my changes vs the maintainers changes) for /etc/apache2/apache2.conf. When doing this merge I failed to notice that the file /etc/apache2/conf.d/httpd.conf was no longer included by default. My merge dropped that line. There were some important things in there, and until I found this the webserver was broken. dpkg --skip-same-version DTWT during a crossgrade (This is not a fix all the things - I found it when developing my upgrade process.) When doing a crossgrade, one often wants to say to dpkg install all these things, but don t reinstall things that have already been done . That s what --skip-same-version is for. However, the logic had not been updated as part of the work to support multiarch, so it was wrong. I prepared a patched version of dpkg, and inserted it in the appropriate point in my prepared crossgrade plan. The patch is now filed as bug #1014476 against dpkg upstream Mailman Mailman is no longer in bullseye. It s only available in the previous release, buster. bullseye has Mailman 3 which is a totally different system - requiring basically, a completely new install and configuration. To even preserve existing archive links (a very important requirement) is decidedly nontrivial. I decided to punt on this whole situation. Currently chiark is running buster s version of Mailman. I will have to deal with this at some point and I m not looking forward to it. Python Of course that Mailman is Python 2. The Python project s extremely badly handled transition includes a recommendation to change the meaning of #!/usr/bin/python from Python 2, to Python 3. But Python 3 is a new language, barely compatible with Python 2 even in the most recent iterations of both, and it is usual to need to coinstall them. Happily Debian have provided the python-is-python2 package to make things work sensibly, albeit with unpleasant imprecations in the package summary description. USENET news Oh my god. INN uses many non-portable data formats, which just depend on your C types. And there are complicated daemons, statically linked libraries which cache on-disk data, and much to go wrong. I had numerous problems with this, and several outages and malfunctions. I may write about that on a future occasion.
(edited 2022-07-20 11:36 +01:00 and 2022-07-30 12:28+01:00 to fix typos)


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28 July 2022

Matthew Garrett: UEFI rootkits and UEFI secure boot

Kaspersky describes a UEFI-implant used to attack Windows systems. Based on it appearing to require patching of the system firmware image, they hypothesise that it's propagated by manually dumping the contents of the system flash, modifying it, and then reflashing it back to the board. This probably requires physical access to the board, so it's not especially terrifying - if you're in a situation where someone's sufficiently enthusiastic about targeting you that they're reflashing your computer by hand, it's likely that you're going to have a bad time regardless.

But let's think about why this is in the firmware at all. Sophos previously discussed an implant that's sufficiently similar in some technical details that Kaspersky suggest they may be related to some degree. One notable difference is that the MyKings implant described by Sophos installs itself into the boot block of legacy MBR partitioned disks. This code will only be executed on old-style BIOS systems (or UEFI systems booting in BIOS compatibility mode), and they have no support for code signatures, so there's no need to be especially clever. Run malicious code in the boot block, patch the next stage loader, follow that chain all the way up to the kernel. Simple.

One notable distinction here is that the MBR boot block approach won't be persistent - if you reinstall the OS, the MBR will be rewritten[1] and the infection is gone. UEFI doesn't really change much here - if you reinstall Windows a new copy of the bootloader will be written out and the UEFI boot variables (that tell the firmware which bootloader to execute) will be updated to point at that. The implant may still be on disk somewhere, but it won't be run.

But there's a way to avoid this. UEFI supports loading firmware-level drivers from disk. If, rather than providing a backdoored bootloader, the implant takes the form of a UEFI driver, the attacker can set a different set of variables that tell the firmware to load that driver at boot time, before running the bootloader. OS reinstalls won't modify these variables, which means the implant will survive and can reinfect the new OS install. The only way to get rid of the implant is to either reformat the drive entirely (which most OS installers won't do by default) or replace the drive before installation.

This is much easier than patching the system firmware, and achieves similar outcomes - the number of infected users who are going to wipe their drives to reinstall is fairly low, and the kernel could be patched to hide the presence of the implant on the filesystem[2]. It's possible that the goal was to make identification as hard as possible, but there's a simpler argument here - if the firmware has UEFI Secure Boot enabled, the firmware will refuse to load such a driver, and the implant won't work. You could certainly just patch the firmware to disable secure boot and lie about it, but if you're at the point of patching the firmware anyway you may as well just do the extra work of installing your implant there.

I think there's a reasonable argument that the existence of firmware-level rootkits suggests that UEFI Secure Boot is doing its job and is pushing attackers into lower levels of the stack in order to obtain the same outcomes. Technologies like Intel's Boot Guard may (in their current form) tend to block user choice, but in theory should be effective in blocking attacks of this form and making things even harder for attackers. It should already be impossible to perform attacks like the one Kaspersky describes on more modern hardware (the system should identify that the firmware has been tampered with and fail to boot), which pushes things even further - attackers will have to take advantage of vulnerabilities in the specific firmware they're targeting. This obviously means there's an incentive to find more firmware vulnerabilities, which means the ability to apply security updates for system firmware as easily as security updates for OS components is vital (hint hint if your system firmware updates aren't available via LVFS you're probably doing it wrong).

We've known that UEFI rootkits have existed for a while (Hacking Team had one in 2015), but it's interesting to see a fairly widespread one out in the wild. Protecting against this kind of attack involves securing the entire boot chain, including the firmware itself. The industry has clearly been making progress in this respect, and it'll be interesting to see whether such attacks become more common (because Secure Boot works but firmware security is bad) or not.

[1] As we all remember from Windows installs overwriting Linux bootloaders
[2] Although this does run the risk of an infected user booting another OS instead, and being able to see the implant

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25 July 2022

Bits from Debian: DebConf22 closes in Prizren and DebConf23 dates announced

DebConf22 group photo - click to enlarge On Sunday 24 July 2022, the annual Debian Developers and Contributors Conference came to a close. Hosting 260 attendees from 38 different countries over a combined 91 event talks, discussion sessions, Birds of a Feather (BoF) gatherings, workshops, and activities, DebConf22 was a large success. The conference was preceded by the annual DebCamp held 10 July to 16 July which focused on individual work and team sprints for in-person collaboration towards developing Debian. In particular, this year there have been sprints to advance development of Mobian/Debian on mobile, reproducible builds and Python in Debian, and a BootCamp for newcomers, to get introduced to Debian and have some hands-on experience with using it and contributing to the community. The actual Debian Developers Conference started on Sunday 17 July 2022. Together with activities such as the traditional 'Bits from the DPL' talk, the continuous key-signing party, lightning talks and the announcement of next year's DebConf (DebConf23 in Kochi, India), there were several sessions related to programming language teams such as Python, Perl and Ruby, as well as news updates on several projects and internal Debian teams, discussion sessions (BoFs) from many technical teams (Long Term Support, Android tools, Debian Derivatives, Debian Installer and Images team, Debian Science...) and local communities (Debian Brasil, Debian India, the Debian Local Teams), along with many other events of interest regarding Debian and free software. The schedule was updated each day with planned and ad-hoc activities introduced by attendees over the course of the entire conference. Several activities that couldn\'t be organized in past years due to the COVID pandemic returned to the conference\'s schedule: a job fair, open-mic and poetry night, the traditional Cheese and Wine party, the group photos and the Day Trip. For those who were not able to attend, most of the talks and sessions were recorded for live streams with videos made, available through the Debian meetings archive website. Almost all of the sessions facilitated remote participation via IRC messaging apps or online collaborative text documents. The DebConf22 website will remain active for archival purposes and will continue to offer links to the presentations and videos of talks and events. Next year, DebConf23 will be held in Kochi, India, from September 10 to September 16, 2023. As tradition follows before the next DebConf the local organizers in India will start the conference activites with DebCamp (September 03 to September 09, 2023), with particular focus on individual and team work towards improving the distribution. DebConf is committed to a safe and welcome environment for all participants. See the web page about the Code of Conduct in DebConf22 website for more details on this. Debian thanks the commitment of numerous sponsors to support DebConf22, particularly our Platinum Sponsors: Lenovo, Infomaniak, ITP Prizren and Google. About Debian The Debian Project was founded in 1993 by Ian Murdock to be a truly free community project. Since then the project has grown to be one of the largest and most influential open source projects. Thousands of volunteers from all over the world work together to create and maintain Debian software. Available in 70 languages, and supporting a huge range of computer types, Debian calls itself the universal operating system. About DebConf DebConf is the Debian Project's developer conference. In addition to a full schedule of technical, social and policy talks, DebConf provides an opportunity for developers, contributors and other interested people to meet in person and work together more closely. It has taken place annually since 2000 in locations as varied as Scotland, Argentina, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. More information about DebConf is available from https://debconf.org/. About Lenovo As a global technology leader manufacturing a wide portfolio of connected products, including smartphones, tablets, PCs and workstations as well as AR/VR devices, smart home/office and data center solutions, Lenovo understands how critical open systems and platforms are to a connected world. About Infomaniak Infomaniak is Switzerland\'s largest web-hosting company, also offering backup and storage services, solutions for event organizers, live-streaming and video on demand services. It wholly owns its datacenters and all elements critical to the functioning of the services and products provided by the company (both software and hardware). About ITP Prizren Innovation and Training Park Prizren intends to be a changing and boosting element in the area of ICT, agro-food and creatives industries, through the creation and management of a favourable environment and efficient services for SMEs, exploiting different kinds of innovations that can contribute to Kosovo to improve its level of development in industry and research, bringing benefits to the economy and society of the country as a whole. About Google Google is one of the largest technology companies in the world, providing a wide range of Internet-related services and products such as online advertising technologies, search, cloud computing, software, and hardware. Google has been supporting Debian by sponsoring DebConf for more than ten years, and is also a Debian partner sponsoring parts of Salsa's continuous integration infrastructure within Google Cloud Platform. Contact Information For further information, please visit the DebConf22 web page at https://debconf22.debconf.org/ or send mail to press@debian.org.

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