Search Results: "pda"

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 in this writeup.
root@foo:~# curl --head
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/ 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/ (aes256-cts-hmac-sha1-96) 
   2 HTTP/ (aes128-cts-hmac-sha1-96) 
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
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
For debugging, it may be useful to enable more gssproxy logging:
root@foo:~# cat<<EOF > /etc/gssproxy/gssproxy.conf
debug_level = 1
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
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
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 :
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. - 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!

19 September 2022

Antoine Beaupr : Looking at Wayland terminal emulators

Back in 2018, I made a two part series about terminal emulators that was actually pretty painful to write. So I'm not going to retry this here, not at all. Especially since I'm not submitting this to the excellent LWN editors so I can get away with not being very good at writing. Phew. Still, it seems my future self will thank me for collecting my thoughts on the terminal emulators I have found out about since I wrote that article. Back then, Wayland was not quite at the level where it is now, being the default in Fedora (2016), Debian (2019), RedHat (2019), and Ubuntu (2021). Also, a bunch of folks thought they would solve everything by using OpenGL for rendering. Let's see how things stack up.

Recap In the previous article, I touched on those projects:
Terminal Changes since review
Alacritty releases! scrollback, better latency, URL launcher, clipboard support, still not in Debian, but close
GNOME Terminal not much? couldn't find a changelog
Konsole outdated changelog, color, image previews, clickable files, multi-input, SSH plugin, sixel images
mlterm long changelog but: supports console mode (like GNU screen?!), Wayland support through libvte, sixel graphics, zmodem, mosh (!)
pterm changes: Wayland support
st unparseable changelog, suggests scroll(1) or scrollback.patch for scrollback now
Terminator moved to GitHub, Python 3 support, not being dead
urxvt no significant changes, a single release, still in CVS!
Xfce Terminal hard to parse changelog, presumably some improvements to paste safety?
xterm notoriously hard to parse changelog, improvements to paste safety (disallowedPasteControls), fonts, clipboard improvements?
After writing those articles, bizarrely, I was still using rxvt even though it did not come up as shiny as I would have liked. The colors problems were especially irritating. I briefly played around with Konsole and xterm, and eventually switched to XTerm as my default x-terminal-emulator "alternative" in my Debian system, while writing this. I quickly noticed why I had stopped using it: clickable links are a huge limitation. I ended up adding keybindings to open URLs in a command. There's another keybinding to dump the history into a command. Neither are as satisfactory as just clicking a damn link.

Requirements Figuring out my requirements is actually a pretty hard thing to do. In my last reviews, I just tried a bunch of stuff and collected everything, but a lot of things (like tab support) I don't actually care about. So here's a set of things I actually do care about:
  • latency
  • resource usage
  • proper clipboard support, that is:
    • mouse selection and middle button uses PRIMARY
    • control-shift-c and control-shift-v for CLIPBOARD
  • true color support
  • no known security issues
  • active project
  • paste protection
  • clickable URLs
  • scrollback
  • font resize
  • non-destructive text-wrapping (ie. resizing a window doesn't drop scrollback history)
  • proper unicode support (at least latin-1, ideally "everything")
  • good emoji support (at least showing them, ideally "nicely"), which involves font fallback
Latency is particularly something I wonder about in Wayland. Kitty seem to have been pretty dilligent at doing latency tests, claiming 35ms with a hardware-based latency tester and 7ms with typometer, but it's unclear how those would come up in Wayland because, as far as I know, typometer does not support Wayland.

Candidates Those are the projects I am considering.
  • darktile - GPU rendering, Unicode support, themable, ligatures (optional), Sixel, window transparency, clickable URLs, true color support, not in Debian
  • foot - Wayland only, daemon-mode, sixel images, scrollback search, true color, font resize, URLs not clickable, but keyboard-driven selection, proper clipboard support, in Debian
  • havoc - minimal, scrollback, configurable keybindings, not in Debian
  • sakura - libvte, Wayland support, tabs, no menu bar, original libvte gangster, dynamic font size, probably supports Wayland, in Debian
  • termonad - Haskell? in Debian
  • wez - Rust, Wayland, multiplexer, ligatures, scrollback search, clipboard support, bracketed paste, panes, tabs, serial port support, Sixel, Kitty, iTerm graphics, built-in SSH client (!?), not in Debian
  • XTerm - status quo, no Wayland port obviously
  • zutty: OpenGL rendering, true color, clipboard support, small codebase, no Wayland support, crashes on bremner's, in Debian

Candidates not considered

Alacritty I would really, really like to use Alacritty, but it's still not packaged in Debian, and they haven't fully addressed the latency issues although, to be fair, maybe it's just an impossible task. Once it's packaged in Debian, maybe I'll reconsider.

Kitty Kitty is a "fast, feature-rich, GPU based", with ligatures, emojis, hyperlinks, pluggable, scriptable, tabs, layouts, history, file transfer over SSH, its own graphics system, and probably much more I'm forgetting. It's packaged in Debian. So I immediately got two people commenting (on IRC) that they use Kitty and are pretty happy with it. I've been hesitant in directly talking about Kitty publicly, but since it's likely there will be a pile-up of similar comments, I'll just say why it's not the first in my list, even if it might, considering it's packaged in Debian and otherwise checks all the boxes. I don't trust the Kitty code. Kitty was written by the same author as Calibre, which has a horrible security history and generally really messy source code. I have tried to do LTS work on Calibre, and have mostly given up on the idea of making that program secure in any way. See calibre for the details on that. Now it's possible Kitty is different: it's quite likely the author has gotten some experience writing (and maintaining for so long!) Calibre over the years. But I would be more optimistic if the author's reaction to the security issues were more open and proactive. I've also seen the same reaction play out on Kitty's side of things. As anyone who worked on writing or playing with non-XTerm terminal emulators, it's quite a struggle to make something (bug-for-bug) compatible with everything out there. And Kitty is in that uncomfortable place right now where it diverges from the canon and needs its own entry in the ncurses database. I don't remember the specifics, but the author also managed to get into fights with those people as well, which I don't feel is reassuring for the project going forward. If security and compatibility wasn't such big of a deal for me, I wouldn't mind so much, but I'll need a lot of convincing before I consider Kitty more seriously at this point.

Next steps It seems like Arch Linux defaults to foot in Sway, and I keep seeing it everywhere, so it is probably my next thing to try, if/when I switch to Wayland. One major problem with foot is that it's yet another terminfo entry. They did make it into ncurses (patch 2021-07-31) but only after Debian bullseye stable was released. So expect some weird compatibility issues when connecting to any other system that is older or the same as stable (!). One question mark with all Wayland terminals, and Foot in particular, is how much latency they introduce in the rendering pipeline. The foot performance and benchmarks look excellent, but do not include latency benchmarks.

No conclusion So I guess that's all I've got so far, I may try alacritty if it hits Debian, or foot if I switch to Wayland, but for now I'm hacking in xterm still. Happy to hear ideas in the comments. Stay tuned for more happy days.

13 September 2022

Alberto Garc a: Adding software to the Steam Deck with systemd-sysext

Yakuake on SteamOS Introduction: an immutable OS The Steam Deck runs SteamOS, a single-user operating system based on Arch Linux. Although derived from a standard package-based distro, the OS in the Steam Deck is immutable and system updates replace the contents of the root filesystem atomically instead of using the package manager. An immutable OS makes the system more stable and its updates less error-prone, but users cannot install additional packages to add more software. This is not a problem for most users since they are only going to run Steam and its games (which are stored in the home partition). Nevertheless, the OS also has a desktop mode which provides a standard Linux desktop experience, and here it makes sense to be able to install more software. How to do that though? It is possible for the user to become root, make the root filesytem read-write and install additional software there, but any changes will be gone after the next OS update. Modifying the rootfs can also be dangerous if the user is not careful. Ways to add additional software The simplest and safest way to install additional software is with Flatpak, and that s the method recommended in the Steam Deck Desktop FAQ. Flatpak is already installed and integrated in the system via the Discover app so I won t go into more details here. However, while Flatpak works great for desktop applications not every piece of software is currently available, and Flatpak is also not designed for other types of programs like system services or command-line tools. Fortunately there are several ways to add software to the Steam Deck without touching the root filesystem, each one with different pros and cons. I will probably talk about some of them in the future, but in this post I m going to focus on one that is already available in the system: systemd-sysext. About systemd-sysext This is a tool included in recent versions of systemd and it is designed to add additional files (in the form of system extensions) to an otherwise immutable root filesystem. Each one of these extensions contains a set of files. When extensions are enabled (aka merged ) those files will appear on the root filesystem using overlayfs. From then on the user can open and run them normally as if they had been installed with a package manager. Merged extensions are seamlessly integrated with the rest of the OS. Since extensions are just collections of files they can be used to add new applications but also other things like system services, development tools, language packs, etc. Creating an extension: yakuake I m using yakuake as an example for this tutorial since the extension is very easy to create, it is an application that some users are demanding and is not easy to distribute with Flatpak. So let s create a yakuake extension. Here are the steps: 1) Create a directory and unpack the files there:
$ mkdir yakuake
$ wget
$ tar -C yakuake -xaf yakuake-*.tar.zst usr
2) Create a file called extension-release.NAME under usr/lib/extension-release.d with the fields ID and VERSION_ID taken from the Steam Deck s /etc/os-release file.
$ mkdir -p yakuake/usr/lib/extension-release.d/
$ echo ID=steamos > yakuake/usr/lib/extension-release.d/extension-release.yakuake
$ echo VERSION_ID=3.3.1 >> yakuake/usr/lib/extension-release.d/extension-release.yakuake
3) Create an image file with the contents of the extension:
$ mksquashfs yakuake yakuake.raw
That s it! The extension is ready. A couple of important things: image files must have the .raw suffix and, despite the name, they can contain any filesystem that the OS can mount. In this example I used SquashFS but other alternatives like EroFS or ext4 are equally valid. NOTE: systemd-sysext can also use extensions from plain directories (i.e skipping the mksquashfs part). Unfortunately we cannot use them in our case because overlayfs does not work with the casefold feature that is enabled on the Steam Deck. Using the extension Once the extension is created you simply need to copy it to a place where systemd-systext can find it. There are several places where they can be installed (see the manual for a list) but due to the Deck s partition layout and the potentially large size of some extensions it probably makes more sense to store them in the home partition and create a link from one of the supported locations (/var/lib/extensions in this example):
(deck@steamdeck ~)$ mkdir extensions
(deck@steamdeck ~)$ scp user@host:/path/to/yakuake.raw extensions/
(deck@steamdeck ~)$ sudo ln -s $PWD/extensions /var/lib/extensions
Once the extension is installed in that directory you only need to enable and start systemd-sysext:
(deck@steamdeck ~)$ sudo systemctl enable systemd-sysext
(deck@steamdeck ~)$ sudo systemctl start systemd-sysext
After this, if everything went fine you should be able to see (and run) /usr/bin/yakuake. The files should remain there from now on, also if you reboot the device. You can see what extensions are enabled with this command:
$ systemd-sysext status
/opt      none       -
/usr      yakuake    Tue 2022-09-13 18:21:53 CEST
If you add or remove extensions from the directory then a simple systemd-sysext refresh is enough to apply the changes. Unfortunately, and unlike distro packages, extensions don t have any kind of post-installation hooks or triggers, so in the case of Yakuake you probably won t see an entry in the KDE application menu immediately after enabling the extension. You can solve that by running kbuildsycoca5 once from the command line. Limitations and caveats Using systemd extensions is generally very easy but there are some things that you need to take into account:
  1. Using extensions is easy (you put them in the directory and voil !). However, creating extensions is not necessarily always easy. To begin with, any libraries, files, etc., that your extensions may need should be either present in the root filesystem or provided by the extension itself. You may need to combine files from different sources or packages into a single extension, or compile them yourself.
  2. In particular, if the extension contains binaries they should probably come from the Steam Deck repository or they should be built to work with those packages. If you need to build your own binaries then having a SteamOS virtual machine can be handy. There you can install all development files and also test that everything works as expected. One could also create a Steam Deck SDK extension with all the necessary files to develop directly on the Deck
  3. Extensions are not distribution packages, they don t have dependency information and therefore they should be self-contained. They also lack triggers and other features available in packages. For desktop applications I still recommend using a system like Flatpak when possible.
  4. Extensions are tied to a particular version of the OS and, as explained above, the ID and VERSION_ID of each extension must match the values from /etc/os-release. If the fields don t match then the extension will be ignored. This is to be expected because there s no guarantee that a particular extension is going to work with a different version of the OS. This can happen after a system update. In the best case one simply needs to update the extension s VERSION_ID, but in some cases it might be necessary to create the extension again with different/updated files.
  5. Extensions only install files in /usr and /opt. Any other file in the image will be ignored. This can be a problem if a particular piece of software needs files in other directories.
  6. When extensions are enabled the /usr and /opt directories become read-only because they are now part of an overlayfs. They will remain read-only even if you run steamos-readonly disable !!. If you really want to make the rootfs read-write you need to disable the extensions (systemd-sysext unmerge) first.
  7. Unlike Flatpak or Podman (including toolbox / distrobox), this is (by design) not meant to isolate the contents of the extension from the rest of the system, so you should be careful with what you re installing. On the other hand, this lack of isolation makes systemd-sysext better suited to some use cases than those container-based systems.
Conclusion systemd extensions are an easy way to add software (or data files) to the immutable OS of the Steam Deck in a way that is seamlessly integrated with the rest of the system. Creating them can be more or less easy depending on the case, but using them is extremely simple. Extensions are not packages, and systemd-sysext is not a package manager or a general-purpose tool to solve all problems, but if you are aware of its limitations it can be a practical tool. It is also possible to share extensions with other users, but here the usual warning against installing binaries from untrusted sources applies. Use with caution, and enjoy!

12 September 2022

Petter Reinholdtsen: Time to translate the Bullseye edition of the Debian Administrator's Handbook

(The picture is of the previous edition.) Almost two years after the previous Norwegian Bokm l translation of the "The Debian Administrator's Handbook" was published, a new edition is finally being prepared. The english text is updated, and it is time to start working on the translations. Around 37 percent of the strings have been updated, one way or another, and the translations starting from a complete Debian Buster edition now need to bring their translation up from 63% to 100%. The complete book is licensed using a Creative Commons license, and has been published in several languages over the years. The translations are done by volunteers to bring Linux in their native tongue. The last time I checked, it complete text was available in English, Norwegian Bokm l, German, Indonesian, Brazil Portuguese and Spanish. In addition, work has been started for Arabic (Morocco), Catalan, Chinese (Simplified), Chinese (Traditional), Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Swedish, Turkish and Vietnamese. The translation is conducted on the hosted weblate project page. Prospective translators are recommeded to subscribe to the translators mailing list and should also check out the instructions for contributors. I am one of the Norwegian Bokm l translators of this book, and we have just started. Your contribution is most welcome. As usual, if you use Bitcoin and want to show your support of my activities, please send Bitcoin donations to my address 15oWEoG9dUPovwmUL9KWAnYRtNJEkP1u1b.

11 September 2022

Dirk Eddelbuettel: RcppArmadillo on CRAN: Bugfix and Deprecation

armadillo image Armadillo is a powerful and expressive C++ template library for linear algebra and scientific computing. It aims towards a good balance between speed and ease of use, has a syntax deliberately close to Matlab, and is useful for algorithm development directly in C++, or quick conversion of research code into production environments. RcppArmadillo integrates this library with the R environment and language and is widely used by (currently) 1016 packages other packages on CRAN, downloaded 26.2 million times (per the partial logs from the cloud mirrors of CRAN), and the CSDA paper (preprint / vignette) by Conrad and myself has been cited 493 times according to Google Scholar. This new release (made yesterday) brings three changes. First, it updates the release to the upstream 11.2.4 bugfix release made days ago by Conrad. Second, it contains support for the deprecation transition we are managing in issue #391. In short, the (convenient but non-standard) initialization via use of << has been deprecated upstream. Until all packages are updated, we override this in the RcppArmadillo but aim to become compliant . Out of the over 1000 packages, a mere 25 need small adjustments. I reached out email and PRs, and the response has been great. Eight packages are already updated on CRAN, and several others have already in integrated or merged the change. Lastly, Conrad pointed out that the fastLm() example and application can be written more concisely by using arma::dot(). The full set of changes (since the last CRAN release follows.

Changes in RcppArmadillo version (2022-09-09)
  • Upgraded to Armadillo release 11.2.4 (Classic Roast)
    • fix handling of std::move() involving matrices constructed with auxiliary memory
  • In the fastLm() examples, use arma::dot() to compute to the inner product (as proposed by Conrad), plus small edits
  • Support optional #define named RCPPARMADILLO_FORCE_DEPRECATE to suppress use of ARMA_IGNORE_DEPRECATED_MARKER permitting use and development under deprecation

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

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

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 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 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, 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:

Jonathan Dowland: memtest

Since I'm writing about my NAS, a month ago I happened to notice an odd kernel message:
Aug 8 04:04] list_del corruption. prev->next should be ffff90c96e9c2090,
but was ffff90c94e9c2090
A kernel dev friend said "I'm familiar with that code ... you should run memtest86". This seemed like advice it would be foolish to ignore! I installed the memtest86 package, which on Debian stable, is actually the formerly open-source "memtest86" software, last updated in 2014, rather than the currently open-source "memtest86+". However the package (incorrectly, I think) Recommends: memtest86+ so I ended up with both. The package scripts integrate with GRUB, so both were added as boot options. Neither however, would boot on my NAS, which is a UEFI system: after selection from the GRUB prompt, I just had a blank screen. I focussed for a short while on display issues: I wondered if trying to run a 4k monitor over HDMI was too much to expect from a memory tester OS, but my mainboard has a VGA out as well. It has some quirky behaviour for the VGA out: the firmware doesn't use it at all, so output only begins appearing after something boots (GRUB for example). I fiddled about with the HDMI output, VGA output, and trying different RGB cables, to no avail. The issue was (likely) nothing to do with the video out, but rather that the packaged versions of memtest/memtest86+ don't work properly on UEFI systems. What did work, was Passmark Software's non-FOSS memtest86. It drew on HDMI, albeit in a postage stamp sized window. After some time (much less than I expected, some kind of magic modern memory matrix stuff going on I think), I got a clean bill of health:
memtest86(.com) passes
It's quite possible the FOSS versions of memtest (pcmemtest is another) have better support for UEFI in more recent versions than I installed (I just went with what's in Debian stable), and if not, then this is a worthy feature to work on.

8 September 2022

Thorsten Alteholz: My Debian Activities in August 2022

FTP master This month I accepted 375 and rejected 25 packages. The overall number of packages that got accepted was 386. I also had a closer look at the RM-bugs. All in all I addressed about 90 of them and either simply removed the package or added a moreinfo tag. In total I spent 13 hours for this task. Anyway, if you want to have your RM-bug processed in a timely manner, please have a look at the removal page and check whether the created dak command is really what you wanted. It would also help if you check the reverse dependencies and write a comment whether they are important or can be ignored or also file a new bug for them. Each removal must have one bug! Debian LTS This was my ninety-eighth month that I did some work for the Debian LTS initiative, started by Raphael Hertzog at Freexian. This month my all in all workload has been 30.00h. As I started to become a Freexian collaborator in this month, I only worked 17h on the LTS project. During that time I uploaded: I also started to work on upx-ucl. Debian ELTS This month was the forty-ninth ELTS month. During my allocated time I uploaded: Debian Printing This month I uploaded new upstream versions or improved packaging of: Debian Astro This month I uploaded new upstream versions or improved packaging of:

7 September 2022

Antoine Beaupr : Deleted GitLab forks from my account

I have just deleted two forks I had of the GitLab project in my account. I did this after receiving a warning that quotas would now start to be enforced. It didn't say that I was going over quota, so I actually had to go look in the usage quotas page, which stated I was using 5.6GB of storage. So far so good, I'm not going to get billed because I'm below the 10GB threshold. But still, I found that number puzzling. That's a lot of data! Maybe wallabako? I build images there in CI... Or the ISOs in stressant? Nope. The biggest disk users were... my forks of gitlab-ce and gitlab-ee (now respectively called gitlab-foss and gitlab-ee, but whatever). CE was taking up roughly 1GB and EE was taking up the rest. So I deleted both repos, which means that the next time I want to contribute a fix to their documentation which is as far as I managed to contribute to GitLab I will need to re-fork those humongous repositories. Maybe I'm reading this wrong. Maybe there's a bug in the quotas system. Or, if I'm reading this right, GitLab is actually double-billing people: once for the source repository, and once for the fork. Because surely repos are not duplicating all those blobs on disk... right? RIGHT? Either case, that's rather a bad move on their part, I feel like. With GitHub charging 4$/user/month, it feels like GitLab is going to have to trouble to compete by charging 20$/user/month as a challenger... (Update: as noted in the comments by Jim Sorenson, this is actually an issue with older versions of GitLab. Deleting and re-forking the repos will actually fix the issue so, in a way, I did exactly what I should. Another workaround is to run the housekeeping jobs on the repo, although I cannot confirm this works myself.) But maybe it's just me: I'm not an economist, surely there's some brilliant plan here I'm missing... In the meantime, free-ish alternatives include (currently free for public repos) and (2$/mth, but at least not open-core, unfortunately no plan for a container registry). And of course, you can painfully self-host GitLab,, gitea, pagure, or whatever it is the current fancy gitweb.

2 September 2022

Kunal Mehta: Kiwix in Debian, 2022 update

Previous updates: 2018, 2021 Kiwix is an offline content reader, best known for distributing copies of Wikipedia. I have been maintaining it in Debian since 2017. This year most of the work has been keeping all the packages up to date in anticipation of next year's Debian 12 Bookworm release, including several transitions for new libzim and libkiwix versions. The Debian Package Tracker makes it really easy to keep an eye on all Kiwix-related packages. All of the "user-facing" packages (zim-tools, kiwix-tools, kiwix) now have very basic autopkgtests that can provide a bit of confidence that the package isn't totally broken. I recommend reading the "FAQ for package maintainers" to learn about all the benefits you get from having autopkgtests. Finally, back in March I wrote a blog post, How to mirror the Russian Wikipedia with Debian and Kiwix, which got significant readership (compared to most posts on this blog), including being quoted by LWN! We are always looking for more contributors, please reach out if you're interested. The Kiwix team is one of my favorite groups of people to work with and they love Debian too.

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.
set -eo pipefail
# The local node name
NODENAME=" hostname "
# All nodes.  NODENAME should be in this list.
ALLNODES="node1 node2 node3"
# If you need to sudo, use something like RUNNNCP="sudo -Hu nncp"
ACKPATH=" mktemp -d "
# Process incoming packets.
# Parameters: $1 - the path to scan.  Must contain a directory
# named "nncp".
procrxpath ()  
    while [ -n "$1" ]; do
        if ! [ -d "$BASEPATH" ]; then
            echo "$BASEPATH doesn't exist; skipping"
        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"
        rsync --delete -rt "$TMPDIR/" "$BASEPATH/"
        rm -fr "$TMPDIR"
proctxpath ()  
    while [ -n "$1" ]; do
        if ! [ -d "$BASEPATH" ]; then
            echo "$BASEPATH doesn't exist; skipping"
        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
            # 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"
        rsync --delete -rt "$TMPDIR/" "$BASEPATH/"
        rm -rf "$TMPDIR"
        # We only want to write stuff once.
        return 0
procrxpath "$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.

31 August 2022

Rapha&#235;l Hertzog: Freexian s report about Debian Long Term Support, July 2022

A Debian LTS logo
Like each month, have a look at the work funded by Freexian s Debian LTS offering. Debian project funding No any major updates on running projects.
Two 1, 2 projects are in the pipeline now.
Tryton project is in a review phase. Gradle projects is still fighting in work. In July, we put aside 2389 EUR to fund Debian projects. We re looking forward to receive more projects from various Debian teams! Learn more about the rationale behind this initiative in this article. Debian LTS contributors In July, 14 contributors have been paid to work on Debian LTS, their reports are available: Evolution of the situation In July, we have released 3 DLAs. July was the period, when the Debian Stretch had already ELTS status, but Debian Buster was still in the hands of security team. Many member of LTS used this time to update internal infrastructure, documentation and some internal tickets. Now we are ready to take the next release in our hands: Buster! Thanks to our sponsors Sponsors that joined recently are in bold.

30 August 2022

Jonathan Dowland: Venineth

My turntable is temporarily out of action so this post is in lieu of a crate digging update. Some time ago, I saw Matt Hoye raving about a little indie game called Venineth. I think he said it was the perfect little game to relax to. I don t regularly play games but I could sometimes do with some help relaxing. I was reminded about Venineth when I saw some buzz about Exo One, a similar-looking game, so I thought I d give Venineth a go.
picture of a vinyl record A scene near the start of Venineth
It s great fun: Relaxing, mildly challenging, and satisfying. It didn t run terribly well on my T470s but I ve since upgraded to a workstation which should handle it easily so I need to try it again. The reason this is a substitute for a crate digging post: although I ve not picked Venineth back up in a while, I have had the soundtrack on a reasonably heavy rotation. It s an immersive, synth driven instrumental album by polish musician Echo Ray that is good music to listen to when concentrating.

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,, 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, 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, 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.

28 August 2022

Dirk Eddelbuettel: littler 0.3.16 on CRAN: Package Updates

max-heap image The seventeenth release of littler as a CRAN package just landed, following in the now sixteen year history (!!) as a package started by Jeff in 2006, and joined by me a few weeks later. littler is the first command-line interface for R as it predates Rscript. It allows for piping as well for shebang scripting via #!, uses command-line arguments more consistently and still starts faster. It also always loaded the methods package which Rscript only started to do in recent years. littler lives on Linux and Unix, has its difficulties on macOS due to yet-another-braindeadedness there (who ever thought case-insensitive filesystems as a default were a good idea?) and simply does not exist on Windows (yet the build system could be extended see RInside for an existence proof, and volunteers are welcome!). See the FAQ vignette on how to add it to your PATH. A few examples are highlighted at the Github repo, as well as in the examples vignette. This release, the first since last December, further extends install2.r accept multiple repos options thanks to Tatsuya Shima, overhauls and substantially extends installBioc.r thanks to Pieter Moris, and includes a number of (generally smaller) changes I added (see below). The full change description follows.

Changes in littler version 0.3.16 (2022-08-28)
  • Changes in package
    • The configure code checks for two more headers
    • The RNG seeding matches the current version in R (Dirk)
  • Changes in examples
    • A cowu.r 'check Window UCRT' helper was added (Dirk)
    • A getPandoc.r downloader has been added (Dirk)
    • The -r option tp install2.r has been generalzed (Tatsuya Shima in #95)
    • The rcc.r code / package checker now has valgrind option (Dirk)
    • install2.r now installs to first element in .libPaths() by default (Dirk)
    • A very simple r2u.r help has been added (Dirk)
    • The installBioc.r has been generalized and extended similar to install2.r (Pieter Moris in #103)

My CRANberries service provides a comparison to the previous release. Full details for the littler release are provided as usual at the ChangeLog page, and also on the package docs website. The code is available via the GitHub repo, from tarballs and now of course also from its CRAN page and via install.packages("littler"). Binary packages are available directly in Debian as well as soon via Ubuntu binaries at CRAN thanks to the tireless Michael Rutter. Comments and suggestions are welcome at the GitHub repo. If you like this or other open-source work I do, you can now sponsor me at GitHub.

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

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 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, link) and "branchez les familles", "connecting families" (site dead since 2003, 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.

25 August 2022

Dirk Eddelbuettel: RApiSerialize 0.1.2 on CRAN: Small Bugfix

A new bug fix release 0.1.2 of RApiSerialize got onto CRAN earlier. It follows on the 0.1.1 release from earlier this month, and addresses a minor build issue where an error message, only in the case of missing long vector support, tried to use an i18n macro that is not supplied by the build. The RApiSerialize package is used by both my RcppRedis as well as by Travers excellent qs package. Neither one of us has a need to switch to format 3 yet so format 2 remains the default. But along with other standard updates to package internals, it was straightforward to offer the newer format so that is what we did.

Changes in version 0.1.2 (2022-08-25)
  • Correct an error() call (when missing long vector support) to not use i18n macro

Courtesy of my CRANberries, there is also a diffstat to the previous version. More details are at the RApiSerialize page; code, issue tickets etc at the GitHub repository. If you like this or other open-source work I do, you can now sponsor me at GitHub.

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

23 August 2022

Ian Jackson: prefork-interp - automatic startup time amortisation for all manner of scripts

The problem I had - Mason, so, sadly, FastCGI Since the update to current Debian stable, the website for YARRG, (a play-aid for Puzzle Pirates which I wrote some years ago), started to occasionally return Internal Server Error , apparently due to bug(s) in some FastCGI libraries. I was using FastCGI because the website is written in Mason, a Perl web framework, and I found that Mason CGI calls were slow. I m using CGI - yes, trad CGI - via userv-cgi. Running Mason this way would compile the template for each HTTP request just when it was rendered, and then throw the compiled version away. The more modern approach of an application server doesn t scale well to a system which has many web applications most of which are very small. The admin overhead of maintaining a daemon, and corresponding webserver config, for each such service would be prohibitive, even with some kind of autoprovisioning setup. FastCGI has an interpreter wrapper which seemed like it ought to solve this problem, but it s quite inconvenient, and often flaky. I decided I could do better, and set out to eliminate FastCGI from my setup. The result seems to be a success; once I d done all the hard work of writing prefork-interp, I found the result very straightforward to deploy. prefork-interp prefork-interp is a small C program which wraps a script, plus a scripting language library to cooperate with the wrapper program. Together they achieve the following: Features: Important properties not always satisfied by competing approaches: Swans paddling furiously The implementation is much more complicated than the (apparent) interface. I won t go into all the details here (there are some terrifying diagrams in the source code if you really want), but some highlights: We use an AF_UNIX socket (hopefully in /run/user/UID, but in ~ if not) for rendezvous. We can try to connect without locking, but we must protect the socket with a separate lockfile to avoid two concurrent restart attempts. We want stderr from the script setup (pre-initialisation) to be delivered to the caller, so the script ought to inherit our stderr and then will need to replace it later. Twice, in fact, because the daemonic server process can t have a stderr. When a script is restarted for any reason, any old socket will be removed. We want the old server process to detect that and quit. (If hung about, it would wait for the idle timeout; if this happened a lot - eg, a constantly changing set of services - we might end up running out of pids or something.) Spotting the socket disappearing, without polling, involves use of a library capable of using inotify (or the equivalent elsewhere). Choosing a C library to do this is not so hard, but portable interfaces to this functionality can be hard to find in scripting languages, and also we don t want every language binding to have to reimplement these checks. So for this purpose there s a little watcher process, and associated IPC. When an invoking instance of prefork-interp is killed, we must arrange for the executing service instance to stop reading from its stdin (and, ideally, writing its stdout). Otherwise it s stealing input from prefork-interp s successors (maybe the user s shell)! Cleanup ought not to depend on positive actions by failing processes, so each element of the system has to detect failures of its peers by means such as EOF on sockets/pipes. Obtaining prefork-interp I put this new tool in my chiark-utils package, which is a collection of useful miscellany. It s available from git. Currently I make releases by uploading to Debian, where prefork-interp has just hit Debian unstable, in chiark-utils 7.0.0. Support for other scripting languages I would love Python to be supported. If any pythonistas reading this think you might like to help out, please get in touch. The specification for the protocol, and what the script library needs to do, is documented in the source code Future plans for chiark-utils chiark-utils as a whole is in need of some tidying up of its build system and packaging. I intend to try to do some reorganisation. Currently I think it would be better to organising the source tree more strictly with a directory for each included facility, rather than grouping compiled and scripts together. The Debian binary packages should be reorganised more fully according to their dependencies, so that installing a program will ensure that it works. I should probably move the official git repo from my own git+gitweb to a forge (so we can have MRs and issues and so on). And there should be a lot more testing, including Debian autopkgtests.
edited 2022-08-23 10:30 +01:00 to improve the formatting

comment count unavailable comments

22 August 2022

Antoine Beaupr : Alternative MPD clients to GMPC

GMPC (GNOME Music Player Client) is a audio player based on MPD (Music Player Daemon) that I've been using as my main audio player for years now. Unfortunately, it's marked as "unmaintained" in the official list of MPD clients, along with basically every client available in Debian. In fact, if you look closely, all but one of the 5 unmaintained clients are in Debian (ario, cantata, gmpc, and sonata), which is kind of sad. And none of the active ones are packaged.

GMPC status and features GMPC, in particular, is basically dead. The upstream website domain has been lost and there has been no release in ages. It's built with GTK2 so it's bound to be destroyed in a fire at some point anyways. Still: it's really an awesome client. It has:
  • cover support
  • lyrics and tabs lookups (although those typically fail now)
  • lookups
  • high performance: loading thousands of artists or tracks is almost instant
  • repeat/single/consume/shuffle settings (single is particularly nice)
  • (global) keyboard shortcuts
  • file, artist, genre, tag browser
  • playlist editor
  • plugins
  • multi-profile support
  • avahi support
  • shoutcast support
Regarding performance, the only thing that I could find to slow down gmpc is to make it load all of my 40k+ artists in a playlist. That's slow, but it's probably understandable. It's basically impossible to find a client that satisfies all of those. But here are the clients that I found, alphabetically. I restrict myself to Linux-based clients.

CoverGrid CoverGrid looks real nice, but is sharply focused on browsing covers. It's explicitly "not to be a replacement for your favorite MPD client but an addition to get a better album-experience", so probably not good enough for a daily driver. I asked for a FlatHub package so it could be tested.

mpdevil mpdevil is a nice little client. It supports:
  • repeat, shuffle, single, consume mode
  • playlist support (although it fails to load any of my playlist with a UnicodeDecodeError)
  • nice genre / artist / album cover based browser
  • fails to load "all artists" (or takes too long to (pre-?)load covers?)
  • keyboard shortcuts
  • no file browser
Overall pretty good, but performance issues with large collections, and needs a cleanly tagged collection (which is not my case).

QUIMUP QUIMUP looks like a simple client, C++, Qt, and mouse-based. No Flatpak, not tested.

SkyMPC SkyMPC is similar. Ruby, Qt, documentation in Japanese. No Flatpak, not tested.

Xfmpc Xfmpc is the XFCE client. Minimalist, doesn't seem to have all the features I need. No Flatpak, not tested.

Ymuse Ymuse is another promising client. It has trouble loading all my artists or albums (and that's without album covers), but it eventually does. It does have a Files browser which saves it... It's noticeably slower than gmpc but does the job. Cover support is spotty: it sometimes shows up in notifications but not the player, which is odd. I'm missing a "this track information" thing. It seems to support playlists okay. I'm missing an album cover browser as well. Overall seems like the most promising. Written in Golang. It crashed on a library update. There is an ITP in Debian.

Conclusion For now, I guess that ymuse is the most promising client, even though it's still lacking some features and performance is suffering compared to gmpc. I'll keep updating this page as I find more information about the projects. I do not intend to package anything yet, and will wait a while to see if a clear winner emerges.

Simon Josefsson: Static network config with Debian Cloud images

I self-host some services on virtual machines (VMs), and I m currently using Debian 11.x as the host machine relying on the libvirt infrastructure to manage QEMU/KVM machines. While everything has worked fine for years (including on Debian 10.x), there has always been one issue causing a one-minute delay every time I install a new VM: the default images run a DHCP client that never succeeds in my environment. I never found out a way to disable DHCP in the image, and none of the documented ways through cloud-init that I have tried worked. A couple of days ago, after reading the AlmaLinux wiki I found a solution that works with Debian. The following commands creates a Debian VM with static network configuration without the annoying one-minute DHCP delay. The three essential cloud-init keywords are the NoCloud meta-data parameters dsmode:local, static network-interfaces setting combined with the user-data bootcmd keyword. I m using a Raptor CS Talos II ppc64el machine, so replace the image link with a genericcloud amd64 image if you are using x86.
cp debian-11-generic-ppc64el.qcow2 foo.qcow2
dsmode: local
 iface enp0s1 inet static
fqdn: foo.mydomain
manage_etc_hosts: true
disable_root: false
ssh_pwauth: false
- ssh-ed25519 AAAA...
timezone: Europe/Stockholm
- rm -f /run/network/interfaces.d/enp0s1
- ifup enp0s1
virt-install --name foo --import --os-variant debian10 --disk foo.qcow2 --cloud-init meta-data=meta-data,user-data=user-data
Unfortunately virt-install from Debian 11 does not support the cloud-init network-config parameter, so if you want to use a version 2 network configuration with cloud-init (to specify IPv6 addresses, for example) you need to replace the final virt-install command with the following.
version: 2
   dhcp4: false
   addresses: [, fc00::14/7 ]
   gateway6: fc00::12
    addresses: [, fc00::12 ]
cloud-localds -v -m local --network-config=network_config_static.cfg seed.iso user-data
virt-install --name foo --import --os-variant debian10 --disk foo.qcow2 --disk seed.iso,readonly=on --noreboot
virsh start foo
virsh detach-disk foo vdb --config
virsh console foo
There are still some warnings like the following, but it does not seem to cause any problem: [FAILED] Failed to start Initial cloud-init job (pre-networking). Finally, if you do not want the cloud-init tools installed in your VMs, I found the following set of additional user-data commands helpful. Cloud-init will not be enabled on first boot and a cron job will be added that purges some unwanted packages.
- touch /etc/cloud/cloud-init.disabled
- apt-get update && apt-get dist-upgrade -uy && apt-get autoremove --yes --purge && printf '#!/bin/sh\n  rm /etc/cloud/cloud-init.disabled /etc/cloud/cloud.cfg.d/01_debian_cloud.cfg && apt-get purge --yes cloud-init cloud-guest-utils cloud-initramfs-growroot genisoimage isc-dhcp-client && apt-get autoremove --yes --purge && rm -f /etc/cron.hourly/cloud-cleanup && shutdown --reboot +1;   2>&1   logger -t cloud-cleanup\n' > /etc/cron.hourly/cloud-cleanup && chmod +x /etc/cron.hourly/cloud-cleanup && reboot &
The production script I m using is a bit more complicated, but can be downloaded as vello-vm. Happy hacking!