Search Results: "radu"

21 March 2023

Daniel Lange: Linux App Summit - Linux applications apparently unable to produce a five page sponsorship brochure

I've been calling out the Linux foundation for producing their annual report on Macs. And again. But catching the Linux App(lication) Summit to produce their 5 page sponsorship brochure one Windows with Adobe... Produced by Adobe InDesign 18.1 on Windows Apparently neither GNOME nor KDE have apps that are sufficient to produce such content. Wtf folks. P.S.: Just checked the Linux Foundation's 2022 Annual Report titled "Leadership in Security and Innovation" ... Adobe InDesign 18.0 (Macintosh). Their pdf title looks like this: Pdf is hard.

8 March 2023

Jelmer Vernooij: The Kali Janitor

The Debian Janitor is an automated system that commits fixes for (minor) issues in Debian packages that can be fixed by software. It gradually started proposing merges in early December. The first set of changes sent out ran lintian-brush on sid packages maintained in Git. This post is part of a series about the progress of the Janitor. Kali Linux have been running their own instance of the Janitor for the last year, under the kali-bot user on GitLab. Their web site has some excellent documentation explaining how the bot works. Both projects share some common components - the core janitor codebase, Silver-Platter and the various codemods (lintian-brush and deb-new-upstream). The site and some of the review logic is different for Kali. The Kali bot has several campaigns:

The last campaign doesn t exist in the Debian janitor, and pulls in new changes from packages that have been imported from other distributions.

For more information about the Janitor s lintian-fixes efforts, see the landing page.

8 January 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Postwar

Review: Postwar, by Tony Judt
Publisher: Penguin Books
Copyright: 2005
ISBN: 1-4406-2476-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 835
Tony Judt (1948 2010) was a British-American historian and Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies at New York University. Postwar is his magnum opus, a history of Europe from 1945 to 2005. A book described as a history of Europe could be anything from a textbook to a political analysis, so the first useful question to ask is what sort of history. That's a somewhat difficult question to answer. Postwar mentions a great deal of conventional history, including important political movements and changes of government, but despite a stated topic that would suit a survey textbook, it doesn't provide that sort of list of facts and dates. Judt expects the reader to already be familiar with the broad outlines of modern European history. However, Postwar is also not a specialty history and avoids diving too deep into any one area. Trends in art, philosophy, and economics are all mentioned to set a broader context, but still only at the level of a general survey. My best description is that Postwar is a comprehensive social and political history that attempts to focus less on specific events and more on larger trends of thought. Judt grounds his narrative in concrete, factual events, but the emphasis is on how those living in Europe, at each point in history, thought of their society, their politics, and their place in both. Most of the space goes to exploring those nuances of thought and day-to-day life. In the US university context, I'd place this book as an intermediate-level course in modern European history, after the survey course that provides students with a basic framework but before graduate-level specializations in specific topics. If you have not had a solid basic education in European history (and my guess is that most people from the US have not), Judt will provide the necessary signposts, but you should expect to need to look up the signposts you don't recognize. I, as the dubious beneficiary of a US high school history education now many decades in the past, frequently resorted to Wikipedia for additional background. Postwar uses a simple chronological structure in four parts: the immediate post-war years and the beginning of the Cold War (1945 1953), the era of rapidly growing western European prosperity (1953 1971), the years of recession and increased turmoil leading up to the collapse of communism (1971 1989), and the aftermath of the collapse of communism and the rise of the European Union (1989 2005). Each part is divided into four to eight long chapters that trace a particular theme. Judt usually starts with the overview of a theme and then follows the local manifestations of it on a spiral through European countries in whatever order seems appropriate. For the bulk of the book that covers the era of the Cold War, when experiences were drastically different inside or outside the Soviet bloc, he usually separates western and eastern Europe into alternating chapters. Reviewing this sort of book is tricky because so much will depend on how well you already know the topic. My interest in history is strictly amateur and I tend to avoid modern history (usually I find it too depressing), so for me this book was remedial, filling in large knowledge gaps that I ideally shouldn't have had. Postwar was a runner up for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, so I think I'm safe saying you won't go far wrong reading it, but here's the necessary disclaimer that the rest of my reactions may not be useful if you're better versed in modern European history than I was. (This would not be difficult.) That said, I found Postwar invaluable because of its big-picture focus. The events and dates are easy enough to find on the Internet; what was missing for me in understanding Europe was the intent and social structures created by and causing those events. For example, from early in the book:
On one thing, however, all were agreed resisters and politicians alike: "planning". The disasters of the inter-war decades the missed opportunities after 1918, the great depression that followed the stock-market crash of 1929, the waste of unemployment, the inequalities, injustices and inefficiencies of laissez-faire capitalism that had led so many into authoritarian temptation, the brazen indifference of an arrogant ruling elite and the incompetence of an inadequate political class all seemed to be connected by the utter failure to organize society better. If democracy was to work, if it was to recover its appeal, it would have to be planned.
It's one thing to be familiar with the basic economic and political arguments between degrees of free market and planned economies. It's quite another to understand how the appeal of one approach or the discredit of another stems from recent historical experience, and that's what a good history can provide. Judt does not hesitate to draw these sorts of conclusions, and I'm sure some of them are controversial. But while he's opinionated, he's rarely ideological, and he offers no grand explanations. His discussion of the Yugoslav Wars stands out as an example: he mentions various theories of blame (a fraught local ethnic history, the decision by others to not intervene until the situation was truly dire), but largely discards them. Judt's offered explanation is that local politicians saw an opportunity to gain power by inflaming ethnic animosity, and a large portion of the population participated in this process, either passively or eagerly. Other explanations are both unnecessarily complex and too willing to deprive Yugoslavs of agency. I found this refreshingly blunt. When is more complex analysis a way to diffuse responsibility and cling to an ideological fantasy that the right foreign policy would have resolved a problem? A few personal grumblings do creep in, particularly in the chapters on the 1970s (and I think it's not a coincidence that this matches Judt's own young adulthood, a time when one is prone to forming a lot of opinions). There is a brief but stinging criticism of postmodernism in scholarship, which I thought was justified but probably incomplete, and a decidedly grumpy dismissal of punk music, which I thought was less fair. But these are brief asides that don't detract from the overall work. Indeed, they, along with the occasional wry asides ("respecting long-established European practice, no one asked the Poles for their views [on Poland's new frontiers]") add a lot of character. Insofar as this book has a thesis, it's in the implications of the title: Europe only exited the postwar period at the end of the 20th century. Political stability through exhaustion, the overwhelming urgency of economic recovery, and the degree to which the Iron Curtain and the Cold War froze eastern Europe in amber meant that full European recovery from World War II was drawn out and at times suspended. It's only after 1989 and its subsequent upheavals that European politics were able to move beyond postwar concerns. Some of that movement was a reemergence of earlier European politics of nations and ethnic conflict. But, new on the scene, was a sense of identity as Europeans, one that western Europe circled warily and eastern Europe saw as the only realistic path forward.
What binds Europeans together, even when they are deeply critical of some aspect or other of its practical workings, is what it has become conventional to call in disjunctive but revealing contrast with "the American way of life" the "European model of society".
Judt also gave me a new appreciation of how traumatic people find the assignment of fault, and how difficult it is to wrestle with guilt without providing open invitations to political backlash. People will go to great lengths to not feel guilty, and pressing the point runs a substantial risk of creating popular support for ideological movements that are willing to lie to their followers. The book's most memorable treatment of this observation is in the epilogue, which traces popular European attitudes towards the history of the Holocaust through the whole time period. The largest problem with this book is that it is dense and very long. I'm a fairly fast reader, but this was the only book I read through most of my holiday vacation and it still took a full week into the new year to finish it. By the end, I admit I was somewhat exhausted and ready to be finished with European history for a while (although the epilogue is very much worth waiting for). If you, unlike me, can read a book slowly among other things, that may be a good tactic. But despite feeling like this was a slog at times, I'm very glad that I read it. I'm not sure if someone with a firmer grounding in European history would have gotten as much out of it, but I, at least, needed something this comprehensive to wrap my mind around the timeline and fill in some embarrassing gaps. Judt is not the most entertaining writer (although he has his moments), and this is not the sort of popular history that goes out of its way to draw you in, but I found it approachable and clear. If you're looking for a solid survey of modern European history with this type of high-level focus, recommended. Rating: 8 out of 10

28 December 2022

Chris Lamb: Favourite books of 2022: Classics

As a follow-up to yesterday's post detailing my favourite works of fiction from 2022, today I'll be listing my favourite fictional works that are typically filed under classics. Books that just missed the cut here include: E. M. Forster's A Room with a View (1908) and his later A Passage to India (1913), both gently nudged out by Forster's superb Howard's End (see below). Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard (1958) also just missed out on a write-up here, but I can definitely recommend it to anyone interested in reading a modern Italian classic.

War and Peace (1867) Leo Tolstoy It's strange to think that there is almost no point in reviewing this novel: who hasn't heard of War and Peace? What more could possibly be said about it now? Still, when I was growing up, War and Peace was always the stereotypical example of the 'impossible book', and even start it was, at best, a pointless task, and an act of hubris at worst. And so there surely exists a parallel universe in which I never have and will never will read the book... Nevertheless, let us try to set the scene. Book nine of the novel opens as follows:
On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began; that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes. What produced this extraordinary occurrence? What were its causes? [ ] The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible they become to us.
Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon's invasion of Russia, War and Peace follows the lives and fates of three aristocratic families: The Rostovs, The Bolkonskys and the Bezukhov's. These characters find themselves situated athwart (or against) history, and all this time, Napoleon is marching ever closer to Moscow. Still, Napoleon himself is essentially just a kind of wallpaper for a diverse set of personal stories touching on love, jealousy, hatred, retribution, naivety, nationalism, stupidity and much much more. As Elif Batuman wrote earlier this year, "the whole premise of the book was that you couldn t explain war without recourse to domesticity and interpersonal relations." The result is that Tolstoy has woven an incredibly intricate web that connects the war, noble families and the everyday Russian people to a degree that is surprising for a book started in 1865. Tolstoy's characters are probably timeless (especially the picaresque adventures and constantly changing thoughts Pierre Bezukhov), and the reader who has any social experience will immediately recognise characters' thoughts and actions. Some of this is at a 'micro' interpersonal level: for instance, take this example from the elegant party that opens the novel:
Each visitor performed the ceremony of greeting this old aunt whom not one of them knew, not one of them wanted to know, and not one of them cared about. The aunt spoke to each of them in the same words, about their health and her own and the health of Her Majesty, who, thank God, was better today. And each visitor, though politeness prevented his showing impatience, left the old woman with a sense of relief at having performed a vexatious duty and did not return to her the whole evening.
But then, some of the focus of the observations are at the 'macro' level of the entire continent. This section about cities that feel themselves in danger might suffice as an example:
At the approach of danger, there are always two voices that speak with equal power in the human soul: one very reasonably tells a man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of escaping it; the other, still more reasonably, says that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger, since it is not in man s power to foresee everything and avert the general course of events, and it is therefore better to disregard what is painful till it comes and to think about what is pleasant. In solitude, a man generally listens to the first voice, but in society to the second.
And finally, in his lengthy epilogues, Tolstoy offers us a dissertation on the behaviour of large organisations, much of it through engagingly witty analogies. These epilogues actually turn out to be an oblique and sarcastic commentary on the idiocy of governments and the madness of war in general. Indeed, the thorough dismantling of the 'great man' theory of history is a common theme throughout the book:
During the whole of that period [of 1812], Napoleon, who seems to us to have been the leader of all these movements as the figurehead of a ship may seem to a savage to guide the vessel acted like a child who, holding a couple of strings inside a carriage, thinks he is driving it. [ ] Why do [we] all speak of a military genius ? Is a man a genius who can order bread to be brought up at the right time and say who is to go to the right and who to the left? It is only because military men are invested with pomp and power and crowds of sychophants flatter power, attributing to it qualities of genius it does not possess.
Unlike some other readers, I especially enjoyed these diversions into the accounting and workings of history, as well as our narrow-minded way of trying to 'explain' things in a singular way:
When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it? Nothing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions in which all vital organic and elemental events occur. And the botanist who finds that the apple falls because the cellular tissue decays and so forth is equally right with the child who stands under the tree and says the apple fell because he wanted to eat it and prayed for it.
Given all of these serious asides, I was also not expecting this book to be quite so funny. At the risk of boring the reader with citations, take this sarcastic remark about the ineptness of medicine men:
After his liberation, [Pierre] fell ill and was laid up for three months. He had what the doctors termed 'bilious fever.' But despite the fact that the doctors treated him, bled him and gave him medicines to drink he recovered.
There is actually a multitude of remarks that are not entirely complimentary towards Russian medical practice, but they are usually deployed with an eye to the human element involved rather than simply to the detriment of a doctor's reputation "How would the count have borne his dearly loved daughter s illness had he not known that it was costing him a thousand rubles?" Other elements of note include some stunning set literary pieces, such as when Prince Andrei encounters a gnarly oak tree under two different circumstances in his life, and when Nat sha's 'Russian' soul is awakened by the strains of a folk song on the balalaika. Still, despite all of these micro- and macro-level happenings, for a long time I felt that something else was going on in War and Peace. It was difficult to put into words precisely what it was until I came across this passage by E. M. Forster:
After one has read War and Peace for a bit, great chords begin to sound, and we cannot say exactly what struck them. They do not arise from the story [and] they do not come from the episodes nor yet from the characters. They come from the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, from the sum-total of bridges and frozen rivers, forests, roads, gardens and fields, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them. Many novelists have the feeling for place, [but] very few have the sense of space, and the possession of it ranks high in Tolstoy s divine equipment. Space is the lord of War and Peace, not time.
'Space' indeed. Yes, potential readers should note the novel's great length, but the 365 chapters are actually remarkably short, so the sensation of reading it is not in the least overwhelming. And more importantly, once you become familiar with its large cast of characters, it is really not a difficult book to follow, especially when compared to the other Russian classics. My only regret is that it has taken me so long to read this magnificent novel and that I might find it hard to find time to re-read it within the next few years.

Coming Up for Air (1939) George Orwell It wouldn't be a roundup of mine without at least one entry from George Orwell, and, this year, that place is occupied by a book I hadn't haven't read in almost two decades Still, the George Bowling of Coming Up for Air is a middle-aged insurance salesman who lives in a distinctly average English suburban row house with his nuclear family. One day, after winning some money on a bet, he goes back to the village where he grew up in order to fish in a pool he remembers from thirty years before. Less important than the plot, however, is both the well-observed remarks and scathing criticisms that Bowling has of the town he has returned to, combined with an ominous sense of foreboding before the Second World War breaks out. At several times throughout the book, George's placid thoughts about his beloved carp pool are replaced by racing, anxious thoughts that overwhelm his inner peace:
War is coming. In 1941, they say. And there'll be plenty of broken crockery, and little houses ripped open like packing-cases, and the guts of the chartered accountant's clerk plastered over the piano that he's buying on the never-never. But what does that kind of thing matter, anyway? I'll tell you what my stay in Lower Binfield had taught me, and it was this. IT'S ALL GOING TO HAPPEN. All the things you've got at the back of your mind, the things you're terrified of, the things that you tell yourself are just a nightmare or only happen in foreign countries. The bombs, the food-queues, the rubber truncheons, the barbed wire, the coloured shirts, the slogans, the enormous faces, the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. It's all going to happen. I know it - at any rate, I knew it then. There's no escape. Fight against it if you like, or look the other way and pretend not to notice, or grab your spanner and rush out to do a bit of face-smashing along with the others. But there's no way out. It's just something that's got to happen.
Already we can hear psychological madness that underpinned the Second World War. Indeed, there is no great story in Coming Up For Air, no wonderfully empathetic characters and no revelations or catharsis, so it is impressive that I was held by the descriptions, observations and nostalgic remembrances about life in modern Lower Binfield, its residents, and how it has changed over the years. It turns out, of course, that George's beloved pool has been filled in with rubbish, and the village has been perverted by modernity beyond recognition. And to cap it off, the principal event of George's holiday in Lower Binfield is an accidental bombing by the British Royal Air Force. Orwell is always good at descriptions of awful food, and this book is no exception:
The frankfurter had a rubber skin, of course, and my temporary teeth weren't much of a fit. I had to do a kind of sawing movement before I could get my teeth through the skin. And then suddenly pop! The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste! For a moment I just couldn't believe it. Then I rolled my tongue around it again and had another try. It was fish! A sausage, a thing calling itself a frankfurter, filled with fish! I got up and walked straight out without touching my coffee. God knows what that might have tasted of.
Many other tell-tale elements of Orwell's fictional writing are in attendance in this book as well, albeit worked out somewhat less successfully than elsewhere in his oeuvre. For example, the idea of a physical ailment also serving as a metaphor is present in George's false teeth, embodying his constant preoccupation with his ageing. (Readers may recall Winston Smith's varicose ulcer representing his repressed humanity in Nineteen Eighty-Four). And, of course, we have a prematurely middle-aged protagonist who almost but not quite resembles Orwell himself. Given this and a few other niggles (such as almost all the women being of the typical Orwell 'nagging wife' type), it is not exactly Orwell's magnum opus. But it remains a fascinating historical snapshot of the feeling felt by a vast number of people just prior to the Second World War breaking out, as well as a captivating insight into how the process of nostalgia functions and operates.

Howards End (1910) E. M. Forster Howards End begins with the following sentence:
One may as well begin with Helen s letters to her sister.
In fact, "one may as well begin with" my own assumptions about this book instead. I was actually primed to consider Howards End a much more 'Victorian' book: I had just finished Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and had found her 1925 book at once rather 'modern' but also very much constrained by its time. I must have then unconsciously surmised that a book written 15 years before would be even more inscrutable, and, with its Victorian social mores added on as well, Howards End would probably not undress itself so readily in front of the reader. No doubt there were also the usual expectations about 'the classics' as well. So imagine my surprise when I realised just how inordinately affable and witty Howards End turned out to be. It doesn't have that Wildean shine of humour, of course, but it's a couple of fields over in the English countryside, perhaps abutting the more mordant social satires of the earlier George Orwell novels (see Coming Up for Air above). But now let us return to the story itself. Howards End explores class warfare, conflict and the English character through a tale of three quite different families at the beginning of the twentieth century: the rich Wilcoxes; the gentle & idealistic Schlegels; and the lower-middle class Basts. As the Bloomsbury Group Schlegel sisters desperately try to help the Basts and educate the rich but close-minded Wilcoxes, the three families are drawn ever closer and closer together. Although the whole story does, I suppose, revolve around the house in the title (which is based on the Forster's own childhood home), Howards End is perhaps best described as a comedy of manners or a novel that shows up the hypocrisy of people and society. In fact, it is surprising how little of the story actually takes place in the eponymous house, with the overwhelming majority of the first half of the book taking place in London. But it is perhaps more illuminating to remark that the Howards End of the book is a house that the Wilcoxes who own it at the start of the novel do not really need or want. What I particularly liked about Howards End is how the main character's ideals alter as they age, and subsequently how they find their lives changing in different ways. Some of them find themselves better off at the end, others worse. And whilst it is also surprisingly funny, it still manages to trade in heavier social topics as well. This is apparent in the fact that, although the characters themselves are primarily in charge of their own destinies, their choices are still constrained by the changing world and shifting sense of morality around them. This shouldn't be too surprising: after all, Forster's novel was published just four years before the Great War, a distinctly uncertain time. Not for nothing did Virginia Woolf herself later observe that "on or about December 1910, human character changed" and that "all human relations have shifted: those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children." This process can undoubtedly be seen rehearsed throughout Forster's Howards End, and it's a credit to the author to be able to capture it so early on, if not even before it was widespread throughout Western Europe. I was also particularly taken by Forster's fertile use of simile. An extremely apposite example can be found in the description Tibby Schlegel gives of his fellow Cambridge undergraduates. Here, Timmy doesn't want to besmirch his lofty idealisation of them with any banal specificities, and wishes that the idea of them remain as ideal Platonic forms instead. Or, as Forster puts it, to Timmy it is if they are "pictures that must not walk out of their frames." Wilde, at his most weakest, is 'just' style, but Forster often deploys his flair for a deeper effect. Indeed, when you get to the end of this section mentioning picture frames, you realise Forster has actually just smuggled into the story a failed attempt on Tibby's part to engineer an anonymous homosexual encounter with another undergraduate. It is a credit to Forster's sleight-of-hand that you don't quite notice what has just happened underneath you and that the books' reticence to honestly describe what has happened is thus structually analogus Tibby's reluctance to admit his desires to himself. Another layer to the character of Tibby (and the novel as a whole) is thereby introduced without the imposition of clumsy literary scaffolding. In a similar vein, I felt very clever noticing the arch reference to Debussy's Pr lude l'apr s-midi d'un faune until I realised I just fell into the trap Forster set for the reader in that I had become even more like Tibby in his pseudo-scholarly views on classical music. Finally, I enjoyed that each chapter commences with an ironic and self-conscious bon mot about society which is only slightly overblown for effect. Particularly amusing are the ironic asides on "women" that run through the book, ventriloquising the narrow-minded views of people like the Wilcoxes. The omniscient and amiable narrator of the book also recalls those ironically distant voiceovers from various French New Wave films at times, yet Forster's narrator seems to have bigger concerns in his mordant asides: Forster seems to encourage some sympathy for all of the characters even the more contemptible ones at their worst moments. Highly recommended, as are Forster's A Room with a View (1908) and his slightly later A Passage to India (1913).

The Good Soldier (1915) Ford Madox Ford The Good Soldier starts off fairly simply as the narrator's account of his and his wife's relationship with some old friends, including the eponymous 'Good Soldier' of the book's title. It's an experience to read the beginning of this novel, as, like any account of endless praise of someone you've never met or care about, the pages of approving remarks about them appear to be intended to wash over you. Yet as the chapters of The Good Soldier go by, the account of the other characters in the book gets darker and darker. Although the author himself is uncritical of others' actions, your own critical faculties are slowgrly brought into play, and you gradully begin to question the narrator's retelling of events. Our narrator is an unreliable narrator in the strict sense of the term, but with the caveat that he is at least is telling us everything we need to know to come to our own conclusions. As the book unfolds further, the narrator's compromised credibility seems to infuse every element of the novel even the 'Good' of the book's title starts to seem like a minor dishonesty, perhaps serving as the inspiration for the irony embedded in the title of The 'Great' Gatsby. Much more effectively, however, the narrator's fixations, distractions and manner of speaking feel very much part of his dissimulation. It sometimes feels like he is unconsciously skirting over the crucial elements in his tale, exactly like one does in real life when recounting a story containing incriminating ingredients. Indeed, just how much the narrator is conscious of his own concealment is just one part of what makes this such an interesting book: Ford Madox Ford has gifted us with enough ambiguity that it is also possible that even the narrator cannot find it within himself to understand the events of the story he is narrating. It was initially hard to believe that such a carefully crafted analysis of a small group of characters could have been written so long ago, and despite being fairly easy to read, The Good Soldier is an almost infinitely subtle book even the jokes are of the subtle kind and will likely get a re-read within the next few years.

Anna Karenina (1878) Leo Tolstoy There are many similar themes running through War and Peace (reviewed above) and Anna Karenina. Unrequited love; a young man struggling to find a purpose in life; a loving family; an overwhelming love of nature and countless fascinating observations about the minuti of Russian society. Indeed, rather than primarily being about the eponymous Anna, Anna Karenina provides a vast panorama of contemporary life in Russia and of humanity in general. Nevertheless, our Anna is a sophisticated woman who abandons her empty existence as the wife of government official Alexei Karenin, a colourless man who has little personality of his own, and she turns to a certain Count Vronsky in order to fulfil her passionate nature. Needless to say, this results in tragic consequences as their (admittedly somewhat qualified) desire to live together crashes against the rocks of reality and Russian society. Parallel to Anna's narrative, though, Konstantin Levin serves as the novel's alter-protagonist. In contrast to Anna, Levin is a socially awkward individual who straddles many schools of thought within Russia at the time: he is neither a free-thinker (nor heavy-drinker) like his brother Nikolai, and neither is he a bookish intellectual like his half-brother Serge. In short, Levin is his own man, and it is generally agreed by commentators that he is Tolstoy's surrogate within the novel. Levin tends to come to his own version of an idea, and he would rather find his own way than adopt any prefabricated view, even if confusion and muddle is the eventual result. In a roughly isomorphic fashion then, he resembles Anna in this particular sense, whose story is a counterpart to Levin's in their respective searches for happiness and self-actualisation. Whilst many of the passionate and exciting passages are told on Anna's side of the story (I'm thinking horse race in particular, as thrilling as anything in cinema ), many of the broader political thoughts about the nature of the working classes are expressed on Levin's side instead. These are stirring and engaging in their own way, though, such as when he joins his peasants to mow the field and seems to enter the nineteenth-century version of 'flow':
The longer Levin mowed, the more often he felt those moments of oblivion during which it was no longer his arms that swung the scythe, but the scythe itself that lent motion to his whole body, full of life and conscious of itself, and, as if by magic, without a thought of it, the work got rightly and neatly done on its own. These were the most blissful moments.
Overall, Tolstoy poses no didactic moral message towards any of the characters in Anna Karenina, and merely invites us to watch rather than judge. (Still, there is a hilarious section that is scathing of contemporary classical music, presaging many of the ideas found in Tolstoy's 1897 What is Art?). In addition, just like the earlier War and Peace, the novel is run through with a number of uncannily accurate observations about daily life:
Anna smiled, as one smiles at the weaknesses of people one loves, and, putting her arm under his, accompanied him to the door of the study.
... as well as the usual sprinkling of Tolstoy's sardonic humour ("No one is pleased with his fortune, but everyone is pleased with his wit."). Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the other titan of Russian literature, once described Anna Karenina as a "flawless work of art," and if you re only going to read one Tolstoy novel in your life, it should probably be this one.

26 December 2022

Vincent Bernat: Managing infrastructure with Terraform, CDKTF, and NixOS

A few years ago, I downsized my personal infrastructure. Until 2018, there were a dozen containers running on a single Hetzner server.1 I migrated my emails to Fastmail and my DNS zones to Gandi. It left me with only my blog to self-host. As of today, my low-scale infrastructure is composed of 4 virtual machines running NixOS on Hetzner Cloud and Vultr, a handful of DNS zones on Gandi and Route 53, and a couple of Cloudfront distributions. It is managed by CDK for Terraform (CDKTF), while NixOS deployments are handled by NixOps. In this article, I provide a brief introduction to Terraform, CDKTF, and the Nix ecosystem. I also explain how to use Nix to access these tools within your shell, so you can quickly start using them.

CDKTF: infrastructure as code Terraform is an infrastructure-as-code tool. You can define your infrastructure by declaring resources with the HCL language. This language has some additional features like loops to declare several resources from a list, built-in functions you can call in expressions, and string templates. Terraform relies on a large set of providers to manage resources.

Managing servers Here is a short example using the Hetzner Cloud provider to spawn a virtual machine:
variable "hcloud_token"  
  sensitive = true
 
provider "hcloud"  
  token = var.hcloud_token
 
resource "hcloud_server" "web03"  
  name = "web03"
  server_type = "cpx11"
  image = "debian-11"
  datacenter = "nbg1-dc3"
 
resource "hcloud_rdns" "rdns4-web03"  
  server_id = hcloud_server.web03.id
  ip_address = hcloud_server.web03.ipv4_address
  dns_ptr = "web03.luffy.cx"
 
resource "hcloud_rdns" "rdns6-web03"  
  server_id = hcloud_server.web03.id
  ip_address = hcloud_server.web03.ipv6_address
  dns_ptr = "web03.luffy.cx"
 
HCL expressiveness is quite limited and I find a general-purpose language more convenient to describe all the resources. This is where CDK for Terraform comes in: you can manage your infrastructure using your preferred programming language, including TypeScript, Go, and Python. Here is the previous example using CDKTF and TypeScript:
import   App, TerraformStack, Fn   from "cdktf";
import   HcloudProvider   from "./.gen/providers/hcloud/provider";
import * as hcloud from "./.gen/providers/hcloud";
class MyStack extends TerraformStack  
  constructor(scope: Construct, name: string)  
    super(scope, name);
    const hcloudToken = new TerraformVariable(this, "hcloudToken",  
      type: "string",
      sensitive: true,
     );
    const hcloudProvider = new HcloudProvider(this, "hcloud",  
      token: hcloudToken.value,
     );
    const web03 = new hcloud.server.Server(this, "web03",  
      name: "web03",
      serverType: "cpx11",
      image: "debian-11",
      datacenter: "nbg1-dc3",
      provider: hcloudProvider,
     );
    new hcloud.rdns.Rdns(this, "rdns4-web03",  
      serverId: Fn.tonumber(web03.id),
      ipAddress: web03.ipv4Address,
      dnsPtr: "web03.luffy.cx",
      provider: hcloudProvider,
     );
    new hcloud.rdns.Rdns(this, "rdns6-web03",  
      serverId: Fn.tonumber(web03.id),
      ipAddress: web03.ipv6Address,
      dnsPtr: "web03.luffy.cx",
      provider: hcloudProvider,
     );
   
 
const app = new App();
new MyStack(app, "cdktf-take1");
app.synth();
Running cdktf synth generates a configuration file for Terraform, terraform plan previews the changes, and terraform apply applies them. Now that you have a general-purpose language, you can use functions.

Managing DNS records While using CDKTF for 4 web servers may seem a tad overkill, this is quite different when it comes to managing a few DNS zones. With DNSControl, which is using JavaScript as a domain-specific language, I was able to define the bernat.ch zone with this snippet of code:
D("bernat.ch", REG_NONE, DnsProvider(DNS_BIND, 0), DnsProvider(DNS_GANDI),
  DefaultTTL('2h'),
  FastMailMX('bernat.ch',  subdomains: ['vincent'] ),
  WebServers('@'),
  WebServers('vincent');
This generated 38 records. With CDKTF, I use:
new Route53Zone(this, "bernat.ch", providers.aws)
  .sign(dnsCMK)
  .registrar(providers.gandiVB)
  .www("@", servers)
  .www("vincent", servers)
  .www("media", servers)
  .fastmailMX(["vincent"]);
All the magic is in the code that I did not show you. You can check the dns.ts file in the cdktf-take1 repository to see how it works. Here is a quick explanation:
  • Route53Zone() creates a new zone hosted by Route 53,
  • sign() signs the zone with the provided master key,
  • registrar() registers the zone to the registrar of the domain and sets up DNSSEC,
  • www() creates A and AAAA records for the provided name pointing to the web servers,
  • fastmailMX() creates the MX records and other support records to direct emails to Fastmail.
Here is the content of the fastmailMX() function. It generates a few records and returns the current zone for chaining:
fastmailMX(subdomains?: string[])  
  (subdomains ?? [])
    .concat(["@", "*"])
    .forEach((subdomain) =>
      this.MX(subdomain, [
        "10 in1-smtp.messagingengine.com.",
        "20 in2-smtp.messagingengine.com.",
      ])
    );
  this.TXT("@", "v=spf1 include:spf.messagingengine.com ~all");
  ["mesmtp", "fm1", "fm2", "fm3"].forEach((dk) =>
    this.CNAME( $ dk ._domainkey ,  $ dk .$ this.name .dkim.fmhosted.com. )
  );
  this.TXT("_dmarc", "v=DMARC1; p=none; sp=none");
  return this;
 
I encourage you to browse the repository if you need more information.

About Pulumi My first tentative around Terraform was to use Pulumi. You can find this attempt on GitHub. This is quite similar to what I currently do with CDKTF. The main difference is that I am using Python instead of TypeScript because I was not familiar with TypeScript at the time.2 Pulumi predates CDKTF and it uses a slightly different approach. CDKTF generates a Terraform configuration (in JSON format instead of HCL), delegating planning, state management, and deployment to Terraform. It is therefore bound to the limitations of what can be expressed by Terraform, notably when you need to transform data obtained from one resource to another.3 Pulumi needs specific providers for each resource. Many Pulumi providers are thin wrappers encapsulating Terraform providers. While Pulumi provides a good user experience, I switched to CDKTF because writing providers for Pulumi is a chore. CDKTF does not require such a step. Outside the big players (AWS, Azure and Google Cloud), the existence, quality, and freshness of the Pulumi providers are inconsistent. Most providers rely on a Terraform provider and they may lag a few versions behind, miss a few resources, or have a few bugs of their own. When a provider does not exist, you can write one with the help of the pulumi-terraform-bridge library. The Pulumi project provides a boilerplate for this purpose. I had a bad experience with it when writing providers for Gandi and Vultr: the Makefile automatically installs Pulumi using a curl sh pattern and does not work with /bin/sh. There is a lack of interest for community-based contributions4 or even for providers for smaller players.

NixOS & NixOps Nix is a functional, purely-functional programming language. Nix is also the name of the package manager that is built on top of the Nix language. It allows users to declaratively install packages. nixpkgs is a repository of packages. You can install Nix on top of a regular Linux distribution. If you want more details, a good resource is the official website, and notably the learn section. There is a steep learning curve, but the reward is tremendous.

NixOS: declarative Linux distribution NixOS is a Linux distribution built on top of the Nix package manager. Here is a configuration snippet to add some packages:
environment.systemPackages = with pkgs;
  [
    bat
    htop
    liboping
    mg
    mtr
    ncdu
    tmux
  ];
It is possible to alter an existing derivation5 to use a different version, enable a specific feature, or apply a patch. Here is how I enable and configure Nginx to disable the stream module, add the Brotli compression module, and add the IP address anonymizer module. Moreover, instead of using OpenSSL 3, I keep using OpenSSL 1.1.6
services.nginx =  
  enable = true;
  package = (pkgs.nginxStable.override  
    withStream = false;
    modules = with pkgs.nginxModules; [
      brotli
      ipscrub
    ];
    openssl = pkgs.openssl_1_1;
   );
If you need to add some patches, it is also possible. Here are the patches I added in 2019 to circumvent the DoS vulnerabilities in Nginx until they were fixed in NixOS:7
services.nginx.package = pkgs.nginxStable.overrideAttrs (old:  
  patches = oldAttrs.patches ++ [
    # HTTP/2: reject zero length headers with PROTOCOL_ERROR.
    (pkgs.fetchpatch  
      url = https://github.com/nginx/nginx/commit/dbdd[ ].patch;
      sha256 = "a48190[ ]";
     )
    # HTTP/2: limited number of DATA frames.
    (pkgs.fetchpatch  
      url = https://github.com/nginx/nginx/commit/94c5[ ].patch;
      sha256 = "af591a[ ]";
     )
    #  HTTP/2: limited number of PRIORITY frames.
    (pkgs.fetchpatch  
      url = https://github.com/nginx/nginx/commit/39bb[ ].patch;
      sha256 = "1ad8fe[ ]";
     )
  ];
 );
If you are interested, have a look at my relatively small configuration: common.nix contains the configuration to be applied to any host (SSH, users, common software packages), web.nix contains the configuration for the web servers, isso.nix runs Isso into a systemd container.

NixOps: NixOS deployment tool On a single node, NixOS configuration is in the /etc/nixos/configuration.nix file. After modifying it, you have to run nixos-rebuild switch. Nix fetches all possible dependencies from the binary cache and builds the remaining packages. It creates a new entry in the boot loader menu and activates the new configuration. To manage several nodes, there exists several options, including NixOps, deploy-rs, Colmena, and morph. I do not know all of them, but from my point of view, the differences are not that important. It is also possible to build such a tool yourself as Nix provides the most important building blocks: nix build and nix copy. NixOps is one of the first tools available but I encourage you to explore the alternatives. NixOps configuration is written in Nix. Here is a simplified configuration to deploy znc01.luffy.cx, web01.luffy.cx, and web02.luffy.cx, with the help of the server and web functions:
let
  server = hardware: name: imports:  
    deployment.targetHost = "$ name .luffy.cx";
    networking.hostName = name;
    networking.domain = "luffy.cx";
    imports = [ (./hardware/. + "/$ hardware .nix") ] ++ imports;
   ;
  web = hardware: idx: imports:
    server hardware "web$ lib.fixedWidthNumber 2 idx " ([ ./web.nix ] ++ imports);
in  
  network.description = "Luffy infrastructure";
  network.enableRollback = true;
  defaults = import ./common.nix;
  znc01 = server "exoscale" [ ./znc.nix ];
  web01 = web "hetzner" 1 [ ./isso.nix ];
  web02 = web "hetzner" 2 [];
 

Tying everything together with Nix The Nix ecosystem is a unified solution to the various problems around software and configuration management. A very interesting feature is the declarative and reproducible developer environments. This is similar to Python virtual environments, except it is not language-specific.

Brief introduction to Nix flakes I am using flakes, a new Nix feature improving reproducibility by pinning all dependencies and making the build hermetic. While the feature is marked as experimental,8 it is widely used and you may see flake.nix and flake.lock at the root of some repositories. As a short example, here is the flake.nix content shipped with Snimpy, an interactive SNMP tool for Python relying on libsmi, a C library:
 
  inputs =  
    nixpkgs.url = "nixpkgs";
    flake-utils.url = "github:numtide/flake-utils";
   ;
  outputs =   self, ...  @inputs:
    inputs.flake-utils.lib.eachDefaultSystem (system:
      let
        pkgs = inputs.nixpkgs.legacyPackages."$ system ";
      in
       
        # nix build
        packages.default = pkgs.python3Packages.buildPythonPackage  
          name = "snimpy";
          src = self;
          preConfigure = ''echo "1.0.0-0-000000000000" > version.txt'';
          checkPhase = "pytest";
          checkInputs = with pkgs.python3Packages; [ pytest mock coverage ];
          propagatedBuildInputs = with pkgs.python3Packages; [ cffi pysnmp ipython ];
          buildInputs = [ pkgs.libsmi ];
         ;
        # nix run + nix shell
        apps.default =   
          type = "app";
          program = "$ self.packages."$ system ".default /bin/snimpy";
         ;
        # nix develop
        devShells.default = pkgs.mkShell  
          name = "snimpy-dev";
          buildInputs = [
            self.packages."$ system ".default.inputDerivation
            pkgs.python3Packages.ipython
          ];
         ;
       );
 
If you have Nix installed on your system:
  • nix run github:vincentbernat/snimpy runs Snimpy,
  • nix shell github:vincentbernat/snimpy provides a shell with Snimpy ready-to-use,
  • nix build github:vincentbernat/snimpy builds the Python package, tests included, and
  • nix develop . provides a shell to hack around Snimpy when run from a fresh checkout.9
For more information about Nix flakes, have a look at the tutorial from Tweag.

Nix and CDKTF At the root of the repository I use for CDKTF, there is a flake.nix file to set up a shell with Terraform and CDKTF installed and with the appropriate environment variables to automate my infrastructure. Terraform is already packaged in nixpkgs. However, I need to apply a patch on top of the Gandi provider. Not a problem with Nix!
terraform = pkgs.terraform.withPlugins (p: [
  p.aws
  p.hcloud
  p.vultr
  (p.gandi.overrideAttrs
    (old:  
      src = pkgs.fetchFromGitHub  
        owner = "vincentbernat";
        repo = "terraform-provider-gandi";
        rev = "feature/livedns-key";
        hash = "sha256-V16BIjo5/rloQ1xTQrdd0snoq1OPuDh3fQNW7kiv/kQ=";
       ;
     ))
]);
CDKTF is written in TypeScript. I have a package.json file with all the dependencies needed, including the ones to use TypeScript as the language to define infrastructure:
 
  "name": "cdktf-take1",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "main": "main.js",
  "types": "main.ts",
  "private": true,
  "dependencies":  
    "@types/node": "^14.18.30",
    "cdktf": "^0.13.3",
    "cdktf-cli": "^0.13.3",
    "constructs": "^10.1.151",
    "eslint": "^8.27.0",
    "prettier": "^2.7.1",
    "ts-node": "^10.9.1",
    "typescript": "^3.9.10",
    "typescript-language-server": "^2.1.0"
   
 
I use Yarn to get a yarn.lock file that can be used directly to declare a derivation containing all the dependencies:
nodeEnv = pkgs.mkYarnModules  
  pname = "cdktf-take1-js-modules";
  version = "1.0.0";
  packageJSON = ./package.json;
  yarnLock = ./yarn.lock;
 ;
The next step is to generate the CDKTF providers from the Terraform providers and turn them into a derivation:
cdktfProviders = pkgs.stdenvNoCC.mkDerivation  
  name = "cdktf-providers";
  nativeBuildInputs = [
    pkgs.nodejs
    terraform
  ];
  src = nix-filter  
    root = ./.;
    include = [ ./cdktf.json ./tsconfig.json ];
   ;
  buildPhase = ''
    export HOME=$(mktemp -d)
    export CHECKPOINT_DISABLE=1
    export DISABLE_VERSION_CHECK=1
    export PATH=$ nodeEnv /node_modules/.bin:$PATH
    ln -nsf $ nodeEnv /node_modules node_modules
    # Build all providers we have in terraform
    for provider in $(cd $ terraform /libexec/terraform-providers; echo */*/*/*); do
      version=''$ provider##*/ 
      provider=''$ provider%/* 
      echo "Build $provider@$version"
      cdktf provider add --force-local $provider@$version   cat
    done
    echo "Compile TS   JS"
    tsc
  '';
  installPhase = ''
    mv .gen $out
    ln -nsf $ nodeEnv /node_modules $out/node_modules
  '';
 ;
Finally, we can define the development environment:
devShells.default = pkgs.mkShell  
  name = "cdktf-take1";
  buildInputs = [
    pkgs.nodejs
    pkgs.yarn
    terraform
  ];
  shellHook = ''
    # No telemetry
    export CHECKPOINT_DISABLE=1
    # No autoinstall of plugins
    export CDKTF_DISABLE_PLUGIN_CACHE_ENV=1
    # Do not check version
    export DISABLE_VERSION_CHECK=1
    # Access to node modules
    export PATH=$PWD/node_modules/.bin:$PATH
    ln -nsf $ nodeEnv /node_modules node_modules
    ln -nsf $ cdktfProviders  .gen
    # Credentials
    for p in \
      njf.nznmba.pbz/Nqzvavfgengbe \
      urgmare.pbz/ivaprag@oreang.pu \
      ihyge.pbz/ihyge@ivaprag.oreang.pu; do
        eval $(pass show $(echo $p   tr 'A-Za-z' 'N-ZA-Mn-za-m')   grep '^export')
    done
    eval $(pass show personal/cdktf/secrets   grep '^export')
    export TF_VAR_hcloudToken="$HCLOUD_TOKEN"
    export TF_VAR_vultrApiKey="$VULTR_API_KEY"
    unset VULTR_API_KEY HCLOUD_TOKEN
  '';
 ;
The derivations listed in buildInputs are available in the provided shell. The content of shellHook is sourced when starting the shell. It sets up some symbolic links to make the JavaScript environment built at an earlier step available, as well as the generated CDKTF providers. It also exports all the credentials.10 I am also using direnv with an .envrc to automatically load the development environment. This also enables the environment to be available from inside Emacs, notably when using lsp-mode to get TypeScript completions. Without direnv, nix develop . can activate the environment. I use the following commands to deploy the infrastructure:11
$ cdktf synth
$ cd cdktf.out/stacks/cdktf-take1
$ terraform plan --out plan
$ terraform apply plan
$ terraform output -json > ~-automation/nixops-take1/cdktf.json
The last command generates a JSON file containing various data to complete the deployment with NixOps.

NixOps The JSON file exported by Terraform contains the list of servers with various attributes:
 
  "hardware": "hetzner",
  "ipv4Address": "5.161.44.145",
  "ipv6Address": "2a01:4ff:f0:b91::1",
  "name": "web05.luffy.cx",
  "tags": [
    "web",
    "continent:NA",
    "continent:SA"
  ]
 
In network.nix, this list is imported and transformed into an attribute set describing the servers. A simplified version looks like this:
let
  lib = inputs.nixpkgs.lib;
  shortName = name: builtins.elemAt (lib.splitString "." name) 0;
  domainName = name: lib.concatStringsSep "." (builtins.tail (lib.splitString "." name));
  server = hardware: name: imports:  
    networking =  
      hostName = shortName name;
      domain = domainName name;
     ;
    deployment.targetHost = name;
    imports = [ (./hardware/. + "/$ hardware .nix") ] ++ imports;
   ;
  cdktf-servers-json = (lib.importJSON ./cdktf.json).servers.value;
  cdktf-servers = map
    (s:
      let
        tags-maybe-import = map (t: ./. + "/$ t .nix") s.tags;
        tags-import = builtins.filter (t: builtins.pathExists t) tags-maybe-import;
      in
       
        name = shortName s.name;
        value = server s.hardware s.name tags-import;
       )
    cdktf-servers-json;
in
 
  // [ ]
  // builtins.listToAttrs cdktf-servers
For web05, this expands to:
web05 =  
  networking =  
    hostName = "web05";
    domainName = "luffy.cx";
   ;
  deployment.targetHost = "web05.luffy.cx";
  imports = [ ./hardware/hetzner.nix ./web.nix ];
 ;
As for CDKTF, at the root of the repository I use for NixOps, there is a flake.nix file to set up a shell with NixOps configured. Because NixOps do not support rollouts, I usually use the following commands to deploy on a single server:12
$ nix flake update
$ nixops deploy --include=web04
$ ./tests web04.luffy.cx
If the tests are OK, I deploy the remaining nodes gradually with the following command:
$ (set -e; for h in web 03..06 ; do nixops deploy --include=$h; done)
nixops deploy rolls out all servers in parallel and therefore could cause a short outage where all Nginx are down at the same time.
This post has been a work-in-progress for the past three years, with the content being updated and refined as I experimented with different solutions. There is still much to explore13 but I feel there is enough content to publish now.

  1. It was an AMD Athlon 64 X2 5600+ with 2 GB of RAM and 2 400 GB disks with software RAID. I was paying something around 59 per month for it. While it was a good deal in 2008, by 2018 it was no longer cost-effective. It was running on Debian Wheezy with Linux-VServer for isolation, both of which were outdated in 2018.
  2. I also did not use Python because Poetry support in Nix was a bit broken around the time I started hacking around CDKTF.
  3. Pulumi can apply arbitrary functions with the apply() method on an output. It makes it easy to transform data that are not known during the planning stage. Terraform has functions to serve a similar purpose, but they are more limited.
  4. The two mentioned pull requests are not merged yet. The second one is superseded by PR #61, submitted two months later, which enforces the use of /bin/bash. I also submitted PR #56, which was merged 4 months later and quickly reverted without an explanation.
  5. You may consider packages and derivations to be synonyms in the Nix ecosystem.
  6. OpenSSL 3 has outstanding performance regressions.
  7. NixOS can be a bit slow to integrate patches since they need to rebuild parts of the binary cache before releasing the fixes. In this specific case, they were fast: the vulnerability and patches were released on August 13th 2019 and available in NixOS on August 15th. As a comparison, Debian only released the fixed version on August 22nd, which is unusually late.
  8. Because flakes are experimental, many documentations do not use them and it is an additional aspect to learn.
  9. It is possible to replace . with github:vincentbernat/snimpy, like in the other commands, but having Snimpy dependencies without Snimpy source code is less interesting.
  10. I am using pass as a password manager. The password names are only obfuscated to avoid spam.
  11. The cdktf command can wrap the terraform commands, but I prefer to use them directly as they are more flexible.
  12. If the change is risky, I disable the server with CDKTF. This removes it from the web service DNS records.
  13. I would like to replace NixOps with an alternative handling progressive rollouts and checks. I am also considering switching to Nomad or Kubernetes to deploy workloads.

19 December 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Artifact Space

Review: Artifact Space, by Miles Cameron
Series: Arcana Imperii #1
Publisher: Gollancz
Copyright: June 2021
ISBN: 1-4732-3262-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 483
Artifact Space is a military (mostly) science fiction novel, the first of an expected trilogy. Christian Cameron is a prolific author of historical fiction under that name, thrillers under the name Gordon Kent, and historical fantasy under the name Miles Cameron. This is his first science fiction novel. Marca Nbaro is descended from one of the great spacefaring mercantile families, but it's not doing her much good. She is a ward of the Orphanage, the boarding school for orphaned children of the DHC, generous in theory and a hellhole in practice. Her dream to serve on one of the Greatships, the enormous interstellar vessels that form the backbone of the human trading network, has been blocked by the school authorities, a consequence of the low-grade war she's been fighting with them throughout her teenage years. But Marca is not a person to take no for an answer. Pawning her family crest gets her just enough money to hire a hacker to doctor her school records, adding the graduation she was denied and getting her aboard the Greatship Athens as a new Midshipper. I don't read a lot of military science fiction, but there is one type of story that I love that military SF is uniquely well-suited to tell. It's not the combat or the tactics or the often-trite politics. It's the experience of the military as a system, a collective human endeavor. One ideal of the military is that people come to it from all sorts of backgrounds, races, and social classes, and the military incorporates them all into a system built for a purpose. It doesn't matter who you are or what you did before: if you follow the rules, do your job, and become part of a collaboration larger than yourself, you have a place and people to watch your back whether or not they know you or like you. Obviously, like any ideal, many militaries don't live up to this, and there are many stories about those failures. But the story of that ideal, told well, is a genre I like a great deal and is hard to find elsewhere. This sort of military story shares some features with found family, and it's not a coincidence that I also like found family stories. But found family still assumes that these people love you, or at least like you. For some protagonists, that's a tricky barrier both to cross and to believe one has crossed. The (admittedly idealized) military doesn't assume anyone likes you. It doesn't expect that you or anyone around you have the right feelings. It just expects you to do your job and work with other people who are doing their job. The requirements are more concrete, and thus in a way easier to believe in. Artifact Space is one of those military science fiction stories. I was entirely unsurprised to see that the author is a former US Navy career officer. The Greatships here are, technically, more of a merchant marine than a full-blown military. (The author noted in an interview that he based them on the merchant ships of Venice.) The weapons are used primarily for defense; the purpose of the Greatships is trade, and every crew member has a storage allotment in the immense cargo area that they're encouraged to use. The setting is in the far future, after a partial collapse and reconstruction of human society, in which humans have spread through interstellar space, settled habitable planets, and built immense orbital cities. The Athens is trading between multiple human settlements, but its true destination is far into the deep black: Tradepoint, where it can trade with the mysterious alien Starfish for xenoglas, a material that humans have tried and failed to reproduce and on which much of human construction now depends. This is, to warn, one of those stories where the scrappy underdog of noble birth makes friends with everyone and is far more competent than anyone expects. The story shape is not going to surprise you, and you have to have considerable tolerance for it to enjoy this book. Marca is ridiculously, absurdly central to the plot for a new Middie. Sometimes this makes sense given her history; other times, she is in the middle of improbable accidents that felt forced by the author. Cameron doesn't entirely break normal career progression, but Marca is very special in a way that you only get to be as the protagonist of a novel. That said, Cameron does some things with that story shape that I liked. Marca's hard-won survival skills are not weirdly well-suited for her new life aboard ship. To the contrary, she has to unlearn a lot of bad habits and let go of a lot of anxiety. I particularly liked her relationship with her more-privileged cabin mate, which at first seemed to only be a contrast between Thea's privilege and Marca's background, but turned into both of them learning from each other. There's a great mix of supporting characters, with a wide variety of interactions with Marca and a solid sense that all of the characters have their own lives and their own concerns that don't revolve around her. There is, of course, a plot to go with this. I haven't talked about it much because I think the summaries of this book are a bit of a spoiler, but there are several layers of political intrigue, threats to the ship, an interesting AI, and a good hook in the alien xenoglas trade. Cameron does a deft job balancing the plot with Marca's training and her slow-developing sense of place in the ship (and fear about discovery of her background and hacking). The pacing is excellent, showing all the skill I'd expect from someone with a thriller background and over forty prior novels under his belt. Cameron portrays the tedious work of learning a role on a ship without boring the reader, which is a tricky balancing act. I also like the setting: a richly multicultural future that felt like it included people from all of Earth, not just the white western parts. That includes a normalized androgyne third gender, which is the sort of thing you rarely see in military SF. Faster-than-light travel involves typical physics hand-waving, but the shape of the hand-waving is one I've not seen before and is a great excuse for copying the well-known property of oceangoing navies that longer ships can go faster. (One tech grumble, though: while Cameron does eventually say that this is a known tactic and Marca didn't come up with anything novel, deploying spread sensors for greater resolution is sufficiently obvious it should be standard procedure, and shouldn't have warranted the character reactions it got.) I thoroughly enjoyed this. Artifact Space is the best military SF that I've read in quite a while, at least back to John G. Hemry's JAG in space novels and probably better than those. It's going to strike some readers, with justification, as cliched, but the cliches are handled so well that I had only minor grumbling at a few absurd coincidences. Marca is a great character who is easy to care about. The plot was tense and satisfying, and the feeling of military structure, tradition, jargon, and ship pride was handled well. I had a very hard time putting this down and was sad when it ended. If you're in the mood for that class of "learning how to be part of a collaborative structure" style of military SF, recommended. Artifact Space reaches a somewhat satisfying conclusion, but leaves major plot elements unresolved. Followed by Deep Black, which doesn't have a release date at the time of this writing. Rating: 9 out of 10

18 December 2022

Russell Coker: Wall Facers

I m currently reading the second book of the TriSolar Sci-Fi series by Cixin Liu, I ve only just started it so this post can t have spoilers for it and I will also only have minimal spoilers for the first book (nothing more than you will get from pop culture references to it). In the second book there are people called Wall Facers who have broad powers to shape the course of the Human response to an alien invasion in 400+ years time. The idea is that as the aliens have an ability to see everything that can be seen on Earth any ideas that leave the brain of one person can be snooped on, so if some people act independently without communicating their plans they can take the aliens by surprise. While that is probably going to work out well in the books history in general seems to show that people who act independently without any useful feedback from others tend to perform poorly, every king and dictator seems to demonstrate this. Efficient Work I ve been thinking about what I would do if I had significant powers to guide the response to an alien threat in some hundreds of years. The first thing to do would be to get all people working as efficiently as possible. Without the imminent threat of alien invasion we can have debates about how much time to spend working vs leisure time. Should we make 24 hours per week the new normal work week? But if the threat of annihilation is looming then the discussion should be about how to get as many people as possible working as much as possible. Currently 1/4 of the world population lack access to safe drinking water [1], there s a plan to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030 . But 2030 isn t soon enough, another 8 years where 1/4 of children born won t reach their potential due to poor water is unacceptable. Currently 13% of the world population don t have access to electricity and 40% don t have access to clean fuels for cooking [2]. Lack of energy access reduces health and opportunities for education. Healthcare is another major obstacle to human development and therefore economic development. Even some allegedly first-world countries like the US lack universal affordable healthcare. I think we could reasonably get safe water to 99% of the world population before 2025 if we tried hard (IE applied a small fraction of the resources of a single war to it). Getting electricity to 95% of the world population and clean cooking fuels to 90% of the world population are probably achievable goals for 2025 as well. Healthcare is a slightly harder problem as we need to train more nurses and doctors. A registered nurse apparently needs 3 years of training after completing high school. We may have to improve high schools to get more students up to the standard of nursing degrees. If it takes 3 years to improve schools in year 9+ and then 3 years to get more high school graduates that would mean that it would take about 9 years to get an increase in nurses. Doing this would require increasing the capacity of universities and making university almost free (as it was for decades). So in about 2031 we could start sending a significant number of nurses from developed countries to help out developing countries. Becoming a doctor apparently requires 8 years of study plus a minimum of 3 years residency . So if doctors were entirely trained in first world countries then we wouldn t be able to send many doctors to developing countries until 2039. If the residency was performed in other countries then it could be as early as 2036. According to the WHO currently only half the world s population have adequate healthcare [3]. To get adequate healthcare to the world we need to more than double the number of doctors because currently we don t have enough in countries with decent healthcare systems such as Australia. It would probably take to at least 2060 to get enough doctors trained. The end goal of course would be to have every country able to train enough of it s citizens to provide all medical services, but countries that have serious widespread healthcare problems that reduce the number of people who can pursue higher education will have difficulty in that until some of the healthcare problems are alleviated. Education Obviously education is important to all achievements. Currently education seems very poorly run, it is possible to create a school system that teaches children effectively without the bullying that is common in Australia and without the sort of pressure that South Korea is infamous for. One of the main issues to resolve with the school system is the idea that everyone should learn at the same speed, that goal can only be achieved by making the majority of the students learn slowly. Students should be able to freely skip ahead as their skill permits and finish school at any age. Also high school isn t for everyone, the tech schools that teach trades need to be brought back. Deceiving Aliens A plot point in the TriSolar series is that the aliens can see each other s thoughts, the local communication (their equivalent to talking) is based on reading each other s thoughts without the possibility of deception. While deceptive written communication is potentially possible for them they haven t developed skills in that area. As a first step towards exploiting this humans could focus more on linguistic development that increases language complexity, such as the way the English language adopts words from other languages and gives them slightly different meanings for example the difference between driver and chauffeur and the difference between dog and hound is not obvious to many Europeans who otherwise speak English fluently. When involved in conversation it s possible to convey meaning without directly stating things, this is used extensively by people who are interested in security. My observations of this are based on conversations with people who do government work, but I imagine that criminal organisations also do similar things for similar reasons. An increased focus on poetry in schools might be helpful in developing skills for conveying ideas to people who think in human ways where the message is unclear to non-humans who have no experience of deception. I wonder whether the ability to understand human poetry would make aliens less hostile to humans, if they can think like us then they would be less likely to want to exterminate us. Poker is a game that depends on the ability to deceive others, I ve never been any good at it. I wonder if making it part of the school curriculum would help improve the overall human ability to deceive aliens. I don t think that such schools would become dens of sociopathy as depicted in Kakegurui, but it might have some negative results. Spreading education to a larger portion of the world s population requires more use of electronic education. Anything learned via text can be more easily assimilated by aliens than things that are learned directly from other people. For high school and the basics of a university degree this is fine. But for more advanced education it seems that having a large face to face component might help keep the value away from the aliens. More Ideas? What do you think I missed on this list? I wasn t trying to list every possibility, just the more important ones. Also for any goals other than increasing inequality for it s own sake we should improve health and education for the world.

15 December 2022

Reproducible Builds: Supporter spotlight: David A. Wheeler on supply chain security

The Reproducible Builds project relies on several projects, supporters and sponsors for financial support, but they are also valued as ambassadors who spread the word about our project and the work that we do. This is the sixth instalment in a series featuring the projects, companies and individuals who support the Reproducible Builds project. We started this series by featuring the Civil Infrastructure Platform project and followed this up with a post about the Ford Foundation as well as a recent ones about ARDC, the Google Open Source Security Team (GOSST), Jan Nieuwenhuizen on Bootstrappable Builds, GNU Mes and GNU Guix and Hans-Christoph Steiner of the F-Droid project. Today, however, we will be talking with David A. Wheeler, the Director of Open Source Supply Chain Security at the Linux Foundation.

Holger Levsen: Welcome, David, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. First, could you briefly tell me about yourself? David: Sure! I m David A. Wheeler and I work for the Linux Foundation as the Director of Open Source Supply Chain Security. That just means that my job is to help open source software projects improve their security, including its development, build, distribution, and incorporation in larger works, all the way out to its eventual use by end-users. In my copious free time I also teach at George Mason University (GMU); in particular, I teach a graduate course on how to design and implement secure software. My background is technical. I have a Bachelor s in Electronics Engineering, a Master s in Computer Science and a PhD in Information Technology. My PhD dissertation is connected to reproducible builds. My PhD dissertation was on countering the Trusting Trust attack, an attack that subverts fundamental build system tools such as compilers. The attack was discovered by Karger & Schell in the 1970s, and later demonstrated & popularized by Ken Thompson. In my dissertation on trusting trust I showed that a process called Diverse Double-Compiling (DDC) could detect trusting trust attacks. That process is a specialized kind of reproducible build specifically designed to detect trusting trust style attacks. In addition, countering the trusting trust attack primarily becomes more important only when reproducible builds become more common. Reproducible builds enable detection of build-time subversions. Most attackers wouldn t bother with a trusting trust attack if they could just directly use a build-time subversion of the software they actually want to subvert.
Holger: Thanks for taking the time to introduce yourself to us. What do you think are the biggest challenges today in computing? There are many big challenges in computing today. For example:
Holger: Do you think reproducible builds are an important part in secure computing today already? David: Yes, but first let s put things in context. Today, when attackers exploit software vulnerabilities, they re primarily exploiting unintentional vulnerabilities that were created by the software developers. There are a lot of efforts to counter this: We re just starting to get better at this, which is good. However, attackers always try to attack the easiest target. As our deployed software has started to be hardened against attack, attackers have dramatically increased their attacks on the software supply chain (Sonatype found in 2022 that there s been a 742% increase year-over-year). The software supply chain hasn t historically gotten much attention, making it the easy target. There are simple supply chain attacks with simple solutions: Unfortunately, attackers know there are other lines of attack. One of the most dangerous is subverted build systems, as demonstrated by the subversion of SolarWinds Orion system. In a subverted build system, developers can review the software source code all day and see no problem, because there is no problem there. Instead, the process to convert source code into the code people run, called the build system , is subverted by an attacker. One solution for countering subverted build systems is to make the build systems harder to attack. That s a good thing to do, but you can never be confident that it was good enough . How can you be sure it s not subverted, if there s no way to know? A stronger defense against subverted build systems is the idea of verified reproducible builds. A build is reproducible if given the same source code, build environment and build instructions, any party can recreate bit-by-bit identical copies of all specified artifacts. A build is verified if multiple different parties verify that they get the same result for that situation. When you have a verified reproducible build, either all the parties colluded (and you could always double-check it yourself), or the build process isn t subverted. There is one last turtle: What if the build system tools or machines are subverted themselves? This is not a common attack today, but it s important to know if we can address them when the time comes. The good news is that we can address this. For some situations reproducible builds can also counter such attacks. If there s a loop (that is, a compiler is used to generate itself), that s called the trusting trust attack, and that is more challenging. Thankfully, the trusting trust attack has been known about for decades and there are known solutions. The diverse double-compiling (DDC) process that I explained in my PhD dissertation, as well as the bootstrappable builds process, can both counter trusting trust attacks in the software space. So there is no reason to lose hope: there is a bottom turtle , as it were.
Holger: Thankfully, this has all slowly started to change and supply chain issues are now widely discussed, as evident by efforts like Securing the Software Supply Chain: Recommended Practices Guide for Developers which you shared on our mailing list. In there, Reproducible Builds are mentioned as recommended advanced practice, which is both pretty cool (we ve come a long way!), but to me it also sounds like this will take another decade until it s become standard normal procedure. Do you agree on that timeline? David: I don t think there will be any particular timeframe. Different projects and ecosystems will move at different speeds. I wouldn t be surprised if it took a decade or so for them to become relatively common there are good reasons for that. Today the most common kinds of attacks based on software vulnerabilities still involve unintentional vulnerabilities in operational systems. Attackers are starting to apply supply chain attacks, but the top such attacks today are typosquatting (creating packages with similar names) and dependency confusion) (convincing projects to download packages from the wrong repositories). Reproducible builds don t counter those kinds of attacks, they counter subverted builds. It s important to eventually have verified reproducible builds, but understandably other issues are currently getting prioritized first. That said, reproducible builds are important long term. Many people are working on countering unintentional vulnerabilities and the most common kinds of supply chain attacks. As these other threats are countered, attackers will increasingly target build systems. Attackers always go for the weakest link. We will eventually need verified reproducible builds in many situations, and it ll take a while to get build systems able to widely perform reproducible builds, so we need to start that work now. That s true for anything where you know you ll need it but it will take a long time to get ready you need to start now.
Holger: What are your suggestions to accelerate adoption? David: Reproducible builds need to be: I think there s a snowball effect. Once many projects packages are reproducible, it will be easier to convince other projects to make their packages reproducible. I also think there should be some prioritization. If a package is in wide use (e.g., part of minimum set of packages for a widely-used Linux distribution or framework), its reproducibility should be a special focus. If a package is vital for supporting some societally important critical infrastructure (e.g., running dams), it should also be considered important. You can then work on the ones that are less important over time.
Holger: How is the Best Practices Badge going? How many projects are participating and how many are missing? David: It s going very well. You can see some automatically-generated statistics, showing we have over 5,000 projects, adding more than 1/day on average. We have more than 900 projects that have earned at least the passing badge level.
Holger: How many of the projects participating in the Best Practices badge engaging with reproducible builds? David: As of this writing there are 168 projects that report meeting the reproducible builds criterion. That s a relatively small percentage of projects. However, note that this criterion (labelled build_reproducible) is only required for the gold badge. It s not required for the passing or silver level badge. Currently we ve been strategically focused on getting projects to at least earn a passing badge, and less on earning silver or gold badges. We would love for all projects to get earn a silver or gold badge, of course, but our theory is that projects that can t even earn a passing badge present the most risk to their users. That said, there are some projects we especially want to see implementing higher badge levels. Those include projects that are very widely used, so that vulnerabilities in them can impact many systems. Examples of such projects include the Linux kernel and curl. In addition, some projects are used within systems where it s important to society that they not have serious security vulnerabilities. Examples include projects used by chemical manufacturers, financial systems and weapons. We definitely encourage any of those kinds of projects to earn higher badge levels.
Holger: Many thanks for this interview, David, and for all of your work at the Linux Foundation and elsewhere!




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

12 November 2022

Debian Brasil: Participa o da comunidade Debian no Latinoware 2022

De 2 a 4 de novembro de 2022 aconteceu a 19 edi o do Latinoware - Congresso Latino-americano de Software Livre e Tecnologias Abertas, em Foz do Igua u. Ap s 2 anos acontecendo de forma online devido a pandemia do COVID-19, o evento voltou a ser presencial e sentimos que a comunidade Debian Brasil deveria estar presente. Nossa ltima participa o no Latinoware foi em 2016 A organiza o do Latinoware cedeu para a comunidade Debian Brasil um estande para que pud ssemos ter contato com as pessoas que visitavam a rea aberta de exposi es e assim divulgarmos o projeto Debian. Durante os 3 dias do evento, o estande foi organizado por mim (Paulo Henrique Santana) como Desenvolvedor Debian, e pelo Leonardo Rodrigues como contribuidor Debian. Infelizmente o Daniel Lenharo teve um imprevisto de ltima hora e n o pode ir para Foz do Igua u (sentimos sua falta l !). Latinoware 2022 estande 1 V rias pessoas visitaram o estande e aquelas mais iniciantes (principalmente estudantes) que n o conheciam o Debian, perguntavam do que se tratava o nosso grupo e a gente explicava v rios conceitos como o que Software Livre, distribui o GNU/Linux e o Debian propriamente dito. Tamb m recebemos pessoas da comunidade de Software Livre brasileira e de outros pa ses da Am rica Latina que j utilizavam uma distribui o GNU/Linux e claro, muitas pessoas que j utilizavam Debian. Tivemos algumas visitas especiais como do Jon maddog Hall, do Desenvolvedor Debian Emeritus Ot vio Salvador, do Desenvolvedor Debian Eriberto Mota, e dos Mantenedores Debian Guilherme de Paula Segundo e Paulo Kretcheu. Latinoware 2022 estande 4 Foto da esquerda pra direita: Leonardo, Paulo, Eriberto e Ot vio. Latinoware 2022 estande 5 Foto da esquerda pra direita: Paulo, Fabian (Argentina) e Leonardo. Al m de conversarmos bastante, distribu mos adesivos do Debian que foram produzidos alguns meses atr s com o patroc nio do Debian para serem distribu dos na DebConf22(e que haviam sobrado), e vendemos v rias camisetas do Debian produzidas pela comunidade Curitiba Livre. Latinoware 2022 estande 2 Latinoware 2022 estande 3 Tamb m tivemos 3 palestras inseridas na programa o oficial do Latinoware. Eu fiz as palestras: como tornar um(a) contribuidor(a) do Debian fazendo tradu es e como os SysAdmins de uma empresa global usam Debian . E o Leonardo fez a palestra: vantagens da telefonia Open Source nas empresas . Latinoware 2022 estande 6 Foto Paulo na palestra. Agradecemos a organiza o do Latinoware por receber mais uma vez a comunidade Debian e gentilmente ceder os espa os para a nossa participa o, e parabenizamos a todas as pessoas envolvidas na organiza o pelo sucesso desse importante evento para a nossa comunidade. Esperamos estar presentes novamente em 2023. Agracemos tamb m ao Jonathan Carter por aprovar o suporte financeiro do Debian para a nossa participa o no Latinoware. Vers o em ingl s

11 November 2022

Debian Brasil: Participa o da comunidade Debian no Latinoware 2022

De 2 a 4 de novembro de 2022 aconteceu a 19 edi o do Latinoware - Congresso Latino-americano de Software Livre e Tecnologias Abertas, em Foz do Igua u. Ap s 2 anos acontecendo de forma online devido a pandemia do COVID-19, o evento voltou a ser presencial e sentimos que a comunidade Debian Brasil deveria estar presente. Nossa ltima participa o no Latinoware foi em 2016 A organiza o do Latinoware cedeu para a comunidade Debian Brasil um estande para que pud ssemos ter contato com as pessoas que visitavam a rea aberta de exposi es e assim divulgarmos o projeto Debian. Durante os 3 dias do evento, o estande foi organizado por mim (Paulo Henrique Santana) como Desenvolvedor Debian, e pelo Leonardo Rodrigues como contribuidor Debian. Infelizmente o Daniel Lenharo teve um imprevisto de ltima hora e n o pode ir para Foz do Igua u (sentimos sua falta l !). Latinoware 2022 estande 1 V rias pessoas visitaram o estande e aquelas mais iniciantes (principalmente estudantes) que n o conheciam o Debian, perguntavam do que se tratava o nosso grupo e a gente explicava v rios conceitos como o que Software Livre, distribui o GNU/Linux e o Debian propriamente dito. Tamb m recebemos pessoas da comunidade de Software Livre brasileira e de outros pa ses da Am rica Latina que j utilizavam uma distribui o GNU/Linux e claro, muitas pessoas que j utilizavam Debian. Tivemos algumas visitas especiais como do Jon maddog Hall, do Desenvolvedor Debian Emeritus Ot vio Salvador, do Desenvolvedor Debian Eriberto Mota, e dos Mantenedores Debian Guilherme de Paula Segundo e Paulo Kretcheu. Latinoware 2022 estande 4 Foto da esquerda pra direita: Leonardo, Paulo, Eriberto e Ot vio. Latinoware 2022 estande 5 Foto da esquerda pra direita: Paulo, Fabian (Argentina) e Leonardo. Al m de conversarmos bastante, distribu mos adesivos do Debian que foram produzidos alguns meses atr s com o patroc nio do Debian para serem distribu dos na DebConf22(e que haviam sobrado), e vendemos v rias camisetas do Debian produzidas pela comunidade Curitiba Livre. Latinoware 2022 estande 2 Latinoware 2022 estande 3 Tamb m tivemos 3 palestras inseridas na programa o oficial do Latinoware. Eu fiz as palestras: como tornar um(a) contribuidor(a) do Debian fazendo tradu es e como os SysAdmins de uma empresa global usam Debian . E o Leonardo fez a palestra: vantagens da telefonia Open Source nas empresas . Latinoware 2022 estande 6 Foto Paulo na palestra. Agradecemos a organiza o do Latinoware por receber mais uma vez a comunidade Debian e gentilmente ceder os espa os para a nossa participa o, e parabenizamos a todas as pessoas envolvidas na organiza o pelo sucesso desse importante evento para a nossa comunidade. Esperamos estar presentes novamente em 2023. Agracemos tamb m ao Jonathan Carter por aprovar o suporte financeiro do Debian para a nossa participa o no Latinoware. Vers o em ingl s

26 October 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: The Golden Enclaves

Review: The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik
Series: The Scholomance #3
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 0-593-15836-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 408
The Golden Enclaves is the third and concluding book of the Scholomance trilogy and picks up literally the instant after the end of The Last Graduate. The three books form a coherent and complete story that under absolutely no circumstances should be read out of order. This is an impossible review to write because everything is a spoiler. You're only going to read this book if you've read and liked the first two, and in that case you do not want to know a single detail about this book before you read it. The timing of revelations was absolutely perfect; I repeatedly figured out what was going on at exactly the same time that El did, which rarely happens in a book. (And from talking to friends I am not the only one.) If you're still deciding whether to read the series, or are deciding how to prioritize the third book, here are the things you need to know:
  1. Novik nails the ending. Absolutely knocks it out of the park.
  2. Everything is explained, and the explanation was wholly satisfying.
  3. There is more Liesel, and she's even better in the third book.
  4. El's relationship with her mother still works perfectly.
  5. Holy shit.
You can now stop reading this review here and go read, assured that this is the best work of Novik's career to date and has become my favorite fantasy series of all time, something I do not say lightly. For those who want some elaboration, I'll gush some more about this book, but the above is all you need to know. There are so many things that I loved about this series, but the most impressive to me is how each book broadens the scope of the story while maintaining full continuity with the characters and plot. Novik moves from individuals to small groups to, in this book, systems and social forces without dropping a beat and without ever losing the characters. She could have written a series only about El and her friends and it still would have been amazing, but each book takes a risky leap into a broader perspective and she pulls it off every time. This is also one of the most enjoyable first-person perspectives that I have ever read. (I think only Code Name Verity competes, and that's my favorite novel of all time.) Whether you like this series at all will depend on whether you like El, because you spend the entire series inside her head. I loved every moment of it. Novik not infrequently pauses the action to give the reader a page or four of El's internal monologue, and I not only didn't mind, I thought those were the best parts of the book. El is such a deep character: stubborn, thoughtful, sarcastic, impulsive, but also ethical and self-aware in a grudging sort of way that I found utterly compelling to read. And her friends! The friendship dynamics are so great. We sadly don't see as much of Liu in this book (for very good reasons, but I would gladly read an unnecessary sequel novella that existed just to give Liu more time with her friends), but everyone else is here, and in exchange we get much more of Liesel. There should be an Oscar for best supporting character in a novel just so that Liesel can win it. Why are there not more impatient, no-nonsense project managers in fiction? There are a couple of moments between El and Liesel that are among my favorite character interactions in fiction. This is also a series in which the author understands what the characters did in the previous books and the bonds that experience would form, and lets that influence how they interact with the rest of the world. I won't be more specific to avoid spoilers, but the characters worked so hard and were on edge for so long, and I felt like Novik understood the types of relationships that would create in a far deeper and more complex way than most novels. There are several moments in The Golden Enclaves where I paused in reading to admire how perfect the character reactions were, and how striking the contrast was with people who hadn't been through what they went through. The series as a whole is chosen-one fantasy, and if you'd told me that before I read it, I would have grimaced. But this is more evidence (which I should have learned from the romance genre) that tropes, even ones that have been written many times, do not wear out, no matter what critics will try to tell you. There's always room for a great author to pick up the whole idea, turn it sideways, and say "try looking at it from this angle." This is boarding schools, chosen one, and coming of age, with the snarky first-person voice of urban fantasy, and it respects all of those story shapes, is aware of earlier work, and turns them all into something original, often funny, startlingly insightful, and thoroughly engrossing. I am aware that anything I like this much is probably accidentally aimed at my favorite ideas as a reader and my reaction may be partly idiosyncratic. I am not at all objective, and I'm sure not everyone will like it as much as I did. But wow did I ever like this book and this series. Just the best thing I've read in a very, very long time. Highly, highly recommended. (Start at the beginning!) Rating: 10 out of 10

16 October 2022

Colin Watson: Reproducible man-db databases

I ve released man-db 2.11.0 (announcement, NEWS), and uploaded it to Debian unstable. The biggest chunk of work here was fixing some extremely long-standing issues with how the database is built. Despite being in the package name, man-db s database is much less important than it used to be: most uses of man(1) haven t required it in a long time, and both hardware and software improvements mean that even some searches can be done by brute force without needing prior indexing. However, the database is still needed for the whatis(1) and apropos(1) commands. The database has a simple format - no relational structure here, it s just a simple key-value database using old-fashioned DBM-like interfaces and composing a few fields to form values - but there are a number of subtleties involved. The issues tend to amount to this: what does a manual page name mean? At first glance it might seem simple, because you have file names that look something like /usr/share/man/man1/ls.1.gz and that s obviously ls(1). Some pages are symlinks to other pages (which we track separately because it makes it easier to figure out which entries to update when the contents of the file system change), and sometimes multiple pages are even hard links to the same file. The real complications come with whatis references . Pages can list a bunch of names in their NAME section, and the historical expectation is that it should be possible to use those names as arguments to man(1) even if they don t also appear in the file system (although Debian policy has deprecated relying on this for some time). Not only does that mean that man(1) sometimes needs to consult the database, but it also means that the database is inherently more complicated, since a page might list something in its NAME section that conflicts with an actual file name in the file system, and now you need a priority system to resolve ambiguities. There are some other possible causes of ambiguity as well. The people working on reproducible builds in Debian branched out to the related challenge of reproducible installations some time ago: can you take a collection of packages, bootstrap a file system image from them, and reproduce that exact same image somewhere else? This is useful for the same sorts of reasons that reproducible builds are useful: it lets you verify that an image is built from the components it s supposed to be built from, and doesn t contain any other skulduggery by accident or design. One of the people working on this noticed that man-db s database files were an obstacle to that: in particular, the exact contents of the database seemed to depend on the order in which files were scanned when building it. The reporter proposed solving this by processing files in sorted order, but I wasn t keen on that approach: firstly because it would mean we could no longer process files in an order that makes it more efficient to read them all from disk (still valuable on rotational disks), but mostly because the differences seemed to point to other bugs. Having understood this, there then followed several late nights of very fiddly work on the details of how the database is maintained. None of this was conceptually difficult: it mainly amounted to ensuring that we maintain a consistent well-order for different entries that we might want to insert for a given database key, and that we consider the same names for insertion regardless of the order in which we encounter files. As usual, the tricky bit is making sure that we have the right data structures to support this. man-db is written in C which is not very well-supplied with built-in data structures, and originally much of the code was written in a style that tried to minimize memory allocations; this came at the cost of ownership and lifetime often being rather unclear, and it was often difficult to make changes without causing leaks or double-frees. Over the years I ve been gradually introducing better encapsulation to make things easier to follow, and I had to do another round of that here. There were also some problems with caching being done at slightly the wrong layer: we need to make use of a trace of the chain of links followed to resolve a page to its ultimate source file, but we were incorrectly caching that trace and reusing it for any link to the same file, with incorrect results in many cases. Oh, and after doing all that I found that the on-disk representation of a GDBM database is insertion-order-dependent, so I ended up having to manually reorganize the database at the end by reading it all in and writing it all back out in sorted order, which feels really weird to me coming from spending most of my time with PostgreSQL these days. Fortunately the database is small so this takes negligible time. None of this is particularly glamorous work, but it paid off:
# export SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH="$(date +%s)"
# mkdir emptydir disorder
# disorderfs --multi-user=yes --shuffle-dirents=yes --reverse-dirents=no emptydir disorder
# export TMPDIR="$(pwd)/disorder"
# mmdebstrap --variant=standard --hook-dir=/usr/share/mmdebstrap/hooks/merged-usr \
      unstable out1.tar
# mmdebstrap --variant=standard --hook-dir=/usr/share/mmdebstrap/hooks/merged-usr \
      unstable out2.tar
# cmp out1.tar out2.tar
# echo $?
0

7 October 2022

Edward Betts: Fish shell now has underscore as a number separator (my feature request)

In November 2021 I filed a feature request for the fish shell to add underscore as a thousand separator in numbers. My feature request has been implemented and is available in fish 3.5.0, released 16 June 2022. The fish shell supports mathematical operations using the math command.
edward@x1c9 ~> math 2_000 + 22
2022
edward@x1c9 ~> 
The underscore can be used as a thousand separator, but there are other uses for a number separator. Here's a list taken from a post by Mathias Bynens about the number separator in JavaScript:
// A decimal integer literal with its digits grouped per thousand:
1_000_000_000_000
// A decimal literal with its digits grouped per thousand:
1_000_000.220_720
// A binary integer literal with its bits grouped per octet:
0b01010110_00111000
// A binary integer literal with its bits grouped per nibble:
0b0101_0110_0011_1000
// A hexadecimal integer literal with its digits grouped by byte:
0x40_76_38_6A_73
// A BigInt literal with its digits grouped per thousand:
4_642_473_943_484_686_707n 
Programming languages are gradually adding a number separator to their syntax, I think Perl was the first. Most are languages use underscore, but C++ 14 uses an apostrophe for the number separator.

10 September 2022

Andrew Cater: 202209101602 Debian release day - Cambridge - post 2

Definitely settling into a rhythm - we've been joined by smcv in person (and bittin on line). Bullseye testing is now well beyond the standard image testing into the live images.Buster images are gradually being built so there's the added confusion of two sets of wiki editing, two sets of potential edit conflicts ...So six people in a small-ish sitting room, several with multiple laptops running several checks at once. It's all good, as ever.Dining room table has nine machines on it, three packet switches are fairly well full ...

30 August 2022

John Goerzen: The PC & Internet Revolution in Rural America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 July 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: A Master of Djinn

Review: A Master of Djinn, by P. Dj l Clark
Series: Dead Djinn Universe #1
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-26767-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 391
A Master of Djinn is the first novel in the Dead Djinn Universe, but (as you might guess from the series title) is a direct sequel to the novelette "A Dead Djinn in Cairo". The novelette is not as good as the novel, but I recommend reading it first for the character introductions and some plot elements that carry over. Reading The Haunting of Tram Car 015 first is entirely optional. In 1912 in a mansion in Giza, a secret society of (mostly) British men is meeting. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz is devoted to unlocking the mysteries of the Soudanese mystic al-Jahiz. In our world, these men would likely be colonialist plunderers. In this world, they still aspire to that role, but they're playing catch-up. Al-Jahiz bored into the Kaf, releasing djinn and magic into the world and making Egypt a world power in its own right. Now, its cities are full of clockwork marvels, djinn walk the streets as citizens, and British rule has been ejected from India and Africa by local magic. This group of still-rich romantics and crackpots hopes to discover the knowledge lost when al-Jahiz disappeared. They have not had much success. This will not save their lives. Fatma el-Sha'arawi is a special investigator for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. Her job is sorting out the problems caused by this new magic, such as a couple of young thieves with a bottle full of sleeping djinn whose angry reaction to being unexpectedly woken has very little to do with wishes. She is one of the few female investigators in a ministry that is slowly modernizing with the rest of society (Egyptian women just got the vote). She's also the one called to investigate the murder of a secret society of British men and a couple of Cairenes by a black-robed man in a golden mask. The black-robed man claims to be al-Jahiz returned, and proves to be terrifyingly adept at manipulating crowds and sparking popular dissent. Fatma and the Ministry's first attempt to handle him is a poorly-judged confrontation stymied by hostile crowds, the man's duplicating bodyguard, and his own fighting ability. From there, it's a race between Fatma's pursuit of linear clues and the black-robed man's efforts to destabilize society. This, like the previous short stories, is a police procedural, but it has considerably more room to breathe at novel length. That serves it well, since as with "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" the procedural part is a linear, reactive vehicle for plot exposition. I was more invested in Fatma's relationships with the supporting characters. Since the previous story, she's struck up a romance with Siti, a highly competent follower of the old Egyptian gods (Hathor in particular) and my favorite character in the book. She's also been assigned a new partner, Hadia, a new graduate and another female agent. The slow defeat of Fatma's irritation at not being allowed to work alone by Hadia's cheerful competence and persistence (and willingness to do paperwork) adds a lot to the characterization. The setting felt a bit less atmospheric than The Haunting of Tram Car 015, but we get more details of international politics, and they're a delight. Clark takes obvious (and warranted) glee in showing how the reintroduction of magic has shifted the balance of power away from the colonial empires. Cairo is a bustling steampunk metropolis and capital of a world power, welcoming envoys from West African kingdoms alongside the (still racist and obnoxious but now much less powerful) British and other Europeans. European countries were forced to search their own mythology for possible sources of magic power, which leads to the hilarious scene of the German Kaiser carrying a sleepy goblin on his shoulder to monitor his diplomacy. The magic of the story was less successful for me, although still enjoyable. The angels from "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" make another appearance and again felt like the freshest bit of world-building, but we don't find out much more about them. I liked the djinn and their widely-varied types and magic, but apart from them and a few glimpses of Egypt's older gods, that was the extent of the underlying structure. There is a significant magical artifact, but the characters are essentially handed an instruction manual, use it according to its instructions, and it then does what it was documented to do. It was a bit unsatisfying. I'm the type of fantasy reader who always wants to read the sourcebook for the magic system, but this is not that sort of a book. Instead, it's the kind of book where the investigator steadily follows a linear trail of clues and leads until they reach the final confrontation. Here, the confrontation felt remarkably like cut scenes from a Japanese RPG: sudden vast changes in scale, clockwork constructs, massive monsters, villains standing on mobile platforms, and surprise combat reversals. I could almost hear the fight music and see the dialog boxes pop up. This isn't exactly a complaint I love Japanese RPGs but it did add to the feeling that the plot was on rails and didn't require many decisions from the protagonist. Clark also relies on an overused plot cliche in the climactic battle, which was a minor disappointment. A Master of Djinn won the Nebula for best 2021 novel, I suspect largely on the basis of its setting and refreshingly non-European magical system. I don't entirely agree; the writing is still a bit clunky, with unnecessary sentences and stock phrases showing up here and there, and I think it suffers from the typical deficiencies of SFF writers writing mysteries or police procedurals without the plot sophistication normally found in that genre. But this is good stuff for a first novel, with fun supporting characters (loved the librarian) and some great world-building. I would happily read more in this universe. Rating: 7 out of 10

22 May 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: On a Sunbeam

Review: On a Sunbeam, by Tillie Walden
Publisher: Tillie Walden
Copyright: 2016-2017
Format: Online graphic novel
Pages: 544
On a Sunbeam is a web comic that was published in installments between Fall 2016 and Spring 2017, and then later published in dead tree form. I read the on-line version, which is still available for free from its web site. It was nominated for an Eisner Award and won a ton of other awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Mia is a new high school graduate who has taken a job with a construction crew that repairs old buildings (that are floating in space, but I'll get to that in a moment). Alma, Elliot, and Charlotte have been together for a long time; Jules is closer to Mia's age and has been with them for a year. This is not the sort of job one commutes to: they live together on a spaceship that travels to the job sites, share meals together, and are more of an extended family than a group of coworkers. It's all a bit intimidating for Mia, but Jules provides a very enthusiastic welcome and some orientation. The story of Mia's new job is interleaved with Mia's school experience from five years earlier. As a new frosh at a boarding school, Mia is obsessed with Lux, a school sport that involves building and piloting ships through a maze to capture orbs. Sent to the principal's office on the first day of school for sneaking into the Lux tower when she's supposed to be at assembly, she meets Grace, a shy girl with sparkly shoes and an unheard-of single room. Mia (a bit like Jules in the present timeline) overcomes Grace's reticence by being persistently outgoing and determinedly friendly, while trying to get on the Lux team and dealing with the typical school problems of bullies and in-groups. On a Sunbeam is science fiction in the sense that it seems to take place in space and school kids build flying ships. It is not science fiction in the sense of caring about technological extrapolation or making any scientific sense whatsoever. The buildings that Mia and the crew repair appear to be hanging in empty space, but there's gravity. No one wears any protective clothing or air masks. The spaceships look (and move) like giant tropical fish. If you need realism in your science fiction graphical novels, it's probably best not to think of this as science fiction at all, or even science fantasy despite the later appearance of some apparently magical or divine elements. That may sound surrealistic or dream-like, but On a Sunbeam isn't that either. It's a story about human relationships, found family, and diversity of personalities, all of which are realistically portrayed. The characters find their world coherent, consistent, and predictable, even if it sometimes makes no sense to the reader. On a Sunbeam is simply set in its own universe, with internal logic but without explanation or revealed rules. I kind of liked this approach? It takes some getting used to, but it's an excuse for some dramatic and beautiful backgrounds, and it's oddly freeing to have unremarked train tracks in outer space. There's no way that an explanation would have worked; if one were offered, my brain would have tried to nitpick it to the detriment of the story. There's something delightful about a setting that follows imaginary physical laws this unapologetically and without showing the author's work. I was, sadly, not as much of a fan of the art, although I am certain this will be a matter of taste. Walden mixes simple story-telling panels with sweeping vistas, free-floating domes, and strange, wild asteroids, but she uses a very limited color palette. Most panels are only a few steps away from monochrome, and the colors are chosen more for mood or orientation in the story (Mia's school days are all blue, the Staircase is orange) than for any consistent realism. There is often a lot of detail in the panels, but I found it hard to appreciate because the coloring confused my eye. I'm old enough to have been a comics reader during the revolution in digital coloring and improved printing, and I loved the subsequent dramatic improvement in vivid colors and shading. I know the coloring style here is an intentional artistic choice, but to me it felt like a throwback to the days of muddy printing on cheap paper. I have a similar complaint about the lettering: On a Sunbeam is either hand-lettered or closely simulates hand lettering, and I often found the dialogue hard to read due to inconsistent intra- and interword spacing or ambiguous letters. Here too I'm sure this was an artistic choice, but as a reader I'd much prefer a readable comics font over hand lettering. The detail in the penciling is more to my liking. I had occasional trouble telling some of the characters apart, but they're clearly drawn and emotionally expressive. The scenery is wildly imaginative and often gorgeous, which increased my frustration with the coloring. I would love to see what some of these panels would have looked like after realistic coloring with a full palette. (It's worth noting again that I read the on-line version. It's possible that the art was touched up for the print version and would have been more to my liking.) But enough about the art. The draw of On a Sunbeam for me is the story. It's not very dramatic or event-filled at first, starting as two stories of burgeoning friendships with a fairly young main character. (They are closely linked, but it's not obvious how until well into the story.) But it's the sort of story that I started reading, thought was mildly interesting, and then kept reading just one more chapter until I had somehow read the whole thing. There are some interesting twists towards the end, but it's otherwise not a very dramatic or surprising story. What it is instead is open-hearted, quiet, charming, and deeper than it looks. The characters are wildly different and can be abrasive, but they invest time and effort into understanding each other and adjusting for each other's preferences. Personal loss drives a lot of the plot, but the characters are also allowed to mature and be happy without resolving every bad thing that happened to them. These characters felt like people I would like and would want to get to know (even if Jules would be overwhelming). I enjoyed watching their lives. This reminded me a bit of a Becky Chambers novel, although it's less invested in being science fiction and sticks strictly to humans. There's a similar feeling that the relationships are the point of the story, and that nearly everyone is trying hard to be good, with differing backgrounds and differing conceptions of good. All of the characters are female or non-binary, which is left as entirely unexplained as the rest of the setting. It's that sort of book. I wouldn't say this is one of the best things I've ever read, but I found it delightful and charming, and it certainly sucked me in and kept me reading until the end. One also cannot argue with the price, although if I hadn't already read it, I would be tempted to buy a paper copy to support the author. This will not be to everyone's taste, and stay far away if you are looking for realistic science fiction, but recommended if you are in the mood for an understated queer character story full of good-hearted people. Rating: 7 out of 10

19 February 2022

Shirish Agarwal: The King of Torts John Grisham

John Grisham The King of Torts Lots of things have been happening and I have been unable to be on top of things. There are so many things that happen and keep on happening and a lot of it is just not in control. For those who are watching Brexit, India is going through the same/similar phenomena just without Brexit. I would not like to delve much into Indian happenings as there is no sweet story to tell. Mum is in hospital (diabetic foot) so a lot of time to read books. So I have been making use of the time and at the same time learning or making connections from what I know of the history of the world which goes on enriching what I read all the time. For e.g. in this book, opens up with people who are on Crack. Now while the book is set in 2003, it is still relevant today for a lot of things. There have been rumors and whatnot that the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan supplied a lot of cocaine to black folks in the early 1980s. While that has never been proved, it has been proved somewhat that the CIA and even people in the state department were part of providing crack cocaine to African Americans (as they refer to blacks) in those days. Whether this was because of black power rising or non-profits like ACLU or other organizations is beyond me. I had also read that the GOP (Republicans/Grand Old Party) in the 1970s itself when computers became fast and could do a lot of processing, came to know if education would be as it is, then soon they would no voters. hence they decided to defund education in America, the end result being massive education loans to prospective students and perhaps partly the reason why China produces more than enough STEM graduates than the total number of Americans who become graduates. It is a shame nonetheless, that education in the U.S. is never top  . This is somewhat from a Republican perspective. That is also the reason they are much anti-science.

Tort Cases India doesn t have either class-action suits or tort cases. But before we go headlong, this is what tort means. The book however is not about general tort cases but medical tort cases. The idea is that medical companies often produce medicines claiming they solve x or y issues but more often than not they take short-cuts to get approval from FDA and other regulators. And sooner or later those medicines can and do have harmful effects on the body, sometimes resulting in death. One of the more interesting articles that I read and probably also shared is the work done by Mr. Rob Bilott. While it is a typical David and Goliath story once you read the book, you realize that there are and were many difficulties in Mr. Rob s path that are never fully appreciated or even worked out. The biggest issue is the 8 years that he paid out of his own pocket to get the hundreds and thousands of people tested. How many of us would do that? And this is before proving causation of any disease, illness or anything to a particular environment, pollution etc. is hard even then and even now. Whatever money the victims receive afterward and whatever went to Mr. Rob Bilott would never compensate for the stress faced by him. And lawyers have to be careful, if they ask too little, they are not hurting the company and there is no change in its behavior. If they ask too much, the company can declare Chapter 11, bankruptcy so they have to keep the balance. There is also a lot of greed shown by the tort lawyer and while at the end he does tell about a company s nefarious activities that he suspects he could share his opinion only after giving up his law career. There is and was talk of tort-reform in the book but as can be seen if you reform tort there is just no way to punish such companies but that is in the U.S. There is also some observations that I have shared over the years, for e.g. Europe bans far more drugs than the U.S. does. A major part of it is perhaps due to the fact that Europe has 26/27 independent medical regulators and one country bans medicine for one or the other reason, the rest of Europe also bans the same. In the U.S. it is only the FDA. I have read they have had both funding and staffing issues for years and this is from before the pandemic. The Indian regulators are much worse. One could follow Priyanka Pulla s articles in Mint and others where she has shared how the regulator is corrupt and lazy and a combo of both. And all of this is besides how doctors are corrupted in India by marketing executives of pharma companies. That would be a whole article in itself. In short, when you read this book, there are so many thoughts that come alive when you are reading the book. The sad part is the book doesn t offer any solutions at all. John Grisham s books are usually legal thrillers and courtroom exchanges, this one though is and was very different. This one sadly doesn t take one to any conclusion apart from the fact that we live in an imperfect world and there don t seem to be any solutions. This was even shared by Rep. Katie Porter in her pinned tweet. The Abbvie s of the world will continue to take common people like you and me for a ride.

1 January 2022

Russ Allbery: 2021 Book Reading in Review

In 2021, I finished and reviewed 43 books, yet another (tiny) increase over 2020 and once again the best year for reading since 2012 (which was the last time I averaged 5 books a month). The year got off to a good reading start and closed strong, but once again had sags in the spring and summer when I got behind on reviews and fell out of the habit of reading daily. This year, at least, the end-of-year catch-up was less dramatic; all but two of the books I reviewed in December were finished in December. The best books I read this year were Naomi Novik's magic boarding school fantasies A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate, which I rated a 9 and a 10 respectively. Memorable characters, some great world-building, truly exceptional characterization of a mother/daughter relationship, adroit avoidance of genre pitfalls, and two of my favorite fictional tropes: for me, this series has it all. The third and concluding book of that series is my most anticipated book of 2022. My large reviewing project of this year was a complete re-read of C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, starting with my 1000th published review. As you can see, I have a lot of opinions about those books; they were a huge part of my childhood, and I'd been talking about writing those reviews for years. They were the longest reviews I've published and, unusually for me, full-spoiler reviews, and they took up a lot of my reviewing energy for the year. Of the seven books in the series, I was pleased to see that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Magician's Nephew held up and are still very much worth reading. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in particular, is an exceptional sense-of-wonder fantasy novel with a story structure that remains rare. The best non-fiction book I read in 2021 is a prosaic choice that's only of specialist interest, but JavaScript: The Definitive Guide is precisely the type of programming language manual that I look for when learning a new language. It taught me what I was hoping to learn when I picked it up. Honorable mentions are a crowded field this year; I read a lot of books that were good but not great. Worth calling out are Arkady Martine's A Desolation Called Peace (sequel to the excellent A Memory Called Empire), if for nothing else than Three Seagrass; Micaiah Johnson's impressive debut The Space Between Worlds; and Becky Chambers's last Wayfarer novel, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. On the non-fiction side, Allie Brosh's Solutions and Other Problems is a much harder and sadder book than the exceptional Hyperbole and a Half, but it was still very much worth reading. This was another year spent reading mostly recently-published books, without much backfill of either award winners or my existing library. In 2022, I hope to balance keeping up with new books of interest with returning to series I left unfinished, award lists I left only partly explored, and books I snapped up in earlier years and then never got around to. The full analysis includes some additional personal reading statistics, probably only of interest to me.

29 December 2021

Russ Allbery: Review: A Spindle Splintered

Review: A Spindle Splintered, by Alix E. Harrow
Series: Fractured Fables #1
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-76536-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 121
Zinnia Gray lives in rural Ohio and is obsessed with Sleeping Beauty, even though the fairy tale objectively sucks. That has a lot to do with having Generalized Roseville Malady, an always-fatal progressive amyloidosis caused by teratogenic industrial waste. No one with GRM has ever lived to turn twenty-two. A Spindle Splintered opens on Zinnia's twenty-first birthday. For her birthday, her best (and only) friend Charm (Charmaine Baldwin) throws her a party at the tower. There aren't a lot of towers in Ohio; this one is a guard tower at an abandoned state penitentiary occasionally used by the local teenagers, which is not quite the image one would get from fairy tales. But Charm fills it with roses, guests wearing cheap fairy wings, beer, and even an honest-to-god spinning wheel. At the end of the night, Zinnia decides to prick her finger on the spindle on a whim. Much to both of their surprise, that's enough to trigger some form of magic in Zinnia's otherwise entirely mundane world. She doesn't fall asleep for a thousand years, but she does get dumped into an actual fairy-tale tower near an actual princess, just in time to prevent her from pricking her finger. This is, as advertised on the tin, a fractured fairy tale, but it's one that barely introduces the Sleeping Beauty story before driving it entirely off the rails. It's also a fractured fairy tale in which the protagonist knows exactly what sort of story she's in, given that she graduated early from high school and has a college degree in folk studies. (Dying girl rule #1: move fast.) And it's one in which the fairy tale universe still has cell reception, if not chargers, which means you can text your best friend sarcastic commentary on your multiversal travels. Also, cell phone pictures of the impossibly beautiful princess. I should mention up-front that I have not watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (yes, I know, I'm sure it's wonderful, I just don't watch things, basically ever), which is a quite explicit inspiration for this story. I'm therefore not sure how obvious the story would be to people familiar with that movie. Even with my familiarity with the general genre of fractured fairy tales, nothing plot-wise here was all that surprising. What carries this story is the characters and the emotional core, particularly Zinnia's complex and sardonic feelings about dying and the note-perfect friendship between Zinnia and Charm.
"You know it wasn't originally a spinning wheel in the story?" I offer, because alcohol transforms me into a chatty Wikipedia page.
A Spindle Splintered is told from Zinnia's first-person perspective, and Zinnia is great. My favorite thing about Harrow's writing is the fierce and complex emotions of her characters. The overall tone is lighter than The Once and Future Witches or The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but Harrow doesn't shy away from showing the reader Zinnia's internal thought process about her illness (and her eye-rolling bemusement at some of the earlier emotional stages she went through).
Dying girl rule #3 is no romance, because my entire life is one long trolley problem and I don't want to put any more bodies on the tracks. (I've spent enough time in therapy to know that this isn't "a healthy attitude towards attachment," but I personally feel that accepting my own imminent mortality is enough work without also having a healthy attitude about it.)
There's a content warning for parents here, since Harrow spends some time on the reaction of Zinnia's parents and the complicated dance between hope, despair, smothering, and freedom that she and they had to go through. There were no easy answers and all balances were fragile, but Zinnia always finds her feet. For me, Harrow's character writing is like emotional martial arts: rolling with punches, taking falls, clear-eyed about the setbacks, but always finding a new point of stability to punch back at the world. Zinnia adds just enough teenage irreverence and impatience to blunt the hardest emotional hits. I really enjoy reading it. The one caution I will make about that part of the story is that the focus is on Zinnia's projected lifespan and not on her illness specifically. Harrow uses it as setup to dig into how she and her parents would react to that knowledge (and I thought those parts were done well), but it's told from the perspective of "what would you do if you knew your date of death," not from the perspective of someone living with a disability. It is to some extent disability as plot device, and like the fairy tale that it's based on, it's deeply invested in the "find a cure" approach to the problem. I'm not disabled and am not the person to ask about how well a story handles disability, but I suspect this one may leave something to be desired. I thought the opening of this story is great. Zinnia is a great first-person protagonist and the opening few chapters are overflowing with snark and acerbic commentary. Dumping Zinnia into another world but having text messaging still work is genius, and I kind of wish Harrow had made that even more central to the book. The rest of the story was good but not as good, and the ending was somewhat predictable and a bit of a deus ex machina. But the characters carried it throughout, and I will happily read more of this. Recommended, with the caveat about disability and the content warning for parents. Followed by A Mirror Mended, which I have already pre-ordered. Rating: 8 out of 10

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