Search Results: "ressu"

4 July 2024

Arturo Borrero Gonz lez: Wikimedia Toolforge: migrating Kubernetes from PodSecurityPolicy to Kyverno

Le ch teau de Val re et le Haut de Cry en juillet 2022 Christian David, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons This post was originally published in the Wikimedia Tech blog, authored by Arturo Borrero Gonzalez. Summary: this article shares the experience and learnings of migrating away from Kubernetes PodSecurityPolicy into Kyverno in the Wikimedia Toolforge platform. Wikimedia Toolforge is a Platform-as-a-Service, built with Kubernetes, and maintained by the Wikimedia Cloud Services team (WMCS). It is completely free and open, and we welcome anyone to use it to build and host tools (bots, webservices, scheduled jobs, etc) in support of Wikimedia projects. We provide a set of platform-specific services, command line interfaces, and shortcuts to help in the task of setting up webservices, jobs, and stuff like building container images, or using databases. Using these interfaces makes the underlying Kubernetes system pretty much invisible to users. We also allow direct access to the Kubernetes API, and some advanced users do directly interact with it. Each account has a Kubernetes namespace where they can freely deploy their workloads. We have a number of controls in place to ensure performance, stability, and fairness of the system, including quotas, RBAC permissions, and up until recently PodSecurityPolicies (PSP). At the time of this writing, we had around 3.500 Toolforge tool accounts in the system. We early adopted PSP in 2019 as a way to make sure Pods had the correct runtime configuration. We needed Pods to stay within the safe boundaries of a set of pre-defined parameters. Back when we adopted PSP there was already the option to use 3rd party agents, like OpenPolicyAgent Gatekeeper, but we decided not to invest in them, and went with a native, built-in mechanism instead. In 2021 it was announced that the PSP mechanism would be deprecated, and removed in Kubernetes 1.25. Even though we had been warned years in advance, we did not prioritize the migration of PSP until we were in Kubernetes 1.24, and blocked, unable to upgrade forward without taking actions. The WMCS team explored different alternatives for this migration, but eventually we decided to go with Kyverno as a replacement for PSP. And so with that decision it began the journey described in this blog post. First, we needed a source code refactor for one of the key components of our Toolforge Kubernetes: maintain-kubeusers. This custom piece of software that we built in-house, contains the logic to fetch accounts from LDAP and do the necessary instrumentation on Kubernetes to accommodate each one: create namespace, RBAC, quota, a kubeconfig file, etc. With the refactor, we introduced a proper reconciliation loop, in a way that the software would have a notion of what needs to be done for each account, what would be missing, what to delete, upgrade, and so on. This would allow us to easily deploy new resources for each account, or iterate on their definitions. The initial version of the refactor had a number of problems, though. For one, the new version of maintain-kubeusers was doing more filesystem interaction than the previous version, resulting in a slow reconciliation loop over all the accounts. We used NFS as the underlying storage system for Toolforge, and it could be very slow because of reasons beyond this blog post. This was corrected in the next few days after the initial refactor rollout. A side note with an implementation detail: we stored a configmap on each account namespace with the state of each resource. Storing more state on this configmap was our solution to avoid additional NFS latency. I initially estimated this refactor would take me a week to complete, but unfortunately it took me around three weeks instead. Previous to the refactor, there were several manual steps and cleanups required to be done when updating the definition of a resource. The process is now automated, more robust, performant, efficient and clean. So in my opinion it was worth it, even if it took more time than expected. Then, we worked on the Kyverno policies themselves. Because we had a very particular PSP setting, in order to ease the transition, we tried to replicate their semantics on a 1:1 basis as much as possible. This involved things like transparent mutation of Pod resources, then validation. Additionally, we had one different PSP definition for each account, so we decided to create one different Kyverno namespaced policy resource for each account namespace remember, we had 3.5k accounts. We created a Kyverno policy template that we would then render and inject for each account. For developing and testing all this, maintain-kubeusers and the Kyverno bits, we had a project called lima-kilo, which was a local Kubernetes setup replicating production Toolforge. This was used by each engineer in their laptop as a common development environment. We had planned the migration from PSP to Kyverno policies in stages, like this:
  1. update our internal template generators to make Pod security settings explicit
  2. introduce Kyverno policies in Audit mode
  3. see how the cluster would behave with them, and if we had any offending resources reported by the new policies, and correct them
  4. modify Kyverno policies and set them in Enforce mode
  5. drop PSP
In stage 1, we updated things like the toolforge-jobs-framework and tools-webservice. In stage 2, when we deployed the 3.5k Kyverno policy resources, our production cluster died almost immediately. Surprise. All the monitoring went red, the Kubernetes apiserver became irresponsibe, and we were unable to perform any administrative actions in the Kubernetes control plane, or even the underlying virtual machines. All Toolforge users were impacted. This was a full scale outage that required the energy of the whole WMCS team to recover from. We temporarily disabled Kyverno until we could learn what had occurred. This incident happened despite having tested before in lima-kilo and in another pre-production cluster we had, called Toolsbeta. But we had not tested that many policy resources. Clearly, this was something scale-related. After the incident, I went on and created 3.5k Kyverno policy resources on lima-kilo, and indeed I was able to reproduce the outage. We took a number of measures, corrected a few errors in our infrastructure, reached out to the Kyverno upstream developers, asking for advice, and at the end we did the following to accommodate the setup to our needs: I have to admit, I was briefly tempted to drop Kyverno, and even stop pursuing using an external policy agent entirely, and write our own custom admission controller out of concerns over performance of this architecture. However, after applying all the measures listed above, the system became very stable, so we decided to move forward. The second attempt at deploying it all went through just fine. No outage this time When we were in stage 4 we detected another bug. We had been following the Kubernetes upstream documentation for setting securityContext to the right values. In particular, we were enforcing the procMount to be set to the default value, which per the docs it was DefaultProcMount . However, that string is the name of the internal variable in the source code, whereas the actual default value is the string Default . This caused pods to be rightfully rejected by Kyverno while we figured the problem. I sent a patch upstream to fix this problem. We finally had everything in place, reached stage 5, and we were able to disable PSP. We unloaded the PSP controller from the kubernetes apiserver, and deleted every individual PSP definition. Everything was very smooth in this last step of the migration. This whole PSP project, including the maintain-kubeusers refactor, the outage, and all the different migration stages took roughly three months to complete. For me there are a number of valuable reasons to learn from this project. For one, the scale is something to consider, and test, when evaluating a new architecture or software component. Not doing so can lead to service outages, or unexpectedly poor performances. This is in the first chapter of the SRE handbook, but we got a reminder the hard way This post was originally published in the Wikimedia Tech blog, authored by Arturo Borrero Gonzalez.

2 July 2024

Mike Gabriel: Polis - a FLOSS Tool for Civic Participation -- Introduction (episode 1/5)

This is the first article of a 5-episode blog post series written by Guido Berh rster, member of staff at my company Fre(i)e Software GmbH. Thanks, Guido for being on the Polis project. Enjoy the read on the work Guido has been doing over the past months,
Mike
A team lead by Raoul Kramer/BetaBreak is currently adapting Polis for evaluation and testing by several Dutch provincial governments and central government ministries. Guido Berh rster (author of this article) who is an employee at Fre(i)e Software GmbH has been involved in this project as the main software developer. This series of blog posts describes how and why Polis was initially modified and adapted, what issues the team ran into and how this ultimately lead them to start a new Open Source project called Particiapp for accelerating the development of alternative Polis frontends compatible to but independent from the upstream project. Table of Contents of the Blog Post Series
  1. Introduction (this article)
  2. Initial evaluation and adaptation
  3. Issues extending Polis and adjusting our goals
  4. Creating (a) new frontend(s) for Polis
  5. Current status and roadmap
Polis - The Introduction What is Polis? Polis is a platform for participation which helps to gather, analyze and understand viewpoints of large groups of participants on complex issues. In practical terms participants take part in conversations on a predefined topic by voting on statements or submitting their own statements (referred to as comments in Polis) for others to vote on1. Through statistical analysis including machine learning participants are sorted into groups based on similarities in voting behavior. In addition, group-informed and overall consensus statements are identified and presented to participants in real-time. This allows for participants to react to and refine statements and either individually or through a predefined process to come to an overall consensus. Furthermore, the order in which statements are presented to participants is influenced by a complex weighting system based on a number of factors such as variance, recency, and frequency of skipping. This so called comment routing is intended to facilitate a meaningful contribution of participants without requiring them to vote on each of a potentially huge number of statements 2. Polis open-ended nature sets it apart from online surveys using pre-defined questions and allows its users to gather a more accurate picture of the public opinion. In contrast to a discussion forum or comment section where participants directly reply to each other, it discourages unproductive behavior such as provocations or personal attacks by not presenting statements in chronological order in combination with voting. Finally, its comment routing is intended to provide scalability towards a large number of participants which generate a potentially large number of statements. The project was developed and is maintained by The Computational Democracy Project, a USA-based non-profit organization which provides a hosted version and offers related services. It is also released as Open Source software under the AGPL 3.0 license. Polis has been used in a variety of different contexts as part of broader political processes facilitating broader political participation and opinion-forming, and gathering feedback and creative input. Use of Polis in Taiwan One prominent use case of Polis is its adoption as part of the vTaiwan participatory governance project. Established by the g0v civic tech community in the wake of the 2014 mass protests by the Sunflower movement, the vTaiwan project enables consultations on proposed legislation among a broad range of stakeholders including government ministries, lawmakers, experts, interest groups, civil society as well as the broader public. Although the resulting recommendations are non-binding, they exert pressure on the government to take action and recommendations have been adopted into legislation.345 vTaiwan uses Polis for large-scale online deliberations as part of a structured participation process. These deliberations take place after identifying and involving stakeholders and experts and providing through information about the topic at hand to the public. Citizens are then given the opportunity to vote on statements or provide alternative proposals which allows for the refinement of ideas and ideally leads to a consensus at the end. The results of these online deliberations are then curated, discussed in publicly broadcast face-to-face meetings which ultimately produce concrete policy recommendations. vTaiwan has in numerous cases given impulses resulting in government action and provided significant input e.g. on legislation regulating Uber or technological experiments by Fintech startups.35 See also
  1. https://compdemocracy.org/Polis/
  2. https://compdemocracy.org/comment-routing/
  3. https://info.vtaiwan.tw/
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/27/taiwan-civic-hackers-polis-consensus-social-media-platform
  5. https://www.technologyreview.com/2018/08/21/240284/the-simple-but-ingenious-system-taiwan-uses-to-crowdsource-its-laws/

29 June 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: Bitter Angels

Review: Bitter Angels, by C.L. Anderson
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Copyright: 2009
ISBN: 0-553-59217-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 438
Bitter Angels is a stand-alone science fiction novel. It won the Philip K. Dick award for best SF original paperback in 2010. C.L. Anderson is a pen name for Sarah Zettel. Terese was a Guardian, one of the agents of the Pax Solaris who find ways to keep the peace in troubled systems and high-stress situations with the help of an implanted Companion, an assistant AI. Forty years ago, on one of those missions, she was captured and her Companion was forcibly removed. She was rescued by her friend and mentor and retired afterwards, starting a new life and a new family, trying to leave the memories behind. Now, the woman who rescued her is dead. She was murdered on duty in the Erasmus system, a corporate hellhole that appears to be on the verge of exploding into a political hot spot. Bianca's last instructions asked for Terese to replace her. Terese's family is furious at her for even considering returning to the Guardians, but she can't say no. Duty, and Bianca's dying request, call too strongly. Amerand is Security on Dazzle, one of the Erasmus stations. He is one of the refugees from Oblivion, the station that the First Bloods who rule the system let die. He keeps his head above water and tries to protect his father and find his mother without doing anything that the ever-present Clerks might find concerning. Keeping an eye on newly-arriving Solaris saints is a typical assignment, since the First Bloods don't trust the meddling do-gooders. But something is not quite right, and a cryptic warning from his Clerk makes him even more suspicious. This is the second book by Sarah Zettel that I've read, and both of them have been tense, claustrophobic thrillers set in a world with harsh social inequality and little space for the characters to maneuver. In this case, the structure of her future universe reminded me a bit of Iain M. Banks's Culture, but with less advanced technology and only humans. The Pax Solaris has eliminated war within its borders and greatly extended lifespans. That peace is maintained by Guardians, who play a role similar to Special Circumstances but a bit more idealist and less lethal. They show up where there are problems and meddle, manipulating and pushing to try to defuse the problems before they reach the Pax Solaris. Like a Culture novel, nearly all of the action takes place outside the Pax Solaris in the Erasmus system. Erasmus is a corporate colony that has turned into a cross between a hereditary dictatorship and the Corporate Rim from Martha Wells's Murderbot series. Debt slavery is ubiquitous, economic inequality is inconceivably vast, and the Clerks are everywhere. Erasmus natives like Amerand have very little leeway and even fewer options. Survival is a matter of not drawing the attention of the wrong people. Terese and her fellow Guardians are appalled, but also keenly aware that destabilizing the local politics may make the situation even worse and get a lot of people killed. Bitter Angels is structured like a mystery: who killed Bianca, and what was her plan when she was killed? Unlike a lot of books of this type, the villains are not idiots and their plan is both satisfyingly complex and still depressingly relevant. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that I have read recent news articles about people with very similar plans, albeit involving less science-fiction technology. Anderson starts with a tense situation and increases the pressure relentlessly, leaving the heroes one step behind the villains for almost the entire novel. It is not happy or optimistic reading at times, the book is quite dark but it certainly was engrossing. The one world-building quibble that I had is that the Erasmus system is portrayed partly as a hydraulic empire, and while this is arguably feasible given that spaceship travel is strictly controlled, it seemed like a weird choice given the prevalence of water on the nearby moons. Water smuggling plays a significant role in the plot, and I wasn't entirely convinced of the politics and logistics behind it. If this sort of thing bugs you, there are some pieces that may require suspension of disbelief. Bitter Angels is the sort of tense thriller where catastrophe is barely avoided and the cost of victory is too high, so you will want to be in the mood for that before you dive in. But if that's what you're looking for, I thought Anderson delivered a complex and satisfying story. Content warning: major character suicide. Rating: 7 out of 10

1 May 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: To Each This World

Review: To Each This World, by Julie E. Czerneda
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: November 2022
ISBN: 0-7564-1543-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 676
To Each This World is a standalone science fiction novel. Henry m'Yama t'Nowak is the Arbiter of New Earth. This is somewhat akin to a president, but only in very specific ways. Henry's job is to deal with the Kmet. New Earth was settled by a slower-than-light colony ship from old Earth, our Earth. It is, so far as they know, the last of humanity in the universe. Origin Earth fell silent hundreds of years previous, before the colonists even landed. New Earth is now a carefully and thoughtfully managed world where humans survived, thrived, and at one point sent out six slower-than-light colony ships of its own. All were feared lost after a rushed launch due to a solar storm. As this story opens, a probe from one of those ships arrives. This is cause for rejoicing, but there are two small problems. The first is that the culture of New Earth has changed drastically since the days when they launched the Halcyon colony ships. New Earth is now part of the Duality, a new alliance with aliens painstakingly negotiated after their portal appeared in orbit. The Kmet were peaceful, eager to form an alliance and offer new technology, although they struggled with concepts such as individuality and insisted on interacting only with the Arbiter. Their technological gifts and the apparent loss of the Halcyon colony ships refocused New Earth on safety and caution. This unexpected message is a somewhat tricky political problem, a reminder of the path not taken. The other small problem is that the reaction of the Kmet to this message is... dramatic. This book has several problems, but the most serious is that it is simply too long. If you have read any other Czerneda novels, you know that she tends towards sprawling world-building, but usually there are enough twists and turns in the plot to keep the story moving while the protagonists slowly puzzle out the scientific mysteries. To Each This World is not sufficiently twisty for 676 pages. I think you could have cut half the novel without losing any major plot points. The interesting parts of this book, to me, were figuring out what's going on with the Kmet, some of the political tensions within the New Earth government, and understanding what Henry and Pilot Killian's story had to do with the apparently-unrelated but intriguing interludes following Beth Seeker in a strange place called Doublet. All that stuff is in here, but it's alongside a whole lot of Henry wrestling with lifeboat ethics in situations where he thinks he needs to lie to and manipulate people for their own good. We also get several extended tours of societies that, while vaguely interesting in a science fiction world-building way, have essentially nothing to do with the plot. We also get a whole lot of Henry's eagerly helpful AI polymorph Flip. I wanted to like this character, and I occasionally managed, but I felt like there was a constant mismatch between, in hindsight, how Czerneda meant for me to see Flip and what I thought she was signaling while I was reading. I wanted Flip to either be a fascinatingly weird companion or to be directly relevant to the plot, but instead there were hundreds of pages of unnerving creepiness mixed with obsequiousness and emotional neediness, all of which I think I read more into than Czerneda had intended. The overall experience was more exhausting than fun. The core of the plot is solid, and if you like SF novels built around world-building and scientific mysteries, there's a lot here to enjoy. I think Czerneda's Species Imperative series (starting with Survival) is a better execution of some of the same ideas, but I liked that series a lot and was willing to read another take on it. Czerneda is one of the SF writers who takes biology seriously and is willing to write very alien aliens, and that leads to a few satisfying twists. Also, Beth Seeker is a great character (I wish we'd seen more of her), and Killian, while a bit generic, is a serviceable protagonist when Czerneda needs someone to go poke things with a stick. Henry... I'm not sure what I think of Henry, and your enjoyment of this book may depend on how much you click with him. Henry is a diplomat and an extrovert. His greatest joy and talent is talking to people, navigating political situations, and negotiating. Science fiction is full of protagonists who should be this character, but they rarely are this character, probably because a lot of writers are introverts. I think Czerneda deserves real credit for making her charismatic politician sufficiently accurate that his thought processes occasionally felt alien. For me, Henry was easiest to appreciate when Killian was the viewpoint protagonist and I could look at him through someone else's eyes, but Henry's viewpoint mostly worked as well. There's a lot of competence porn enjoyment in watching him do his thing. The problem for me is that I thought several of his actions were unforgivably unethical, but no one in the book who matters seems to agree. I can see why he reached those unethical decisions, but they were profound violations of consent. He directly lies to people because he thinks telling the truth would be too risky and not get them to do what he wants them to do, and Czerneda sets up the story to imply that he might be right. This is not necessarily a bad choice in a novel, but the author has to do some work to bring me along, and Czerneda didn't do enough of that work. I kept wanting there to be some twist or sting or complication that forced Henry to come to terms with what he was doing, but it never happens. He has to pick between two moral principles that I consider rather finely balanced, if not tilted in the opposite direction that he does, and he treats one principle as inviolable and the other as mostly unimportant. The plans he makes on that basis work fine, and those on the other side of that decision are never heard from again. It left a bad taste in my mouth, particularly given how much of the book is built around Henry making tough, tricky decisions under pressure. I don't know about this book. I have a lot of mixed feelings. Parts of it I quite enjoyed. Parts of it I mostly enjoyed but wish were much less dragged out. Parts of it frustrated or bored me. It's one of those books where the more I thought about it after reading it, the more the parts I disliked annoyed me. If you like Czerneda's style of world-building and biology, and if you have more tolerance for Henry's decisions than I did, you may well like this, but read Species Imperative first. I should probably also warn that there is a lot of magical technology in this book that blatantly violates some core principles of physics. I have a high tolerance for that sort of thing, but if you don't, you're going to be grumbling. Rating: 6 out of 10

4 April 2024

John Goerzen: The xz Issue Isn t About Open Source

You ve probably heard of the recent backdoor in xz. There have been a lot of takes on this, most of them boiling down to some version of:
The problem here is with Open Source Software.
I want to say not only is that view so myopic that it pushes towards the incorrect, but also it blinds us to more serious problems. Now, I don t pretend that there are no problems in the FLOSS community. There have been various pieces written about what this issue says about the FLOSS community (usually without actionable solutions). I m not here to say those pieces are wrong. Just that there s a bigger picture. So with this xz issue, it may well be a state actor (aka spy ) that added this malicious code to xz. We also know that proprietary software and systems can be vulnerable. For instance, a Twitter whistleblower revealed that Twitter employed Indian and Chinese spies, some knowingly. A recent report pointed to security lapses at Microsoft, including preventable lapses in security. According to the Wikipedia article on the SolarWinds attack, it was facilitated by various kinds of carelessness, including passwords being posted to Github and weak default passwords. They directly distributed malware-infested updates, encouraged customers to disable anti-malware tools when installing SolarWinds products, and so forth. It would be naive indeed to assume that there aren t black hat actors among the legions of programmers employed by companies that outsource work to low-cost countries some of which have challenges with bribery. So, given all this, we can t really say the problem is Open Source. Maybe it s more broad:
The problem here is with software.
Maybe that inches us closer, but is it really accurate? We have all heard of Boeing s recent issues, which seem to have some element of root causes in corporate carelessness, cost-cutting, and outsourcing. That sounds rather similar to the SolarWinds issue, doesn t it?
Well then, the problem is capitalism.
Maybe it has a role to play, but isn t it a little too easy to just say capitalism and throw up our hands helplessly, just as some do with FLOSS as at the start of this article? After all, capitalism also brought us plenty of products of very high quality over the years. When we can point to successful, non-careless products and I own some of them (for instance, my Framework laptop). We clearly haven t reached the root cause yet. And besides, what would you replace it with? All the major alternatives that have been tried have even stronger downsides. Maybe you replace it with better regulated capitalism , but that s still capitalism.
Then the problem must be with consumers.
As this argument would go, it s consumers buying patterns that drive problems. Buyers individual and corporate seek flashy features and low cost, prizing those over quality and security. No doubt this is true in a lot of cases. Maybe greed or status-conscious societies foster it: Temu promises people to shop like a billionaire , and unloads on them cheap junk, which all but guarantees that shipments from Temu containing products made with forced labor are entering the United States on a regular basis . But consumers are also people, and some fraction of them are quite capable of writing fantastic software, and in fact, do so. So what we need is some way to seize control. Some way to do what is right, despite the pressures of consumers or corporations. Ah yes, dear reader, you have been slogging through all these paragraphs and now realize I have been leading you to this:
Then the solution is Open Source.
Indeed. Faults and all, FLOSS is the most successful movement I know where people are bringing us back to the commons: working and volunteering for the common good, unleashing a thousand creative variants on a theme, iterating in every direction imaginable. We have FLOSS being vital parts of everything from $30 Raspberry Pis to space missions. It is bringing education and communication to impoverished parts of the world. It lets everyone write and release software. And, unlike the SolarWinds and Twitter issues, it exposes both clever solutions and security flaws to the world. If an authentication process in Windows got slower, we would all shrug and mutter Microsoft under our breath. Because, really, what else can we do? We have no agency with Windows. If an authentication process in Linux gets slower, anybody that s interested anybody at all can dive in and ask why and trace it down to root causes. Some look at this and say FLOSS is responsible for this mess. I look at it and say, this would be so much worse if it wasn t FLOSS and experience backs me up on this. FLOSS doesn t prevent security issues itself. What it does do is give capabilities to us all. The ability to investigate. Ability to fix. Yes, even the ability to break and its cousin, the power to learn. And, most rewarding, the ability to contribute.

9 January 2024

Louis-Philippe V ronneau: 2023 A Musical Retrospective

I ended 2022 with a musical retrospective and very much enjoyed writing that blog post. As such, I have decided to do the same for 2023! From now on, this will probably be an annual thing :) Albums In 2023, I added 73 new albums to my collection nearly 2 albums every three weeks! I listed them below in the order in which I acquired them. I purchased most of these albums when I could and borrowed the rest at libraries. If you want to browse though, I added links to the album covers pointing either to websites where you can buy them or to Discogs when digital copies weren't available. Once again this year, it seems that Punk (mostly O !) and Metal dominate my list, mostly fueled by Angry Metal Guy and the amazing Montr al Skinhead/Punk concert scene. Concerts A trend I started in 2022 was to go to as many concerts of artists I like as possible. I'm happy to report I went to around 80% more concerts in 2023 than in 2022! Looking back at my list, April was quite a busy month... Here are the concerts I went to in 2023: Although metalfinder continues to work as intended, I'm very glad to have discovered the Montr al underground scene has departed from Facebook/Instagram and adopted en masse Gancio, a FOSS community agenda that supports ActivityPub. Our local instance, askapunk.net is pretty much all I could ask for :) That's it for 2023!

21 November 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Thud!

Review: Thud!, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #34
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 2005
Printing: November 2014
ISBN: 0-06-233498-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 434
Thud! is the 34th Discworld novel and the seventh Watch novel. It is partly a sequel to The Fifth Elephant, partly a sequel to Night Watch, and references many of the previous Watch novels. This is not a good place to start. Dwarfs and trolls have a long history of conflict, as one might expect between a race of creatures who specialize in mining and a race of creatures whose vital organs are sometimes the targets of that mining. The first battle of Koom Valley was the place where that enmity was made concrete and given a symbol. Now that there are large dwarf and troll populations in Ankh-Morpork, the upcoming anniversary of that battle is the excuse for rising tensions. Worse, Grag Hamcrusher, a revered deep-down dwarf and a dwarf supremacist, is giving incendiary speeches about killing all trolls and appears to be tunneling under the city. Then whispers run through the city's dwarfs that Hamcrusher has been murdered by a troll. Vimes has no patience for racial tensions, or for the inspection of the Watch by one of Vetinari's excessively competent clerks, or the political pressure to add a vampire to the Watch over his prejudiced objections. He was already grumpy before the murder and is in absolutely no mood to be told by deep-down dwarfs who barely believe that humans exist that the murder of a dwarf underground is no affair of his. Meanwhile, The Battle of Koom Valley by Methodia Rascal has been stolen from the Ankh-Morpork Royal Art Museum, an impressive feat given that the painting is ten feet high and fifty feet long. It was painted in impressive detail by a madman who thought he was a chicken, and has been the spark for endless theories about clues to some great treasure or hidden knowledge, culminating in the conspiratorial book Koom Valley Codex. But the museum prides itself on allowing people to inspect and photograph the painting to their heart's content and was working on a new room to display it. It's not clear why someone would want to steal it, but Colon and Nobby are on the case. This was a good time to read this novel. Sadly, the same could be said of pretty much every year since it was written. "Thud" in the title is a reference to Hamcrusher's murder, which was supposedly done by a troll club that was found nearby, but it's also a reference to a board game that we first saw in passing in Going Postal. We find out a lot more about Thud in this book. It's an asymmetric two-player board game that simulates a stylized battle between dwarf and troll forces, with one player playing the trolls and the other playing the dwarfs. The obvious comparison is to chess, but a better comparison would be to the old Steve Jackson Games board game Ogre, which also featured asymmetric combat mechanics. (I'm sure there are many others.) This board game will become quite central to the plot of Thud! in ways that I thought were ingenious. I thought this was one of Pratchett's best-plotted books to date. There are a lot of things happening, involving essentially every member of the Watch that we've met in previous books, and they all matter and I was never confused by how they fit together. This book is full of little callbacks and apparently small things that become important later in a way that I found delightful to read, down to the children's book that Vimes reads to his son and that turns into the best scene of the book. At this point in my Discworld read-through, I can see why the Watch books are considered the best sub-series. It feels like Pratchett kicks the quality of writing up a notch when he has Vimes as a protagonist. In several books now, Pratchett has created a villain by taking some human characteristic and turning it into an external force that acts on humans. (See, for instance the Gonne in Men at Arms, or the hiver in A Hat Full of Sky.) I normally do not like this plot technique, both because I think it lets humans off the hook in a way that cheapens the story and because this type of belief has a long and bad reputation in religions where it is used to dodge personal responsibility and dehumanize one's enemies. When another of those villains turned up in this book, I was dubious. But I think Pratchett pulls off this type of villain as well here as I've seen it done. He lifts up a facet of humanity to let the reader get a better view, but somehow makes it explicit that this is concretized metaphor. This force is something people create and feed and choose and therefore are responsible for. The one sour note that I do have to complain about is that Pratchett resorts to some cheap and annoying "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" nonsense, mostly around Nobby's subplot but in a few other places (Sybil, some of Angua's internal monologue) as well. It's relatively minor, and I might let it pass without grumbling in other books, but usually Pratchett is better on gender than this. I expected better and it got under my skin. Otherwise, though, this was a quietly excellent book. It doesn't have the emotional gut punch of Night Watch, but the plotting is superb and the pacing is a significant improvement over The Fifth Elephant. The parody is of The Da Vinci Code, which is both more interesting than Pratchett's typical movie parodies and delightfully subtle. We get more of Sybil being a bad-ass, which I am always here for. There's even some lovely world-building in the form of dwarven Devices. I love how Pratchett has built Vimes up into one of the most deceptively heroic figures on Discworld, but also shows all of the support infrastructure that ensures Vimes maintain his principles. On the surface, Thud! has a lot in common with Vimes's insistently moral stance in Jingo, but here it is more obvious how Vimes's morality happens in part because his wife, his friends, and his boss create the conditions for it to thrive. Highly recommended to anyone who has gotten this far. Rating: 9 out of 10

16 November 2023

Dimitri John Ledkov: Ubuntu 23.10 significantly reduces the installed kernel footprint


Photo by Pixabay
Ubuntu systems typically have up to 3 kernels installed, before they are auto-removed by apt on classic installs. Historically the installation was optimized for metered download size only. However, kernel size growth and usage no longer warrant such optimizations. During the 23.10 Mantic Minatour cycle, I led a coordinated effort across multiple teams to implement lots of optimizations that together achieved unprecedented install footprint improvements.

Given a typical install of 3 generic kernel ABIs in the default configuration on a regular-sized VM (2 CPU cores 8GB of RAM) the following metrics are achieved in Ubuntu 23.10 versus Ubuntu 22.04 LTS:

  • 2x less disk space used (1,417MB vs 2,940MB, including initrd)

  • 3x less peak RAM usage for the initrd boot (68MB vs 204MB)

  • 0.5x increase in download size (949MB vs 600MB)

  • 2.5x faster initrd generation (4.5s vs 11.3s)

  • approximately the same total time (103s vs 98s, hardware dependent)


For minimal cloud images that do not install either linux-firmware or modules extra the numbers are:

  • 1.3x less disk space used (548MB vs 742MB)

  • 2.2x less peak RAM usage for initrd boot (27MB vs 62MB)

  • 0.4x increase in download size (207MB vs 146MB)


Hopefully, the compromise of download size, relative to the disk space & initrd savings is a win for the majority of platforms and use cases. For users on extremely expensive and metered connections, the likely best saving is to receive air-gapped updates or skip updates.

This was achieved by precompressing kernel modules & firmware files with the maximum level of Zstd compression at package build time; making actual .deb files uncompressed; assembling the initrd using split cpio archives - uncompressed for the pre-compressed files, whilst compressing only the userspace portions of the initrd; enabling in-kernel module decompression support with matching kmod; fixing bugs in all of the above, and landing all of these things in time for the feature freeze. Whilst leveraging the experience and some of the design choices implementations we have already been shipping on Ubuntu Core. Some of these changes are backported to Jammy, but only enough to support smooth upgrades to Mantic and later. Complete gains are only possible to experience on Mantic and later.

The discovered bugs in kernel module loading code likely affect systems that use LoadPin LSM with kernel space module uncompression as used on ChromeOS systems. Hopefully, Kees Cook or other ChromeOS developers pick up the kernel fixes from the stable trees. Or you know, just use Ubuntu kernels as they do get fixes and features like these first.

The team that designed and delivered these changes is large: Benjamin Drung, Andrea Righi, Juerg Haefliger, Julian Andres Klode, Steve Langasek, Michael Hudson-Doyle, Robert Kratky, Adrien Nader, Tim Gardner, Roxana Nicolescu - and myself Dimitri John Ledkov ensuring the most optimal solution is implemented, everything lands on time, and even implementing portions of the final solution.

Hi, It's me, I am a Staff Engineer at Canonical and we are hiring https://canonical.com/careers.

Lots of additional technical details and benchmarks on a huge range of diverse hardware and architectures, and bikeshedding all the things below:

For questions and comments please post to Kernel section on Ubuntu Discourse.



11 November 2023

Matthias Klumpp: AppStream 1.0 released!

Today, 12 years after the meeting where AppStream was first discussed and 11 years after I released a prototype implementation I am excited to announce AppStream 1.0!    Check it out on GitHub, or get the release tarball or read the documentation or release notes!

Some nostalgic memories I was not in the original AppStream meeting, since in 2011 I was extremely busy with finals preparations and ball organization in high school, but I still vividly remember sitting at school in the students lounge during a break and trying to catch the really choppy live stream from the meeting on my borrowed laptop (a futile exercise, I watched parts of the blurry recording later). I was extremely passionate about getting software deployment to work better on Linux and to improve the overall user experience, and spent many hours on the PackageKit IRC channel discussing things with many amazing people like Richard Hughes, Daniel Nicoletti, Sebastian Heinlein and others. At the time I was writing a software deployment tool called Listaller this was before Linux containers were a thing, and building it was very tough due to technical and personal limitations (I had just learned C!). Then in university, when I intended to recreate this tool, but for real and better this time as a new project called Limba, I needed a way to provide metadata for it, and AppStream fit right in! Meanwhile, Richard Hughes was tackling the UI side of things while creating GNOME Software and needed a solution as well. So I implemented a prototype and together we pretty much reshaped the early specification from the original meeting into what would become modern AppStream. Back then I saw AppStream as a necessary side-project for my actual project, and didn t even consider me as the maintainer of it for quite a while (I hadn t been at the meeting afterall). All those years ago I had no idea that ultimately I was developing AppStream not for Limba, but for a new thing that would show up later, with an even more modern design called Flatpak. I also had no idea how incredibly complex AppStream would become and how many features it would have and how much more maintenance work it would be and also not how ubiquitous it would become. The modern Linux desktop uses AppStream everywhere now, it is supported by all major distributions, used by Flatpak for metadata, used for firmware metadata via Richard s fwupd/LVFS, runs on every Steam Deck, can be found in cars and possibly many places I do not know yet.

What is new in 1.0?

API breaks The most important thing that s new with the 1.0 release is a bunch of incompatible changes. For the shared libraries, all deprecated API elements have been removed and a bunch of other changes have been made to improve the overall API and especially make it more binding-friendly. That doesn t mean that the API is completely new and nothing looks like before though, when possible the previous API design was kept and some changes that would have been too disruptive have not been made. Regardless of that, you will have to port your AppStream-using applications. For some larger ones I already submitted patches to build with both AppStream versions, the 0.16.x stable series as well as 1.0+. For the XML specification, some older compatibility for XML that had no or very few users has been removed as well. This affects for example release elements that reference downloadable data without an artifact block, which has not been supported for a while. For all of these, I checked to remove only things that had close to no users and that were a significant maintenance burden. So as a rule of thumb: If your XML validated with no warnings with the 0.16.x branch of AppStream, it will still be 100% valid with the 1.0 release. Another notable change is that the generated output of AppStream 1.0 will always be 1.0 compliant, you can not make it generate data for versions below that (this greatly reduced the maintenance cost of the project).

Developer element For a long time, you could set the developer name using the top-level developer_name tag. With AppStream 1.0, this is changed a bit. There is now a developer tag with a name child (that can be translated unless the translate="no" attribute is set on it). This allows future extensibility, and also allows to set a machine-readable id attribute in the developer element. This permits software centers to group software by developer easier, without having to use heuristics. If we decide to extend the developer information per-app in future, this is also now possible. Do not worry though the developer_name tag is also still read, so there is no high pressure to update. The old 0.16.x stable series also has this feature backported, so it can be available everywhere. Check out the developer tag specification for more details.

Scale factor for screenshots Screenshot images can now have a scale attribute, to indicate an (integer) scaling factor to apply. This feature was a breaking change and therefore we could not have it for the longest time, but it is now available. Please wait a bit for AppStream 1.0 to become deployed more widespread though, as using it with older AppStream versions may lead to issues in some cases. Check out the screenshots tag specification for more details.

Screenshot environments It is now possible to indicate the environment a screenshot was recorded in (GNOME, GNOME Dark, KDE Plasma, Windows, etc.) via an environment attribute on the respective screenshot tag. This was also a breaking change, so use it carefully for now! If projects want to, they can use this feature to supply dedicated screenshots depending on the environment the application page is displayed in. Check out the screenshots tag specification for more details.

References tag This is a feature more important for the scientific community and scientific applications. Using the references tag, you can associate the AppStream component with a DOI (Digital object identifier) or provide a link to a CFF file to provide citation information. It also allows to link to other scientific registries. Check out the references tag specification for more details.

Release tags Releases can have tags now, just like components. This is generally not a feature that I expect to be used much, but in certain instances it can become useful with a cooperating software center, for example to tag certain releases as long-term supported versions.

Multi-platform support Thanks to the interest and work of many volunteers, AppStream (mostly) runs on FreeBSD now, a NetBSD port exists, support for macOS was written and a Windows port is on its way! Thank you to everyone working on this

Better compatibility checks For a long time I thought that the AppStream library should just be a thin layer above the XML and that software centers should just implement a lot of the actual logic. This has not been the case for a while, but there was still a lot of complex AppStream features that were hard for software centers to implement and where it makes sense to have one implementation that projects can just use. The validation of component relations is one such thing. This was implemented in 0.16.x as well, but 1.0 vastly improves upon the compatibility checks, so you can now just run as_component_check_relations and retrieve a detailed list of whether the current component will run well on the system. Besides better API for software developers, the appstreamcli utility also has much improved support for relation checks, and I wrote about these changes in a previous post. Check it out! With these changes, I hope this feature will be used much more, and beyond just drivers and firmware.

So much more! The changelog for the 1.0 release is huge, and there are many papercuts resolved and changes made that I did not talk about here, like us using gi-docgen (instead of gtkdoc) now for nice API documentation, or the many improvements that went into better binding support, or better search, or just plain bugfixes.

Outlook I expect the transition to 1.0 to take a bit of time. AppStream has not broken its API for many, many years (since 2016), so a bunch of places need to be touched even if the changes themselves are minor in many cases. In hindsight, I should have also released 1.0 much sooner and it should not have become such a mega-release, but that was mainly due to time constraints. So, what s in it for the future? Contrary to what I thought, AppStream does not really seem to be done and fetature complete at a point, there is always something to improve, and people come up with new usecases all the time. So, expect more of the same in future: Bugfixes, validator improvements, documentation improvements, better tools and the occasional new feature. Onwards to 1.0.1!

10 October 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Chilling Effect

Review: Chilling Effect, by Valerie Valdes
Series: Chilling Effect #1
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Copyright: September 2019
Printing: 2020
ISBN: 0-06-287724-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 420
Chilling Effect is a space opera, kind of; more on the genre classification in a moment. It is the first volume of a series, although it reaches a reasonable conclusion on its own. It was Valerie Valdes's first novel. Captain Eva Innocente's line of work used to be less than lawful, following in the footsteps of her father. She got out of that life and got her own crew and ship. Now, the La Sirena Negra and its crew do small transport jobs for just enough money to stay afloat. Or, maybe, a bit less than that, when the recipient of a crate full of psychic escape-artist cats goes bankrupt before she can deliver it and get paid. It's a marginal and tenuous life, but at least she isn't doing anything shady. Then the Fridge kidnaps her sister. The Fridge is a shadowy organization of extortionists whose modus operandi is to kidnap a family member of their target, stuff them in cryogenic suspension, and demand obedience lest the family member be sold off as indentured labor after a few decades as a popsicle. Eva will be given missions that she and her crew have to perform. If she performs them well, she will pay off the price of her sister's release. Eventually. Oh, and she's not allowed to tell anyone. I found it hard to place the subgenre of this novel more specifically than comedy-adventure. The technology fits space opera: there are psychic cats, pilots who treat ships as extensions of their own body, brain parasites, a random intergalactic warlord, and very few attempts to explain anything with scientific principles. However, the stakes aren't on the scale that space opera usually goes for. Eva and her crew aren't going to topple governments or form rebellions. They're just trying to survive in a galaxy full of abusive corporations, dodgy clients, and the occasional alien who requires you to carry extensive documentation to prove that you can't be hunted for meat. It is also, as you might guess from that description, occasionally funny. That part of the book didn't mesh for me. Eva is truly afraid for her sister, and some of the events in the book are quite sinister, but the antagonist is an organization called The Fridge that puts people in fridges. Sexual harassment in a bar turns into obsessive stalking by a crazed intergalactic warlord who frequently interrupts the plot by randomly blasting things with his fleet, which felt like something from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The stakes for Eva, and her frustrations at being dragged back into a life she escaped, felt too high for the wacky, comic descriptions of the problems she gets into. My biggest complaint, though, is that the plot is driven by people not telling other people critical information they should know. Eva is keeping major secrets from her crew for nearly the entire book. Other people are also keeping information from Eva. There is a romance subplot driven almost entirely by both parties refusing to talk to each other about the existence of a romance subplot. For some people, this is catnip, but it's one of my least favorite fictional tropes and I found much of the book both frustrating and stressful. Fictional characters keeping important secrets from each other apparently raises my blood pressure. One of the things I did like about this book is that Eva is Hispanic and speaks like it. She resorts to Spanish frequently for curses, untranslatable phrases, aphorisms, derogatory comments, and similar types of emotional communication that don't feel right in a second language. Most of the time one can figure out the meaning from context, but Valdes doesn't feel obligated to hold the reader's hand and explain everything. I liked that. I think this approach is more viable in these days of ebook readers that can attempt translations on demand, and I think it does a lot to make Eva feel like a real person. I think the characters are the best part of this book, once one gets past the frustration of their refusal to talk to each other. Eva and the alien ship engineer get the most screen time, but Pink, Eva's honest-to-a-fault friend, was probably my favorite character. I also really enjoyed Min, the ship pilot whose primary goal is to be able to jack into the ship and treat it as her body, and otherwise doesn't particularly care about the rest of the plot as long as she gets paid. A lot of books about ship crews like this one lean hard into found family. This one felt more like a group of coworkers, with varying degrees of friendship and level of interest in their shared endeavors, but without the too-common shorthand of making the less-engaged crew members either some type of villain or someone who needs to be drawn out and turned into a best friend or love interest. It's okay for a job to just be a job, even if it's one where you're around the same people all the time. People who work on actual ships do it all the time. This is a half-serious, half-comic action romp that turned out to not be my thing, but I can see why others will enjoy it. Be prepared for a whole lot of communication failures and an uneven emotional tone, but if you're looking for a space-ships-and-aliens story that doesn't take itself very seriously and has some vague YA vibes, this may work for you. Followed by Prime Deceptions, although I didn't like this well enough to read on. Rating: 6 out of 10

30 September 2023

Russell Coker: Choosing Exclusion

There is an article The Inappropriately Excluded by the Polymath Archives [1] that gets cited a lot. Mainly by Mensa types who think that their lack of success is due to being too smart. The Main Claim is Wrong The main claim is:
The probability of entering and remaining in an intellectually elite profession such as Physician, Judge, Professor, Scientist, Corporate Executive, etc. increases with IQ to about 133. It then falls by about 1/3 at 140. By 150 IQ the probability has fallen from its peak by 97%! The first thing to consider is whether taking those professions is a smart thing to do. These are the types of jobs that a school career adviser would tell you are good choices for well paying jobs, but really there s lots of professional positions that get similar pay with less demanding work. Physicians have to deal with people who are sick and patients who die including cases where the physician needs to make a recommendation on incomplete information where the wrong choice will result in serious injury or death, there are significant benefits to being a medical researcher or doing biological engineering. Being a Judge has a high public profile and has a reasonable amount of pressure, good for status but you can probably earn more money with less work as a corporate lawyer. Being a professor is a position that is respected but which in many countries is very poorly paid. In a mid-size company executives probably get about $300k compared to $220k for middle managers and $100k-$180k for senior professional roles in the same company. There has been research on how much happyness is increased by having more money, here is one from CBS saying that income up to $500K can increase happiness[2] which contradicts previous research suggesting that income over $75K didn t provide much benefit. I think that part of this is determined by the conditions that you live in, if you live in a country like Australia with cheap healthcare then you won t feel as great a need to hoard money. Another part is whether you feel obliged to compete with other people for financial status, if driving an old car of a non-prestige brand while my neighbours have new BMWs concerned me then I might desire an executive position. I think that the smart thing to do is to get work that is relatively enjoyable, pays enough for all the essentials and some reasonable luxury, and doesn t require excessive effort or long hours. Unless you have a great need for attention from other people then for every job with a high profile there will be several with similar salaries but less attention. The main point of the article is that people with high IQs all want to reach the pinnacle of their career path and don t do so because they are excluded. It doesn t consider the possibility that smart people might have chosen the option that s best for them. For example I ve seen what my manager and the CIO of my company do and it doesn t look like fun for me. I m happy to have them earn more than me as compensation for doing things I don t want to do. Why is This Happening? This section of the article starts with Because of the dearth of objective evidence, the cause of the exclusion cannot be determined directly which is possibly where they should have given up. Also I could have concluded this blog post with I m not excluded from this list of jobs that suck , but I will continue listing problems with the article. One claim in the article is:
Garth Zietsman has said, referring to people with D15IQs over 152, A common experience with people in this category or higher is that they are not wanted the masses (including the professional classes) find them an affront of some sort. The question I have is whether it s being smart or being a jerk that the masses find to be an affront, I m guessing the latter. I don t recall seeing evidence outside high school of people inherently disliking smarter people. The article claims that We have no reason to conclude that this upper limit on IQ differences changes in adulthood . Schools don t cater well to smart kids and it isn t good for kids to have no intellectual peers. One benefit I ve found in the Free Software community is that there are a lot of smart people. Regarding leadership it claims D.K. Simonton found that persuasiveness is at its maximum when the IQ differential between speaker and audience is about 20 points . A good counter example is Julius Sumner Miller who successfully combined science education and advertising for children s chocolate [3]. Maybe being a little smarter than other people makes it more difficult to communicate with them but being as smart as Julius Sumner Miller can outweigh that. The article goes on to claim that the intellectual elites have an average IQ of 125 because they have to convince people who have an average IQ of 105. I think that if that 20 point difference was really a thing then you would have politicians with an IQ of 125 appointing leaders of the public service with an IQ of 145 who would then hire scientific advisers with an IQ of 165. In a corporate environment a CEO with an IQ of 125 could hire a CIO with an IQ of 145 who could then hire IT staff with an IQ of 165. If people with 165 IQs wanted to be Prime Minister or CEO that might suck for them, but if they wanted to have the most senior technical roles in public service or corporations then it would work out well. For the work I do I almost never speak to a CEO and rarely speak to anyone who regularly speaks to them, if CEOs don t like me and won t hire people like me then it doesn t matter to me as I won t meet them. Inappropriate Educational Options The section on Inappropriate Educational Options is one where I almost agree with the author. I say almost because I don t think that schools are good for anyone. Yes schools have some particular problems for smart kids, but they also have serious problems for kids who are below average IQ, kids who have problems at home, kids who are disabled, etc. Most schools fail so many groups of kids in so many ways that the overall culture of schools can t be functional. Social Isolation The section on Social Isolation is another where I almost agree with the author. But as with schools I think that society overall is poorly structured to support people such that people on the entire range of IQs have more difficulty in finding friends and relationships than they should. One easy change to make would be to increase the minimum wage such that one minimum wage job can support a family without working more than 35 hours a week and to set the maximum work week to something less than 40 hours Atlassian has a good blog post about the data on working weeks [4]. Wired has an article suggesting that 5 hours a day is an ideal work time for some jobs [5]. We also need improvements in public transport and city design to have less wasted time and better options for socialising. Conclusion The blogspot site hosting the article in question also has a very complex plan for funding a magazine for such articles [6]. The problems with that funding model start with selling advertising that converts to shares in a Turks & Caicos company in an attempt to circumvent securities regulations (things don t work that way). Then it goes in to some complex formulas for where money will go. This isn t the smart way to start a company, the smart way is to run a kickstarter with fixed rewards for specific amounts of contributions and then possibly have an offer of profit sharing with people who donate extra or something. As a general rule when doing something that s new to you it s a good idea to look at how others have succeeded at it in the past. Devising an experimental new way of doing something is best reserved to people who have some experience withe the more common methods. Mentioning this may seem like an ad hominem attack, but I think it s relevant to consider this in the context of people who score well in IQ tests but don t do so well in other things. Maybe someone who didn t think that they were a lot smarter than everyone else would have tried to launch a magazine in a more common way and actually had some success at it. In a more general sense I think that people who believe that they are suffering because of being too smart are in a similar category as incels. It s more of a psychological problem than anything else and one that they could solve for themselves.

12 September 2023

Jo Shields: Building a NAS

The status quo Back in 2015, I bought an off-the-shelf NAS, a QNAP TS-453mini, to act as my file store and Plex server. I had previously owned a Synology box, and whilst I liked the Synology OS and experience, the hardware was underwhelming. I loaded up the successor QNAP with four 5TB drives in RAID10, and moved all my files over (after some initial DoA drive issues were handled).
QNAP TS-453mini product photoQNAP TS-453mini product photo
That thing has been in service for about 8 years now, and it s been a mixed bag. It was definitely more powerful than the predecessor system, but it was clear that QNAP s OS was not up to the same standard as Synology s perhaps best exemplified by HappyGet 2 , the QNAP webapp for downloading videos from streaming services like YouTube, whose icon is a straight rip-off of StarCraft 2. On its own, meaningless but a bad omen for overall software quality
The logo for QNAP HappyGet 2 and Blizzard's Starcraft 2 side by sideThe logo for QNAP HappyGet 2 and Blizzard s StarCraft 2 side by side
Additionally, the embedded Celeron processor in the NAS turned out to be an issue for some cases. It turns out, when playing back videos with subtitles, most Plex clients do not support subtitles properly instead they rely on the Plex server doing JIT transcoding to bake the subtitles directly into the video stream. I discovered this with some Blu-Ray rips of Game of Thrones some episodes would play back fine on my smart TV, but episodes with subtitled Dothraki speech would play at only 2 or 3 frames per second. The final straw was a ransomware attack, which went through all my data and locked every file below a 60MiB threshold. Practically all my music gone. A substantial collection of downloaded files, all gone. Some of these files had been carried around since my college days digital rarities, or at least digital detritus I felt a real sense of loss at having to replace. This episode was caused by a ransomware targeting specific vulnerabilities in the QNAP OS, not an error on my part. So, I decided to start planning a replacement with:
  • A non-garbage OS, whilst still being a NAS-appliance type offering (not an off-the-shelf Linux server distro)
  • Full remote management capabilities
  • A small form factor comparable to off-the-shelf NAS
  • A powerful modern CPU capable of transcoding high resolution video
  • All flash storage, no spinning rust
At the time, no consumer NAS offered everything (The Asustor FS6712X exists now, but didn t when this project started), so I opted to go for a full DIY rather than an appliance not the first time I ve jumped between appliances and DIY for home storage.

Selecting the core of the system There aren t many companies which will sell you a small motherboard with IPMI. Supermicro is a bust, so is Tyan. But ASRock Rack, the server division of third-tier motherboard vendor ASRock, delivers. Most of their boards aren t actually compliant Mini-ITX size, they re a proprietary Deep Mini-ITX with the regular screw holes, but 40mm of extra length (and a commensurately small list of compatible cases). But, thankfully, they do have a tiny selection of boards without the extra size, and I stumbled onto the X570D4I-2T, a board with an AMD AM4 socket and the mature X570 chipset. This board can use any AMD Ryzen chip (before the latest-gen Ryzen 7000 series); has built in dual 10 gigabit ethernet; IPMI; four (laptop-sized) RAM slots with full ECC support; one M.2 slot for NVMe SSD storage; a PCIe 16x slot (generally for graphics cards, but we live in a world of possibilities); and up to 8 SATA drives OR a couple more NVMe SSDs. It s astonishingly well featured, just a shame it costs about $450 compared to a good consumer-grade Mini ITX AM4 board costing less than half that. I was so impressed with the offering, in fact, that I crowed about it on Mastodon and ended up securing ASRock another sale, with someone else looking into a very similar project to mine around the same timespan. The next question was the CPU. An important feature of a system expected to run 24/7 is low power, and AM4 chips can consume as much as 130W under load, out of the box. At the other end, some models can require as little as 35W under load the OEM-only GE suffix chips, which are readily found for import on eBay. In their PRO variant, they also support ECC (all non-G Ryzen chips support ECC, but only Pro G chips do). The top of the range 8 core Ryzen 7 PRO 5750GE is prohibitively expensive, but the slightly weaker 6 core Ryzen 5 PRO 5650GE was affordable, and one arrived quickly from Hong Kong. Supplemented with a couple of cheap 16 GiB SODIMM sticks of DDR4 PC-3200 direct from Micron for under $50 a piece, that left only cooling as an unsolved problem to get a bootable test system. The official support list for the X570D4I-2T only includes two rackmount coolers, both expensive and hard to source. The reason for such a small list is the non standard cooling layout of the board instead of an AM4 hole pattern with the standard plastic AM4 retaining clips, it has an Intel 115x hole pattern with a non-standard backplate (Intel 115x boards have no backplate, the stock Intel 115x cooler attaches to the holes with push pins). As such every single cooler compatibility list excludes this motherboard. However, the backplate is only secured with a mild glue with minimal pressure and a plastic prying tool it can be removed, giving compatibility with any 115x cooler (which is basically any CPU cooler for more than a decade). I picked an oversized low profile Thermalright AXP120-X67 hoping that its 120mm fan would cool the nearby MOSFETs and X570 chipset too.
Thermalright AXP120-X67, AMD Ryzen 5 PRO 5650GE, ASRock Rack X570D4I-2T, all assembled and running on a flat surface

Testing up to this point Using a spare ATX power supply, I had enough of a system built to explore the IPMI and UEFI instances, and run MemTest86 to validate my progress. The memory test ran without a hitch and confirmed the ECC was working, although it also showed that the memory was only running at 2933 MT/s instead of the rated 3200 MT/s (a limit imposed by the motherboard, as higher speeds are considered overclocking). The IPMI interface isn t the best I ve ever used by a long shot, but it s minimum viable and allowed me to configure the basics and boot from media entirely via a Web browser.
Memtest86 showing test progress, taken from IPMI remote control window
One sad discovery, however, which I ve never seen documented before, on PCIe bifurcation. With PCI Express, you have a number of lanes which are allocated in groups by the motherboard and CPU manufacturer. For Ryzen prior to Ryzen 7000, that s 16 lanes in one slot for the graphics card; 4 lanes in one M.2 connector for an SSD; then 4 lanes connecting the CPU to the chipset, which can offer whatever it likes for peripherals or extra lanes (bottlenecked by that shared 4x link to the CPU, if it comes down to it). It s possible, with motherboard and CPU support, to split PCIe groups up for example an 8x slot could be split into two 4x slots (eg allowing two NVMe drives in an adapter card NVME drives these days all use 4x). However with a Cezanne Ryzen with integrated graphics, the 16x graphics card slot cannot be split into four 4x slots (ie used for for NVMe drives) the most bifurcation it allows is 8x4x4x, which is useless in a NAS.
Screenshot of PCIe 16x slot bifurcation options in UEFI settings, taken from IPMI remote control window
As such, I had to abandon any ideas of an all-NVMe NAS I was considering: the 16x slot split into four 4x, combined with two 4x connectors fed by the X570 chipset, to a total of 6 NVMe drives. 7.6TB U.2 enterprise disks are remarkably affordable (cheaper than consumer SATA 8TB drives), but alas, I was locked out by my 5650GE. Thankfully I found out before spending hundreds on a U.2 hot swap bay. The NVMe setup would be nearly 10x as fast as SATA SSDs, but at least the SATA SSD route would still outperform any spinning rust choice on the market (including the fastest 10K RPM SAS drives)

Containing the core The next step was to pick a case and power supply. A lot of NAS cases require an SFX (rather than ATX) size supply, so I ordered a modular SX500 unit from Silverstone. Even if I ended up with a case requiring ATX, it s easy to turn an SFX power supply into ATX, and the worst result is you have less space taken up in your case, hardly the worst problem to have. That said, on to picking a case. There s only one brand with any cachet making ITX NAS cases, Silverstone. They have three choices in an appropriate size: CS01-HS, CS280, and DS380. The problem is, these cases are all badly designed garbage. Take the CS280 as an example, the case with the most space for a CPU cooler. Here s how close together the hotswap bay (right) and power supply (left) are:
Internal image of Silverstone CS280 NAS build. Image stolen from ServeTheHome
With actual cables connected, the cable clearance problem is even worse:
Internal image of Silverstone CS280 NAS build. Image stolen from ServeTheHome
Remember, this is the best of the three cases for internal layout, the one with the least restriction on CPU cooler height. And it s garbage! Total hot garbage! I decided therefore to completely skip the NAS case market, and instead purchase a 5.25 -to-2.5 hot swap bay adapter from Icy Dock, and put it in an ITX gamer case with a 5.25 bay. This is no longer a served market 5.25 bays are extinct since nobody uses CD/DVD drives anymore. The ones on the market are really new old stock from 2014-2017: The Fractal Design Core 500, Cooler Master Elite 130, and Silverstone SUGO 14. Of the three, the Fractal is the best rated so I opted to get that one however it seems the global supply of new old stock fully dried up in the two weeks between me making a decision and placing an order leaving only the Silverstone case. Icy Dock have a selection of 8-bay 2.5 SATA 5.25 hot swap chassis choices in their ToughArmor MB998 series. I opted for the ToughArmor MB998IP-B, to reduce cable clutter it requires only two SFF-8611-to-SF-8643 cables from the motherboard to serve all eight bays, which should make airflow less of a mess. The X570D4I-2T doesn t have any SATA ports on board, instead it has two SFF-8611 OCuLink ports, each supporting 4 PCI Express lanes OR 4 SATA connectors via a breakout cable. I had hoped to get the ToughArmor MB118VP-B and run six U.2 drives, but as I said, the PCIe bifurcation issue with Ryzen G chips meant I wouldn t be able to run all six bays successfully.
NAS build in Silverstone SUGO 14, mid build, panels removed
Silverstone SUGO 14 from the front, with hot swap bay installed

Actual storage for the storage server My concept for the system always involved a fast boot/cache drive in the motherboard s M.2 slot, non-redundant (just backups of the config if the worst were to happen) and separate storage drives somewhere between 3.8 and 8 TB each (somewhere from $200-$350). As a boot drive, I selected the Intel Optane SSD P1600X 58G, available for under $35 and rated for 228 years between failures (or 11,000 complete drive rewrite cycles). So, on to the big expensive choice: storage drives. I narrowed it down to two contenders: new-old-stock Intel D3-S4510 3.84TB enterprise drives, at about $200, or Samsung 870 QVO 8TB consumer drives, at about $375. I did spend a long time agonizing over the specification differences, the ZFS usage reports, the expected lifetime endurance figures, but in reality, it came down to price $1600 of expensive drives vs $3200 of even more expensive drives. That s 27TB of usable capacity in RAID-Z1, or 23TB in RAID-Z2. For comparison, I m using about 5TB of the old NAS, so that s a LOT of overhead for expansion.
Storage SSD loaded into hot swap sled

Booting up Bringing it all together is the OS. I wanted an appliance NAS OS rather than self-administering a Linux distribution, and after looking into the surrounding ecosystems, decided on TrueNAS Scale (the beta of the 2023 release, based on Debian 12).
TrueNAS Dashboard screenshot in browser window
I set up RAID-Z1, and with zero tuning (other than enabling auto-TRIM), got the following performance numbers:
IOPSBandwidth
4k random writes19.3k75.6 MiB/s
4k random reads36.1k141 MiB/s
Sequential writes 2300 MiB/s
Sequential reads 3800 MiB/s
Results using fio parameters suggested by Huawei
And for comparison, the maximum theoretical numbers quoted by Intel for a single drive:
IOPSBandwidth
4k random writes16k?
4k random reads90k?
Sequential writes 280 MiB/s
Sequential reads 560 MiB/s
Numbers quoted by Intel SSD successors Solidigm.
Finally, the numbers reported on the old NAS with four 7200 RPM hard disks in RAID 10:
IOPSBandwidth
4k random writes4301.7 MiB/s
4k random reads800632 MiB/s
Sequential writes 311 MiB/s
Sequential reads 566 MiB/s
Performance seems pretty OK. There s always going to be an overhead to RAID. I ll settle for the 45x improvement on random writes vs. its predecessor, and 4.5x improvement on random reads. The sequential write numbers are gonna be impacted by the size of the ZFS cache (50% of RAM, so 16 GiB), but the rest should be a reasonable indication of true performance. It took me a little while to fully understand the TrueNAS permissions model, but I finally got Plex configured to access data from the same place as my SMB shares, which have anonymous read-only access or authenticated write access for myself and my wife, working fine via both Linux and Windows. And that s it! I built a NAS. I intend to add some fans and more RAM, but that s the build. Total spent: about $3000, which sounds like an unreasonable amount, but it s actually less than a comparable Synology DiskStation DS1823xs+ which has 4 cores instead of 6, first-generation AMD Zen instead of Zen 3, 8 GiB RAM instead of 32 GiB, no hardware-accelerated video transcoding, etc. And it would have been a whole lot less fun!
The final system, powered up
(Also posted on PCPartPicker)

4 August 2023

Shirish Agarwal: License Raj 2.0, 2023

About a week back Jio launched a laptop called JioBook that will be manufactured in China
The most interesting thing is that the whole thing will be produced in Hunan, China. Then 3 days later India mandates a licensing requirement for Apple, Dell and other laptop/tablet manufacturers. And all of these in the guise of Make in India . It is similar how India has exempted Adani and the Tatas from buying as much solar cells as are needed and then sell the same in India. Reliance will be basically monopolizing the laptop business. And if people think that projects like Raspberry Pi, Arduino etc. will be exempted they have another think coming.

History of License Raj After India became free, in the 1980s the Congress wanted to open its markets to the world just like China did. But at that time, the BJP, though small via Jan Sangh made the argument that we are not ready for the world. The indian businessman needs a bit more time. And hence a compromise was made. The compromise was simple. Indian Industry and people who wanted to get anything from the west, needed a license. This was very much in line how the Russian economy was evolving. All the three nations, India, China and Russia were on similar paths. China broke away where it opened up limited markets for competition and gave state support to its firms. Russia and Japan on the other hand, kept their markets relatively closed. The same thing happened in India, what happened in Russia and elsewhere. The businessman got what he wanted, he just corrupted the system. Reliance, the conglomerate today abused the same system as much as it could. Its defence was to be seen as the small guy. I wouldn t go into that as that itself would be a big story in itself. Whatever was sold in India was sold with huge commissions and just like Russia scarcity became the order of the day. Monopolies flourished and competition was nowhere. These remained till 1991 when Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh was forced to liberalize and open up the markets. Even at that time, the RSS through its Swadeshi Jagran Manch was sharing the end of the world prophecies for the Indian businessman.

2014 Current Regime In 2010, in U.K. the Conservative party came in power under the leadership of David Cameron who was influenced by the policies of Margaret Thatcher who arguably ditched manufacturing in the UK. David Cameron and his party did the same 2010 onwards but for public services under the name austerity. India has been doing the same. The inequality has gone up while people s purchasing power has gone drastically down. CMIE figures are much more drastic and education is a joke.
Add to that since 2016 funding for scientists have gone to the dogs and now they are even playing with doctor s careers. I do not have to remind people that a woman scientist took almost a quarter century to find a drug delivery system that others said was impossible. And she did it using public finance. Science is hard. I have already shared in a previous blog post how it took the Chinese 20 years to reach where they are and somehow we think we will be able to both China and Japan. Of the 160 odd countries that are on planet earth, only a handful of countries have both the means and the knowledge to use and expand on that. While I was not part of Taiwan Debconf, later I came to know that even Taiwan in many ways is similar to Japan in the sense that a majority of its population is stuck in low-paid jobs (apart from those employed in TSMC) which is similar to Keiretsu or Chabeol from either Japan or South Korea. In all these cases, only a small percentage of the economy is going forward while the rest is stagnating or even going backwards. Similar is the case in India as well  Unlike the Americans who chose the path to have more competition, we have chosen the path to have more monopolies. So even though, I very much liked Louis es project sooner or later finding the devices itself would be hard. While the recent notification is for laptops, what stops them from doing the same with mobiles or even desktop systems. As it is, both smartphones as well as desktop systems has been contracting since last year as food inflation has gone up. Add to that availability of products has been made scarce (whether by design or not, unknown.) The end result, the latest processor launched overseas becomes the new thing here 3-4 years later. And that was before this notification. This will only decrease competition and make Ambanis rich at cost of everyone else. So much for east of doing business . Also the backlash has been pretty much been tepid. So what I shared will probably happen again sooner or later. The only interesting thing is that it s based on Android, probably in part due to the issues people seeing in both Windows 10, 11 and whatnot. Till later. Update :- The print tried a decluttering but instead cluttered the topic. While what he shared all was true, and certainly it is a step backwards but he didn t need to show how most Indians had to go to RBI for the same. I remember my Mamaji doing the same and sharing afterwards that all he had was $100 for a day which while being a big sum was paltry if you were staying in a hotel and were there for company business. He survived on bananas and whatver cheap veg. he could find then. This is almost 35-40 odd years ago. As shared the Govt. has been doing missteps for quite sometime now. The print does try to take a balanced take so it doesn t run counter of the Government but even it knows that this is a bad take. The whole thing about security is just laughable, did they wake up after 9 years. And now in its own wisdom it apparently has shifted the ban instead from now to 3 months afterwards. Of course, most people on the right just applauding without understanding the complexities and implications of the same. Vendors like Samsung and Apple who have made assembly operations would do a double-think and shift to Taiwan, Vietnam, Mexico anywhere. Global money follows global trends. And such missteps do not help

Implications in A.I. products One of the things that has not been thought about how companies that are making A.I. products in India or even MNC s will suffer. Most of them right now are in stealth mode but are made for Intel or AMD or ARM depending upon how it works for them. There is nothing to tell if the companies made their plea and was it heard or unheard. If the Government doesn t revert it then sooner or later they would either have to go abroad or cash out/sell to somebody else. Some people on the right also know this but for whatever reason have chosen to remain silent. Till later

Shirish Agarwal: Birth Control, Consent, Rape & Violence.

Consent, Violence, Sexual Abuse This again would be somewhat of a mature post. So children, please refrain from reading. When I hear the above words, my first thought goes to Aamir Khan s Season 1 Episode 2 in Satyamev Jayate. This was the first time that the topic of child sexual abuse was bought in the forefront in the hall rather than a topic to be discussed in the corner. Unfortunately, that episode is still in Hindi and no English subtitles available even today shows a lack of sensitivity in Indian s part to still come to terms with Child abuse that happens in India. The numbers that they had shared at that time were shocking. More than 50 per cent children experience sexual abuse and mostly from friends or relatives. That means 1 in every 2 children. And this was in 2012. But the problem of child sexual abuse didn t start then, it started in the 1960 s, 70 s. In the 1960 s, 1970s we didn t have much of cinema and TV and whatever there was pretty limited. There were few B movie producers, but most of them came into their own in the 1980s. So what influenced Indians in those days were softcore magazines that either had a mature aunt or a teen and they would tease and sooner or later the man would sort of overpower them and fulfill his needs. Even mainstream Indian cinema used similar tropes. One of the most memorable songs of that era Wada Karo Nahi Chodoge Tum Meera Saath from Aa Gale Lag jaa. A bit of context for the song. This is where Shashi Kapoor sees, he tries to ask her to date him, she says no. He tries to put an act where he shows he can t skate or rather pretends. And kinda takes a promise from her that she will date him if he is able to skate. And viola, the next moment he is not just skating, but dancing and singing as well. And the whole he touches her and you can see that is uncomfortable and yet after a while he woos her. Now this is problematic today because we are seeing it from today s lens. It might also have problematic with the feminists of that time, but they probably would have been called overly sensitive or something like that. And this is what went in Universal cinema. But this is just tip of the surface. There were and are multiple poems and even art in those times that flirted and even sort of engaged with sexual molestation, rape both in poems as well as literature, both in Hindi and various regional literature. Similar to stuff that Keats and some other poets (problematic stuff) they wrote and where both men and women were in two minds, whether to take all the other good literature out or kinda make the difference between the art and artist. Now, while Aamir spoke about consent it wasn t in any official capacity or even a legal capacity. The interesting thing was that there was an Act that kinda put some safeguards but had been doing rounds for almost a decade. Because the extremists on both sides, Hindus and Muslims were not in favor of that Act, it was still doing rounds. Aamir s episode on 6th May 2012 and the discussions in mainstream media following that forced the Indian legislature to make POSCO as a law on 22nd May 2012. Almost 6 months to 2 weeks, Nirbhaya happened and changes to the law happened in another 6 months. Both voyeurism and stalking were made jailable offenses and consent became part of lingua franca in the Supreme Court. Couple of weeks back, I had shared in the Manipur case the part about fingering . In the same Act, another change that was done that insertion of any part including foreign objects in any of the openings would be classed as rape . So in that Manipur case, at least those 2-3 people who have been identified as clear perpetrators according to the law of land would be rapists and should have the highest punishment. Unfortunately, the system is rigged against women as Vrinda Grover had shared just couple of weeks back. How a 6 month fast track case (to be completed within 6 months) becomes a 10 year old case tells you the efficacy of the system. The reality is far more worse than is shared or known. Just a few months ago, GOI shared some data on Sexual Harassment in 2018-19. And this is after constant pressurizing by Activists that GOI doesn t like. In fact, in 2021, Unicef had shared data about how India was one of the five countries where child brides are still prevalent. India denied but didn t produce any alternative data. The firing of Mr. James over NHFS data sets doesn t give it any brownie points to the present Government. What has happened in the last few years is that the Government for reasons of its own had been scrubbing and censoring a lot of data. I won t go far, just 2 day old story which I had shared just couple of days back. Roughly a 25 year old RPF constable kills his superior and kills 3 Muslims after going to various coaches and then the Government uses the defence of temporary insanity.
Even the mental instability defence has twists and turns
Incidentally, Press Trust of India is s private organization and not the public broadcaster of the old. And incidentally, just a few days back, it came to light that they hadn t paid Income tax for last 2-3 years. Because of issues in reward money, the public came to know otherwise they wouldn t have known. Coming back to the topic itself, there was a video where you could hear and see the accused stating after killing the three Muslims that if you want to remain in India, then you have to vote for only Modi or Yogi, otherwise this will happen. That video was scrubbed both from Twitter as well as YouTube. All centralized platforms at the very least, whether it is Google (Youtube) or Twitter or Meta uses its own media ID. Meta s being most problematic but that probably being a discussion for another day. The same censorship tools are applied rigorously and lot of incidents are buried. Cases of girls being thrown in lakes just after lakes or low numbers of conviction in case of gang rapes are more often than not disappears.
The above article shared just a few days ago that how low the conviction rates of gang rapes are in Gujarat tells you the story. You might get the story today, but wait for a few weeks and you will find that the story has disappeared. What most people do not know or understand is that the web is increasingly a public repository of idea, imaginations and trust and authoritarian regimes like Government of India is increasingly using both official as well as unofficial methods to suppress the same. To see that in the last 9 odd years, GOI has made the highest number of takedown requests and been either number one or number two tells all. My question is where we do from here ??? If even the Minister and her Ministry can do only whataboutery rather than answer the questions, then how we are supposed to come up solutions. And even if a solution exists, without the state and Center agreeing and co-operating with civil society, any solution will be far off the desired result. I am sorry that I at least have no answers

Louis-Philippe V ronneau: pymonitair: Air Quality Monitoring Display with MicroPython

I've never been a fan of IoT devices for obvious reasons: not only do they tend to be excellent at being expensive vendor locked-in machines, but far too often, they also end up turning into e-waste after a short amount of time. Manufacturers can go out of business or simply decide to shut down the cloud servers for older models, and then you're stuck with a brick. Well, this all changes today, as I've built my first IoT device and I love it. Introducing pymonitair. What pymonitair is a MicroPython project that aims to display weather data from a home weather station (like the ones sold by AirGradient) on a small display. The source code was written for the Raspberry Pi Pico W, the Waveshare Pico OLED 1.3 display and the RevolvAir Revo 1 weather station, but can be adapted to other displays and stations easily, as I tried to keep the code as modular as possible. The general MicroPython code itself isn't specific to the Raspberry Pi Pico and shouldn't need to be modified for other boards. pymonitair features: Here's a demo of me scrolling through the different pages and (somewhat failing) to turn the screen on and off: Why? If you follow my blog, you'll know that my last entry was about building a set of tools to collect and graph data from a weather station my neighbor set up. Why on Earth would I need a separate device to show this data, when the website I've built works perfectly fine and is accessible on any computer or smartphone? Mostly alerts. When the air quality here dropped following forest fires, I found out keeping track of if I had to close my windows and bunker down was quite a hassle. Air quality would degrade during the day and I would only notice it hours later. With the pymonitair, I'll have a little screen flashing angrily at me whenever this happens. A simpler solution would probably have been to forgo hardware altogether and code some icinga2 alert to ping me over Signal whenever the air quality got bad. Hacking on pymonitair was mostly a way to learn to use MicroPython and familiarize myself with this type of embedded hardware device. I'll surely blog about this later this year, but I plan to use a very similar stack to mod my apartment's HVAC unit to stop pulling air from outside when an air quality sensor detects cigarette smoke (or bad air quality in general). Things I've learnt This project was super fun and taught me many things:

  1. PM1, PM2.5, PM10, Temperature, Humidity and Pressure
  2. Part of the screen will flash repeatedly
  3. I did look for other solutions to transfer files to the board, but none of them were actually maintained. I nearly finished packaging ampy before realising it was officially unmaintained and its main alternative, rshell, has had its last release in December 2021. When I caught myself seriously considering writing a script to transfer files over the serial link, I gave up and decided thonny was not that bad after all.

2 August 2023

Shirish Agarwal: Kaalkoot

Kaalkoot This post would be mature and would talk about death and other things. So if there are young kids or whatever kindly refrain from reading it. Just saw this series in 2 days. In a way the series encompasses all that which is wrong in India and partly the World perhaps. IMDB describes it as A police officer must deal with society s and his mother s pressure to marry, as well as frequent bullying and pressure from his superiors. But that hardly does justice to either the story or the script or the various ebbs and flows it takes. A very bit part of the series of the series is about patriarchy and the various forms it takes. It tells how we would use women and then throw them, many a times by willing relatives who want to save face . And it s so many ways and so many times that people do not even pay attention. I will not share the story as it needs to be experienced as well as the many paths the story takes as well as many paths it could have taken. What is remarkable about this series is that everyone is grey apart from the women who are victims in all of these. Even our hero, the protagonist uses it to take advantage of a woman. There are multiple stories and timelines that are just touched upon. For e.g. curing the gay and boasting he has cured many guys and now have their married with families. How many families suffered god only knows, both sexes dissatisfied  At the end of the series while a slightly progressive end is shown, in reality you are left wondering whether the decision taken by the protagonist and the woman having just no agency. The hero knowing he is superior to her because of her perceived weakness. A deep-rooted malaise that is difficult to break out of. His father too and the relationship the hero longs for to have with his father who is no more. He does share some of his feelings with his mum, which touches the cord of probably every child whose mother father left them early and all those things they wanted to talk or would have chatted out if they knew this would be the last conversation they will ever have with them. Couldn t even say sorry for all the wrongs and the pain we have given them. There are just too many layers in the webseries that I would need to see it a few times to be aware of. I could sense the undercurrents but sometimes you need to see such series or movies multiple times to understand them or it could simply be the case of me being just too thick. There are also poems and poems as we know may have multiple meanings and is or can be more contextual to the person reading it rather than the creator. At the end, while it does show a positive end, in reality I feel there is no redemption for us. I am talking about men. We are too proud, too haughty and too insecure. And if things don t go the way we want, it s the women who pay the price  I am not going to talk about any news either about Manipur or anywhere else because hate crimes have become normal. An RPF personnel plans, and goes from coach to coach to find Muslims and shoot them and then say only the tallest leaders in RW should be voted for. A mob then burns down Muslim s homes and businesses, all par for the course. The mentally unstable moniker taken right from the American far-right notebook.
The Americans have taken it much further than anyone else using open carry and stand your ground, laws to make blacks afraid and going further. I don t really wanna go down that route as it s a whole another pandora s box and what little I have read tells me it starts from the very beginning when the European settlers invaded America and took indigenous people s lands and giving it the moniker of Wild West . Just too much to deal with.

Mental Health But these spate of bad news, of murders, rapes and whatnot does take a toll on the mental health of people. Take this tweet as instance
I think the above tweet is an expression that is felt by many Indians, whatsoever their religion might be. Most of them unable to express it as many have responsibilities in which they are the only caretakers or the only earner in the family. So even though, we have huge inflation especially in foods and whatnot the daily struggle to put food on the table extinguishes everything else. And for those who may want to go through for whatever reasons, there is nothing like MAID in India. There was a good debate that I saw few months ago about it, and I think both the for and against miss a very crucial point. People have their own idea or imagination of what dignity in living as well as dignity of dying. I was seeing some videos of NHS doctors (UK) where many doctors couldn t do anything as their patients died as they couldn t pay bills for heating. Many of the patients wanted the doctors to end their suffering. The case against it is that people should reach out and have community services. While that is a great theory, practically it is difficult. Whether it is in dense populated area like Pune (population around 10 odd million) or the whole country of Japan which is heavily being depopulated, in both the extreme scenarios the access to mental health is and would be low. And even if there is someway that the Government, the community, business community etc. come altogether and solve it, it just shifts the problem. All the shit, our fears, our uncertainties, our doubts we unload on the medical health professional but where do they go to get rid of it. It s a vicious circular problem. I did read somewhere that mental health professionals are four times prone to suicide than other doctors. And all emergency care professionals like firefighters and whatnot are again 4 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. How much those stats are true, have no clue as again most of such kinds of data is not collected by NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) in India. In fact, NCRB often describes such deaths as accidental deaths as otherwise the person would be termed as loser or something else. Even in and after death, people are worried about labels. But that I guess is what s it all about. I do not know but do guess most of the 160 odd countries would have similar issues and most of them keep quiet about it. Till later

17 July 2023

Shirish Agarwal: WordPress Cookies, Debdelta, RISC, Manipur, Libraries in Kerala.

WordPress Cookies, Debdelta One of the most irritating things about WordPress is whenever I start a firefox session, WordPress aks for cookie selection. I make my choices but it s not persistent. The next session the same thing happens again. It does keep my identity but for some unknown reason doesn t respect the Cookie selection. I usually use Firefox ESR (102.13.0esr-1) on Testing. Also, for more than a week I have found debdelta not working as it should. To give a brief history, the idea of debdelta is to save bandwidth, whether it 100 kbps or 1 mbit or whatever, the moment you give debdelta-upgrade it will try to see if there is a delta of the debs that you want to upgrade. The sequence is as follows or at least that is what I do
  1. $sudo apt update (updates the index files of apt and tells you how many packages are upgradable). IIRC, every 4-5 hours there is an index runs that basically catches any new debian packages. You can see the index generated dynamically each time you run the above command in /var/lib/apt/lists
2. $ sudo debdelta-upgrade Now the debdelta algorithim goes to work. Debdelta has its own mirror. I think sometime after the indexes are updated, debdelta does it own run, probably an hour or two later. The algorithim sees how big the diff between the two packages and generates a delta. If the generated delta (diff.) between the old and the new is less than 70% then the generated delta is kept or otherwise thrown. The delta is kept in debdelta mirror. You can from 1 day history how big it is. And AFAIK, it is across all the hardware and platforms that Debian supports. My issue has been simply that debdelta just doesn t work and even after debdelta-upgrade I am forced to get all the files from the server. Have shared more details here. 3. The last step is $ sudo aptitude upgrade or $ sudo aptitude install and give package names if you know some packages are broken or non-resolvable or have some bugs.

RISC I had shared about RISC chips couple of weeks back. One of the things that I had forgotten to share that Android is also supporting RISC-V few months back. How I forgot that crucial bit of info. is beyond me. There are number of RISC-V coming out in the next few months to early 2024. One of the more interesting boards that came up in 2021/2022 was HiFive Unmatched. The problem is that the board although interesting on specs is out of reach of most Indians. I am sure most people would be aware of the chicken and egg problem and that is where it is. Pricing will be key component. If they get the pricing right and are able to produce in good numbers, we might see more of these boards soon. At least with Android that issue gets somewhat resolved. There is possibility that we may see more Android set-top boxes and whatnot paired with RISC paving more money for RISC development and a sort of virtuous cycle. While I m in two minds, I decide not to share what chips are coming unless and until we know what the pricing is, otherwise they just become part of a hype cycle. But it s definitely something to watch out for. One of the more interesting articles that I read last week also tells how Linux has crossed 3% desktop space and his views on the same. I do very much agree with his last paragraph but at the same time biased as am an old time desktop user. I just don t find myself happy on small factor keyboards. I will leave the rest for some other time depending how things happen.

Manipur Before I start sharing about Manipur, I should thank Praveen A. few years back, Praveen wanted to see the 7 sisters and in fact had even proposed to partially sponsor me so that we could together visit the 7 states of North-East. For reasons I don t remember, I just wasn t able to go. Probably some work and responsibilities at home. For almost 2.5 months now, Manipur, one of the States in the 7 states has been burning. There have been talks and sharing of genocidial murder of Christians in Manipur. This is not just me or some random person talking about, even BJP (the ruling party in the Center), their functionaries both in Manipur and its neighboring state Mizoram have been sharing. Mizoram s State BJP President in fact resigned just few days back saying it s state sponsored activity. Couple of days back, European Parliament held a session about Manipur and even passed a resolution. The BJP tried to hit back saying Colonial Mindset but when asked if it s the same when India invited European Parliamentarians to visit Kashmir in 2019, the silence is deafening. The Wire has interviewed all the prominent leaders and sort of players in Manipur politics but apart from calling Kukis foreigners they have no proof. In one of the interviews one of the Meitei leaders calls Kuki s foreigners but doesn t have any Government data to support his belief. The census of India was last held in 2011. People from the civil society have time and again asked the Government to do the census but GOI has been giving one excuse after another. They in fact, wanted to do a caste census but that too they themselves took on back foot probably as they believe that both census may give results not to their liking. In fact, this Government is also known as No Data Government as almost in everything, it denies data. I am not going to go to that otherwise would not be able to complete blog post till couple of days. I will just share this bit of info. that this Govt. hasn t given Household Consumption Survey data for last four years. Going back to the topic though, neither the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, the Defence Minister nobody has been able to utter the word Manipur till date. I have no idea when they will wake up. People from all ethnicities have tried to make representations to GOI but no one has been able to meet them, neither the Kukis, nor the Nagas, nor the Meiteis even though it is a sensitive border area.

Libraries in Kerala I wanted to end on a somewhat positive note. So just a few days back, the Miinistry of Culture shared the number of Libraries per state. As can be seen from the infographic, Kerala is a giant in that. If I do find a table, would share that as well, so those who can t see can hear the data. Till later.

10 July 2023

Shirish Agarwal: PLIO, Mum, Debconf, Pressure Cooker, RISC-V,

PLIO I have been looking for an image viewer that can view images via modification date by default. The newer, the better. Alas, most of the image viewers do not do that. Even feh somehow fails. What I need is default listing of images as thumbnails by modification date. I put it up on Unix Stackexchange couple of years ago. Somebody shared ristretto but that just gives listing and doesn t give the way I want it. To be more illustrative, maybe this may serve as a guide to what I mean.
There is an RFP for it. While playing with it, I also discovered another benefit of the viewer, a sort of side-benefit, it tells you if any images have gone corrupt or whatever and you get that info. on the CLI so you can try viewing that image with the path using another viewer or viewers before deleting them. One of the issues is there doesn t seem to be a magnify option by default. While the documentation says use the ^ key to maximize it, it doesn t maximize. Took me a while to find it as that isn t a key that I use most of the time. Ironically, that is the key used on the mobile quite a bit. Anyways, so that needs to be fixed. Sadly, it doesn t have creation date or modification date sort, although the documentation does say it does (at least the modification date) but it doesn t show at my end. I also got Warning: UNKNOWN command detected! but that doesn t tell me enough as to what the issue is. Hopefully the developer will fix the issues and it will become part of Debian as many such projects are. Compiling was dead easy even with gcc-12 once I got freeimage-dev.

Mum s first death anniversary I do not know where the year went by or how. The day went in a sort of suspended animation. The only thing I did was eat and sleep that day, didn t feel like doing anything. Old memories, even dreams of fighting with her only to realize in the dream itself it s fake, she isn t there anymore  Something that can never be fixed

Debconf Kochi I should have shared it few days ago but somehow slipped my mind. While it s too late for most people to ask for bursary for Debconf Kochi, if you are anywhere near Kochi in the month of September between the dates. September 3 to September 17 nearby Infopark, Kochi you could walk in and talk to people. This would be for people who either have an interest in free software, FOSS or Debian specific. For those who may not know, while Debian is a Linux Distribution having ports to other kernels as well as well as hardware. While I may not be able to provide the list of all the various flavors as well as hardware, can say it is quite a bit. For e.g. there is a port to RISC-V that was done few years back (2018). Why that is needed will be shared below. There is always something new to look forward in a Debconf.

Pressure Cooker and Potatoes This was asked to me in the last Debconf (2016) by few people. So as people are coming to India, it probably is a good time to sort of reignite the topic :). So a Pressure Cooker boils your veggies and whatnot while still preserving the nutrients. While there are quite a number of brands I would suggest either Prestige or Hawkins, I have had good experience with both. There are also some new pressure cookers that have come that are somewhat in the design of the Thai Wok. So if that is something that you are either comfortable with or looking for, you could look at that. One of the things that you have to be sort of aware of and be most particular is the pressure safety valve. Just putting up pressure cooker safety valve in your favorite search-engine should show you different makes and whatnot. While they are relatively cheap, you need to see it is not cracked, used or whatever. The other thing is the Pressure Cooker whistle as well. The easiest thing to cook are mashed potatoes in a pressure cooker. A pressure Cooker comes in Litres, from 1 Ltr. to 20 Ltr. The larger ones are obviously for hotels or whatnot. General rule of using Pressure cooker is have water 1/4th, whatever vegetable or non-veg you want to boil 1/2 and let the remaining part for the steam. Now the easiest thing to do is have wash the potatoes and put 1/4th water of the pressure cooker. Then put 1/2 or less or little bit more of the veggies, in this instance just Potatoes. You can put salt to or that can be done later. The taste will be different. Also, there are various salts so won t really go into it as spices is a rabbit hole. Anyways, after making sure that there is enough space for the steam to be built, Put the handle on the cooker and basically wait for 5-10 minutes for the pressure to be built. You will hear a whistling sound, wait for around 5 minutes or a bit more (depends on many factors, kind of potatoes, weather etc.) and then just let it cool off naturally. After 5-10 minutes or a bit more, the pressure will be off. Your mashed potatoes are ready for either consumption or for further processing. I am assuming gas, induction cooking will have its own temperature, have no idea about it, hence not sharing that. Pressure Cooker, first put on the heaviest settings, once it starts to whistle, put it on medium for 5-10 minutes and then let it cool off. The first time I had tried that, I burned the cooker. You understand things via trial and error.

Poha recipe This is a nice low-cost healthy and fulfilling breakfast called Poha that can be made anytime and requires at the most 10-15 minutes to prepare with minimal fuss. The main ingredient is Poha or flattened rice. So how is it prepared. I won t go into the details of quantity as that is upto how hungry people are. There are various kinds of flattened rice available in the market, what you are looking for is called thick Poha or zhad Poha (in Marathi). The first step is the trickiest. What do you want to do is put water on Poha but not to let it be soggy. There is an accessory similar to tea filter but forgot the name, it basically drains all the extra moisture and you want Poha to be a bit fluffy and not soggy. The Poha should breathe for about 5 minutes before being cooked. To cook, use a heavy bottomed skillet, put some oil in it, depends on what oil you like, again lot of variations, you can use ground nut or whatever oil you prefer. Then use single mustard seeds to check temperature of the oil. Once the mustard seeds starts to pop, it means it s ready for things. So put mustard seeds in, finely chopped onion, finely chopped coriander leaves, a little bit of lemon juice, if you want potatoes, then potatoes too. Be aware that Potatoes will soak oil like anything, so if you are going to have potatoes than the oil should be a bit more. Some people love curry leaves, others don t. I like them quite a bit, it gives a slightly different taste. So the order is
  1. Oil
  2. Mustard seeds (1-2 teaspoon)
  3. Curry leaves 5-10
  4. Onion (2-3 medium onions finely chopped, onion can also be used as garnish.)
  5. Potatoes (2-3 medium ones, mashed)
  6. Small green chillies or 1-2 Red chillies (if you want)
  7. Coriander Leaves (one bunch finely chopped)
  8. Peanuts (half a glass)
Make sure that you are stirring them quite a bit. On a good warm skillet, this should hardly take 5 minutes. Once the onions are slighly brown, you are ready to put Poha in. So put the poha, add turmeric, salt, and sugar. Again depends on number of people. If I made for myself and mum, usually did 1 teaspoon of salt, not even one fourth of turmeric, just a hint, it is for the color, 1 to 2 teapoons of sugar and mix them all well at medium flame. Poha used to be two or three glasses. If you don t want potato, you can fry them a bit separately and garnish with it, along with coriander, coconut and whatnot. In Kerala, there is possibility that people might have it one day or all days. It serves as a snack at anytime, breakfast, lunch, tea time or even dinner if people don t want to be heavy. The first few times I did, I did manage to do everything wrong. So, if things go wrong, let it be. After a while, you will find your own place. And again, this is just one way, I m sure this can be made as elaborate a meal as you want. This is just something you can do if you don t want noodles or are bored with it. The timing is similar. While I don t claim to be an expert in cooking in anyway or form, if people have questions feel free to ask. If you are single or two people, 2 Ltr. Pressure cooker is enough for most Indians, Westerners may take a slightly bit larger Pressure Cooker, maybe a 3 Ltr. one may be good for you. Happy Cooking and Experimenting  I have had the pleasure to have Poha in many ways. One of my favorite ones is when people have actually put tadka on top of Poha. You do everything else but in a slight reverse order. The tadka has all the spices mixed and is concentrated and is put on top of Poha and then mixed. Done right, it tastes out of this world. For those who might not have had the Indian culinary experience, most of which is actually borrowed from the Mughals, you are in for a treat. One of the other things I would suggest to people is to ask people where there can get five types of rice. This is a specialty of South India and a sort of street food. I know where you can get it Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai but not in Kerala, although am dead sure there is, just somehow have missed it. If asked, am sure the Kerala team should be able to guide. That s all for now, feeling hungry, having dinner as have been sharing about cooking.

RISC-V There has been lot of conversations about how India could be in the microprocesor spacee. The x86 and x86-64 is all tied up in Intel and AMD so that s a no go area. Let me elaborate a bit why I say that. While most of the people know that IBM was the first producers of transistors as well as microprocessors. Coincidentally, AMD and Intel story are similar in some aspects but not in others. For a long time Intel was a market leader and by hook or crook it remained a market leader. One of the more interesting companies in the 1980s was Cyrix which sold lot of low-end microprocessors. A lot of that technology also went into Via which became a sort of spiritual successor of Cyrix. It is because of Cyrix and Via that Intel was forced to launch the Celeron model of microprocessors.

Lawsuits, European Regulation For those who have been there in the 1990s may have heard the term Wintel that basically meant Microsoft Windows and Intel and they had a sort of monopoly power. While the Americans were sorta ok with it, the Europeans were not and time and time again they forced both Microsoft as well as Intel to provide alternatives. The pushback from the regulators was so great that Intel funded AMD to remain solvent for few years. The successes that we see today from AMD is Lisa Su s but there is a whole lot of history as well as bad blood between the two companies. Lot of lawsuits and whatnot. Lot of cross-licensing agreements between them as well. So for any new country it would need lot of cash just for licensing all the patents there are and it s just not feasible for any newcomer to come in this market as they would have to fork the cash for the design apart from manufacturing fab.

ARM Most of the mobiles today sport an ARM processor. At one time it meant Advanced RISC Machines but now goes by Arm Ltd. Arm itself licenses its designs and while there are lot of customers, you are depending on ARM and they can change any of the conditions anytime they want. You are also hoping that ARM does not steal your design or do anything else with it. And while people trust ARM, it is still a risk if you are a company.

RISC and Shakti There is not much to say about RISC other than this article at Register. While India does have large ambitions, executing it is far trickier than most people believe as well as complex and highly capital intensive. The RISC way could be a game-changer provided India moves deftly ahead. FWIW, Debian did a RISC port in 2018. From what I can tell, you can install it on a VM/QEMU and do stuff. And while RISC has its own niches, you never know what happens next.One can speculate a lot and there is certainly a lot of momentum behind RISC. From what little experience I have had, where India has failed time and time again, whether in software or hardware is support. Support is the key, unless that is not fixed, it will remain a dream  On a slightly sad note, Foxconn is withdrawing from the joint venture it had with Vedanta.

27 April 2023

Arturo Borrero Gonz lez: Kubecon and CloudNativeCon 2023 Europe summary

Post logo This post serves as a report from my attendance to Kubecon and CloudNativeCon 2023 Europe that took place in Amsterdam in April 2023. It was my second time physically attending this conference, the first one was in Austin, Texas (USA) in 2017. I also attended once in a virtual fashion. The content here is mostly generated for the sake of my own recollection and learnings, and is written from the notes I took during the event. The very first session was the opening keynote, which reunited the whole crowd to bootstrap the event and share the excitement about the days ahead. Some astonishing numbers were announced: there were more than 10.000 people attending, and apparently it could confidently be said that it was the largest open source technology conference taking place in Europe in recent times. It was also communicated that the next couple iteration of the event will be run in China in September 2023 and Paris in March 2024. More numbers, the CNCF was hosting about 159 projects, involving 1300 maintainers and about 200.000 contributors. The cloud-native community is ever-increasing, and there seems to be a strong trend in the industry for cloud-native technology adoption and all-things related to PaaS and IaaS. The event program had different tracks, and in each one there was an interesting mix of low-level and higher level talks for a variety of audience. On many occasions I found that reading the talk title alone was not enough to know in advance if a talk was a 101 kind of thing or for experienced engineers. But unlike in previous editions, I didn t have the feeling that the purpose of the conference was to try selling me anything. Obviously, speakers would make sure to mention, or highlight in a subtle way, the involvement of a given company in a given solution or piece of the ecosystem. But it was non-invasive and fair enough for me. On a different note, I found the breakout rooms to be often small. I think there were only a couple of rooms that could accommodate more than 500 people, which is a fairly small allowance for 10k attendees. I realized with frustration that the more interesting talks were immediately fully booked, with people waiting in line some 45 minutes before the session time. Because of this, I missed a few important sessions that I ll hopefully watch online later. Finally, on a more technical side, I ve learned many things, that instead of grouping by session I ll group by topic, given how some subjects were mentioned in several talks. On gitops and CI/CD pipelines Most of the mentions went to FluxCD and ArgoCD. At that point there were no doubts that gitops was a mature approach and both flux and argoCD could do an excellent job. ArgoCD seemed a bit more over-engineered to be a more general purpose CD pipeline, and flux felt a bit more tailored for simpler gitops setups. I discovered that both have nice web user interfaces that I wasn t previously familiar with. However, in two different talks I got the impression that the initial setup of them was simple, but migrating your current workflow to gitops could result in a bumpy ride. This is, the challenge is not deploying flux/argo itself, but moving everything into a state that both humans and flux/argo can understand. I also saw some curious mentions to the config drifts that can happen in some cases, even if the goal of gitops is precisely for that to never happen. Such mentions were usually accompanied by some hints on how to operate the situation by hand. Worth mentioning, I missed any practical information about one of the key pieces to this whole gitops story: building container images. Most of the showcased scenarios were using pre-built container images, so in that sense they were simple. Building and pushing to an image registry is one of the two key points we would need to solve in Toolforge Kubernetes if adopting gitops. In general, even if gitops were already in our radar for Toolforge Kubernetes, I think it climbed a few steps in my priority list after the conference. Another learning was this site: https://opengitops.dev/. Group On etcd, performance and resource management I attended a talk focused on etcd performance tuning that was very encouraging. They were basically talking about the exact same problems we have had in Toolforge Kubernetes, like api-server and etcd failure modes, and how sensitive etcd is to disk latency, IO pressure and network throughput. Even though Toolforge Kubernetes scale is small compared to other Kubernetes deployments out there, I found it very interesting to see other s approaches to the same set of challenges. I learned how most Kubernetes components and apps can overload the api-server. Because even the api-server talks to itself. Simple things like kubectl may have a completely different impact on the API depending on usage, for example when listing the whole list of objects (very expensive) vs a single object. The conclusion was to try avoiding hitting the api-server with LIST calls, and use ResourceVersion which avoids full-dumps from etcd (which, by the way, is the default when using bare kubectl get calls). I already knew some of this, and for example the jobs-framework-emailer was already making use of this ResourceVersion functionality. There have been a lot of improvements in the performance side of Kubernetes in recent times, or more specifically, in how resources are managed and used by the system. I saw a review of resource management from the perspective of the container runtime and kubelet, and plans to support fancy things like topology-aware scheduling decisions and dynamic resource claims (changing the pod resource claims without re-defining/re-starting the pods). On cluster management, bootstrapping and multi-tenancy I attended a couple of talks that mentioned kubeadm, and one in particular was from the maintainers themselves. This was of interest to me because as of today we use it for Toolforge. They shared all the latest developments and improvements, and the plans and roadmap for the future, with a special mention to something they called kubeadm operator , apparently capable of auto-upgrading the cluster, auto-renewing certificates and such. I also saw a comparison between the different cluster bootstrappers, which to me confirmed that kubeadm was the best, from the point of view of being a well established and well-known workflow, plus having a very active contributor base. The kubeadm developers invited the audience to submit feature requests, so I did. The different talks confirmed that the basic unit for multi-tenancy in kubernetes is the namespace. Any serious multi-tenant usage should leverage this. There were some ongoing conversations, in official sessions and in the hallway, about the right tool to implement K8s-whitin-K8s, and vcluster was mentioned enough times for me to be convinced it was the right candidate. This was despite of my impression that multiclusters / multicloud are regarded as hard topics in the general community. I definitely would like to play with it sometime down the road. On networking I attended a couple of basic sessions that served really well to understand how Kubernetes instrumented the network to achieve its goal. The conference program had sessions to cover topics ranging from network debugging recommendations, CNI implementations, to IPv6 support. Also, one of the keynote sessions had a reference to how kube-proxy is not able to perform NAT for SIP connections, which is interesting because I believe Netfilter Conntrack could do it if properly configured. One of the conclusions on the CNI front was that Calico has a massive community adoption (in Netfilter mode), which is reassuring, especially considering it is the one we use for Toolforge Kubernetes. Slide On jobs I attended a couple of talks that were related to HPC/grid-like usages of Kubernetes. I was truly impressed by some folks out there who were using Kubernetes Jobs on massive scales, such as to train machine learning models and other fancy AI projects. It is acknowledged in the community that the early implementation of things like Jobs and CronJobs had some limitations that are now gone, or at least greatly improved. Some new functionalities have been added as well. Indexed Jobs, for example, enables each Job to have a number (index) and process a chunk of a larger batch of data based on that index. It would allow for full grid-like features like sequential (or again, indexed) processing, coordination between Job and more graceful Job restarts. My first reaction was: Is that something we would like to enable in Toolforge Jobs Framework? On policy and security A surprisingly good amount of sessions covered interesting topics related to policy and security. It was nice to learn two realities:
  1. kubernetes is capable of doing pretty much anything security-wise and create greatly secured environments.
  2. it does not by default. The defaults are not security-strict on purpose.
It kind of made sense to me: Kubernetes was used for a wide range of use cases, and developers didn t know beforehand to which particular setup they should accommodate the default security levels. One session in particular covered the most basic security features that should be enabled for any Kubernetes system that would get exposed to random end users. In my opinion, the Toolforge Kubernetes setup was already doing a good job in that regard. To my joy, some sessions referred to the Pod Security Admission mechanism, which is one of the key security features we re about to adopt (when migrating away from Pod Security Policy). I also learned a bit more about Secret resources, their current implementation and how to leverage a combo of CSI and RBAC for a more secure usage of external secrets. Finally, one of the major takeaways from the conference was learning about kyverno and kubeaudit. I was previously aware of the OPA Gatekeeper. From the several demos I saw, it was to me that kyverno should help us make Toolforge Kubernetes more sustainable by replacing all of our custom admission controllers with it. I already opened a ticket to track this idea, which I ll be proposing to my team soon. Final notes In general, I believe I learned many things, and perhaps even more importantly I re-learned some stuff I had forgotten because of lack of daily exposure. I m really happy that the cloud native way of thinking was reinforced in me, which I still need because most of my muscle memory to approach systems architecture and engineering is from the old pre-cloud days. List of sessions I attended on the first day: List of sessions I attended on the second day: List of sessions I attended on third day: The videos have been published on Youtube.

14 April 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: Babel

Review: Babel, by R.F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyage
Copyright: August 2022
ISBN: 0-06-302144-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 544
Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution, to give it its full title, is a standalone dark academia fantasy set in the 1830s and 1840s, primarily in Oxford, England. The first book of R.F. Kuang's previous trilogy, The Poppy War, was nominated for multiple awards and won the Compton Crook Award for best first novel. Babel is her fourth book. Robin Swift, although that was not his name at the time, was born and raised in Canton and educated by an inexplicable English tutor his family could not have afforded. After his entire family dies of cholera, he is plucked from China by a British professor and offered a life in England as his ward. What follows is a paradise of books, a hell of relentless and demanding instruction, and an unpredictably abusive emotional environment, all aiming him towards admission to Oxford University. Robin will join University College and the Royal Institute of Translation. The politics of this imperial Britain are almost precisely the same as in our history, but one of the engines is profoundly different. This world has magic. If words from two different languages are engraved on a metal bar (silver is best), the meaning and nuance lost in translation becomes magical power. With a careful choice of translation pairs, and sometimes additional help from other related words and techniques, the silver bar becomes a persistent spell. Britain's industrial revolution is in overdrive thanks to the country's vast stores of silver and the applied translation prowess of Babel. This means Babel is also the only part of very racist Oxford that accepts non-white students and women. They need translators (barely) more than they care about maintaining social hierarchy; translation pairs only work when the translator is fluent in both languages. The magic is also stronger when meanings are more distinct, which is creating serious worries about classical and European languages. Those are still the bulk of Babel's work, but increased trade and communication within Europe is eroding the meaning distinctions and thus the amount of magical power. More remote languages, such as Chinese and Urdu, are full of untapped promise that Britain's colonial empire wants to capture. Professor Lowell, Robin's dubious benefactor, is a specialist in Chinese languages; Robin is a potential tool for his plans. As Robin discovers shortly after arriving in Oxford, he is not the first of Lowell's tools. His predecessor turned against Babel and is trying to break its chokehold on translation magic. He wants Robin to help. This is one of those books that is hard to review because it does some things exceptionally well and other things that did not work for me. It's not obvious if the latter are flaws in the book or a mismatch between book and reader (or, frankly, flaws in the reader). I'll try to explain as best I can so that you can draw your own conclusions. First, this is one of the all-time great magical system hooks. The way words are tapped for power is fully fleshed out and exceptionally well-done. Kuang is a professional translator, which shows in the attention to detail on translation pairs. I think this is the best-constructed and explained word-based magic system I've read in fantasy. Many word-based systems treat magic as its own separate language that is weirdly universal. Here, Kuang does the exact opposite, and the result is immensely satisfying. A fantasy reader may expect exploration of this magic system to be the primary point of the book, however, and this is not the case. It is an important part of the book, and its implications are essential to the plot resolution, but this is not the type of fantasy novel where the plot is driven by character exploration of the magic system. The magic system exists, the characters use it, and we do get some crunchy details, but the heart of the book is elsewhere. If you were expecting the typical relationship of a fantasy novel to its magic system, you may get a bit wrong-footed. Similarly, this is historical fantasy, but it is the type of historical fantasy where the existence of magic causes no significant differences. For some people, this is a pet peeve; personally, I don't mind that choice in the abstract, but some of the specifics bugged me. The villains of this book assert that any country could have done what Britain did in developing translation magic, and thus their hoarding of it is not immoral. They are obviously partly lying (this is a classic justification for imperialism), but it's not clear from the book how they are lying. Technologies (and magic here works like a technology) tend to concentrate power when they require significant capital investment, and tend to dilute power when they are portable and easy to teach. Translation magic feels like the latter, but its effect in the book is clearly the former, and I was never sure why. England is not an obvious choice to be a translation superpower. Yes, it's a colonial empire, but India, southeast Asia, and most certainly Africa (the continent largely not appearing in this book) are home to considerably more languages from more wildly disparate families than western Europe. Translation is not a peculiarly European idea, and this magic system does not seem hard to stumble across. It's not clear why England, and Oxford in particular, is so dramatically far ahead. There is some sign that Babel is keeping the mechanics of translation magic secret, but that secret has leaked, seems easy to develop independently, and is simple enough that a new student can perform basic magic with a few hours of instruction. This does not feel like the kind of power that would be easy to concentrate, let alone to the extreme extent required by the last quarter of this book. The demand for silver as a base material for translation magic provides a justification for mercantilism that avoids the confusing complexities of currency economics in our actual history, so fine, I guess, but it was a bit disappointing for this great of an idea for a magic system to have this small of an impact on politics. I'll come to the actual thrust of this book in a moment, but first something else Babel does exceptionally well: dark academia. The remainder of Robin's cohort at Oxford is Remy, a dark-skinned Muslim from Calcutta; Victoire, a Haitian woman raised in France; and Letty, the daughter of a British admiral. All of them are non-white except Letty, and Letty and Victoire additionally have to deal with the blatant sexism of the time. (For example, they have to live several miles from Oxford because women living near the college would be a "distraction.") The interpersonal dynamics between the four are exceptionally well done. Kuang captures the dislocation of going away to college, the unsettled life upheaval that makes it both easy and vital to form suddenly tight friendships, and the way that the immense pressure from classes and exams leaves one so devoid of spare emotional capacity that those friendships become both unbreakable and badly strained. Robin and Remy almost immediately become inseparable in that type of college friendship in which profound trust and constant companionship happen first and learning about the other person happens afterwards. It's tricky to talk about this without spoilers, but one of the things Kuang sets up with this friend group is a pointed look at intersectionality. Babel has gotten a lot of positive review buzz, and I think this is one of the reasons why. Kuang does not pass over or make excuses for characters in a place where many other books do. This mostly worked for me, but with a substantial caveat that I think you may want to be aware of before you dive into this book. Babel is set in the 1830s, but it is very much about the politics of 2022. That does not necessarily mean that the politics are off for the 1830s; I haven't done the research to know, and it's possible I'm seeing the Tiffany problem (Jo Walton's observation that Tiffany is a historical 12th century women's name, but an author can't use it as a medieval name because readers think it sounds too modern). But I found it hard to shake the feeling that the characters make sense of their world using modern analytical frameworks of imperialism, racism, sexism, and intersectional feminism, although without using modern terminology, and characters from the 1830s would react somewhat differently. This is a valid authorial choice; all books are written for the readers of the time when they're published. But as with magical systems that don't change history, it's a pet peeve for some readers. If that's you, be aware that's the feel I got from it. The true center of this book is not the magic system or the history. It's advertised directly in the title the necessity of violence although it's not until well into the book before the reader knows what that means. This is a book about revolution, what revolution means, what decisions you have to make along the way, how the personal affects the political, and the inadequacy of reform politics. It is hard, uncomfortable, and not gentle on its characters. The last quarter of this book was exceptional, and I understand why it's getting so much attention. Kuang directly confronts the desire for someone else to do the necessary work, the hope that surely the people with power will see reason, and the feeling of despair when there are no good plans and every reason to wait and do nothing when atrocities are about to happen. If you are familiar with radical politics, these aren't new questions, but this is not the sort of thing that normally shows up in fantasy. It does not surprise me that Babel struck a nerve with readers a generation or two younger than me. It captures that heady feeling on the cusp of adulthood when everything is in flux and one is assembling an independent politics for the first time. Once I neared the end of the book, I could not put it down. The ending is brutal, but I think it was the right ending for this book. There are two things, though, that I did not like about the political arc. The first is that Victoire is a much more interesting character than Robin, but is sidelined for most of the book. The difference of perspectives between her and Robin is the heart of what makes the end of this book so good, and I wish that had started 300 pages earlier. Or, even better, I wish Victoire has been the protagonist; I liked Robin, but he's a very predictable character for most of the book. Victoire is not; even the conflicts she had earlier in the book, when she didn't get much attention in the story, felt more dynamic and more thoughtful than Robin's mix of guilt and anxiety. The second is that I wish Kuang had shown more of Robin's intellectual evolution. All of the pieces of why he makes the decisions that he does are present in this book, and Kuang shows his emotional state (sometimes in agonizing detail) at each step, but the sense-making, the development of theory and ideology beneath the actions, is hinted at but not shown. This is a stylistic choice with no one right answer, but it felt odd because so much of the rest of the plot is obvious and telegraphed. If the reader shares Robin's perspective, I think it's easy to fill in the gaps, but it felt odd to read Robin giving clearly thought-out political analyses at the end of the book without seeing the hashing-out and argument with friends required to develop those analyses. I felt like I had to do a lot of heavy lifting as the reader, work that I wish had been done directly by the book. My final note about this book is that I found much of it extremely predictable. I think that's part of why reviewers describe it as accessible and easy to read; accessibility and predictability can be two sides of the same coin. Kuang did not intend for this book to be subtle, and I think that's part of the appeal. But very few of Robin's actions for the first three-quarters of the book surprised me, and that's not always the reading experience I want. The end of the book is different, and I therefore found it much more gripping, but it takes a while to get there. Babel is, for better or worse, the type of fantasy where the politics, economics, and magic system exist primarily to justify the plot the author wanted. I don't think the societal position of the Institute of Translation that makes the ending possible is that believable given the nature of the technology in question and the politics of the time, and if you are inclined to dig into the specifics of the world-building, I think you will find it frustrating. Where it succeeds brilliantly is in capturing the social dynamics of hothouse academic cohorts, and in making a sharp and unfortunately timely argument about the role of violence in political change, in a way that the traditionally conservative setting of fantasy rarely does. I can't say Babel blew me away, but I can see why others liked it so much. If I had to guess, I'd say that the closer one is in age to the characters in the book and to that moment of political identity construction, the more it's likely to appeal. Rating: 7 out of 10

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