Search Results: "richard"

2 July 2024

Colin Watson: Free software activity in June 2024

My Debian contributions this month were all sponsored by Freexian. You can support my work directly via Liberapay.

23 March 2024

Dirk Eddelbuettel: littler 0.3.20 on CRAN: Moar Features!

max-heap image The twentyfirst release of littler as a CRAN package landed on CRAN just now, following in the now eighteen year history (!!) as a package started by Jeff in 2006, and joined by me a few weeks later. littler is the first command-line interface for R as it predates Rscript. It allows for piping as well for shebang scripting via #!, uses command-line arguments more consistently and still starts faster. It also always loaded the methods package which Rscript only began to do in recent years. littler lives on Linux and Unix, has its difficulties on macOS due to yet-another-braindeadedness there (who ever thought case-insensitive filesystems as a default were a good idea?) and simply does not exist on Windows (yet the build system could be extended see RInside for an existence proof, and volunteers are welcome!). See the FAQ vignette on how to add it to your PATH. A few examples are highlighted at the Github repo:, as well as in the examples vignette. This release contains another fair number of small changes and improvements to some of the scripts I use daily to build or test packages, adds a new front-end ciw.r for the recently-released ciw package offering a CRAN Incoming Watcher , a new helper installDeps2.r (extending installDeps.r), a new doi-to-bib converter, allows a different temporary directory setup I find helpful, deals with one corner deployment use, and more. The full change description follows.

Changes in littler version 0.3.20 (2024-03-23)
  • Changes in examples scripts
    • New (dependency-free) helper installDeps2.r to install dependencies
    • Scripts rcc.r, tt.r, tttf.r, tttlr.r use env argument -S to set -t to r
    • tt.r can now fill in inst/tinytest if it is present
    • New script ciw.r wrapping new package ciw
    • tttf.t can now use devtools and its loadall
    • New script doi2bib.r to call the DOI converter REST service (following a skeet by Richard McElreath)
  • Changes in package
    • The CI setup uses checkout@v4 and the r-ci-setup action
    • The Suggests: is a little tighter as we do not list all packages optionally used in the the examples (as R does not check for it either)
    • The package load messag can account for the rare build of R under different architecture (Berwin Turlach in #117 closing #116)
    • In non-vanilla mode, the temporary directory initialization in re-run allowing for a non-standard temp dir via config settings

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

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

25 January 2024

Joachim Breitner: GHC Steering Committee Retrospective

After seven years of service as member and secretary on the GHC Steering Committee, I have resigned from that role. So this is a good time to look back and retrace the formation of the GHC proposal process and committee. In my memory, I helped define and shape the proposal process, optimizing it for effectiveness and throughput, but memory can be misleading, and judging from the paper trail in my email archives, this was indeed mostly Ben Gamari s and Richard Eisenberg s achievement: Already in Summer of 2016, Ben Gamari set up the ghc-proposals Github repository with a sketch of a process and sent out a call for nominations on the GHC user s mailing list, which I replied to. The Simons picked the first set of members, and in the fall of 2016 we discussed the committee s by-laws and procedures. As so often, Richard was an influential shaping force here.

Three ingredients For example, it was him that suggested that for each proposal we have one committee member be the Shepherd , overseeing the discussion. I believe this was one ingredient for the process effectiveness: There is always one person in charge, and thus we avoid the delays incurred when any one of a non-singleton set of volunteers have to do the next step (and everyone hopes someone else does it). The next ingredient was that we do not usually require a vote among all members (again, not easy with volunteers with limited bandwidth and occasional phases of absence). Instead, the shepherd makes a recommendation (accept/reject), and if the other committee members do not complain, this silence is taken as consent, and we come to a decision. It seems this idea can also be traced back on Richard, who suggested that once a decision is requested, the shepherd [generates] consensus. If consensus is elusive, then we vote. At the end of the year we agreed and wrote down these rules, created the mailing list for our internal, but publicly archived committee discussions, and began accepting proposals, starting with Adam Gundry s OverloadedRecordFields. At that point, there was no secretary role yet, so how I did become one? It seems that in February 2017 I started to clean-up and refine the process documentation, fixing bugs in the process (like requiring authors to set Github labels when they don t even have permissions to do that). This in particular meant that someone from the committee had to manually handle submissions and so on, and by the aforementioned principle that at every step there ought to be exactly one person in change, the role of a secretary followed naturally. In the email in which I described that role I wrote:
Simon already shoved me towards picking up the secretary hat, to reduce load on Ben.
So when I merged the updated process documentation, I already listed myself secretary . It wasn t just Simon s shoving that put my into the role, though. I dug out my original self-nomination email to Ben, and among other things I wrote:
I also hope that there is going to be clear responsibilities and a clear workflow among the committee. E.g. someone (possibly rotating), maybe called the secretary, who is in charge of having an initial look at proposals and then assigning it to a member who shepherds the proposal.
So it is hardly a surprise that I became secretary, when it was dear to my heart to have a smooth continuous process here. I am rather content with the result: These three ingredients single secretary, per-proposal shepherds, silence-is-consent helped the committee to be effective throughout its existence, even as every once in a while individual members dropped out.

Ulterior motivation I must admit, however, there was an ulterior motivation behind me grabbing the secretary role: Yes, I did want the committee to succeed, and I did want that authors receive timely, good and decisive feedback on their proposals but I did not really want to have to do that part. I am, in fact, a lousy proposal reviewer. I am too generous when reading proposals, and more likely mentally fill gaps in a specification rather than spotting them. Always optimistically assuming that the authors surely know what they are doing, rather than critically assessing the impact, the implementation cost and the interaction with other language features. And, maybe more importantly: why should I know which changes are good and which are not so good in the long run? Clearly, the authors cared enough about a proposal to put it forward, so there is some need and I do believe that Haskell should stay an evolving and innovating language but how does this help me decide about this or that particular feature. I even, during the formation of the committee, explicitly asked that we write down some guidance on Vision and Guideline ; do we want to foster change or innovation, or be selective gatekeepers? Should we accept features that are proven to be useful, or should we accept features so that they can prove to be useful? This discussion, however, did not lead to a concrete result, and the assessment of proposals relied on the sum of each member s personal preference, expertise and gut feeling. I am not saying that this was a mistake: It is hard to come up with a general guideline here, and even harder to find one that does justice to each individual proposal. So the secret motivation for me to grab the secretary post was that I could contribute without having to judge proposals. Being secretary allowed me to assign most proposals to others to shepherd, and only once in a while myself took care of a proposal, when it seemed to be very straight-forward. Sneaky, ain t it?

7 Years later For years to come I happily played secretary: When an author finished their proposal and public discussion ebbed down they would ping me on GitHub, I would pick a suitable shepherd among the committee and ask them to judge the proposal. Eventually, the committee would come to a conclusion, usually by implicit consent, sometimes by voting, and I d merge the pull request and update the metadata thereon. Every few months I d summarize the current state of affairs to the committee (what happened since the last update, which proposals are currently on our plate), and once per year gathered the data for Simon Peyton Jones annually GHC Status Report. Sometimes some members needed a nudge or two to act. Some would eventually step down, and I d sent around a call for nominations and when the nominations came in, distributed them off-list among the committee and tallied the votes. Initially, that was exciting. For a long while it was a pleasant and rewarding routine. Eventually, it became a mere chore. I noticed that I didn t quite care so much anymore about some of the discussion, and there was a decent amount of naval-gazing, meta-discussions and some wrangling about claims of authority that was probably useful and necessary, but wasn t particularly fun. I also began to notice weaknesses in the processes that I helped shape: We could really use some more automation for showing proposal statuses, notifying people when they have to act, and nudging them when they don t. The whole silence-is-assent approach is good for throughput, but not necessary great for quality, and maybe the committee members need to be pushed more firmly to engage with each proposal. Like GHC itself, the committee processes deserve continuous refinement and refactoring, and since I could not muster the motivation to change my now well-trod secretarial ways, it was time for me to step down. Luckily, Adam Gundry volunteered to take over, and that makes me feel much less bad for quitting. Thanks for that! And although I am for my day job now enjoying a language that has many of the things out of the box that for Haskell are still only language extensions or even just future proposals (dependent types, BlockArguments, do notation with ( foo) expressions and Unicode), I m still around, hosting the Haskell Interlude Podcast, writing on this blog and hanging out at ZuriHac etc.

15 January 2024

Colin Watson: OpenUK New Year s Honours

Apparently I got an honour from OpenUK. There are a bunch of people I know on that list. Chris Lamb and Mark Brown are familiar names from Debian. Colin King and Jonathan Riddell are people I know from past work in Ubuntu. I ve admired David MacIver s work on Hypothesis and Richard Hughes work on firmware updates from afar. And there are a bunch of other excellent projects represented there: OpenStreetMap, Textualize, and my alma mater of Cambridge to name but a few. My friend Stuart Langridge wrote about being on a similar list a few years ago, and I can t do much better than to echo it: in particular he wrote about the way the open source development community is often at best unwelcoming to people who don t look like Stuart and I do. I can t tell a whole lot about demographic distribution just by looking at a list of names, but while these honours still seem to be skewed somewhat male, I m fairly sure they re doing a lot better in terms of gender balance than my home project of Debian is, for one. I hope this is a sign of improvement for the future, and I ll do what I can to pay it forward.

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!

22 December 2023

Gunnar Wolf: Pushing some reviews this way

Over roughly the last year and a half I have been participating as a reviewer in ACM s Computing Reviews, and have even been honored as a Featured Reviewer. Given I have long enjoyed reading friends reviews of their reading material (particularly, hats off to the very active Russ Allbery, who both beats all of my frequency expectations (I could never sustain the rythm he reads to!) and holds documented records for his >20 years as a book reader, with far more clarity and readability than I can aim for!), I decided to explicitly share my reviews via this blog, as the audience is somewhat congruent; I will also link here some reviews that were not approved for publication, clearly marking them so. I will probably work on wrangling my Jekyll site to display an (auto-)updated page and RSS feed for the reviews. In the meantime, the reviews I have published are:

26 November 2023

Ian Jackson: Hacking my filter coffee machine

I hacked my coffee machine to let me turn it on from upstairs in bed :-). Read on for explanation, circuit diagrams, 3D models, firmware source code, and pictures. Background: the Morphy Richards filter coffee machine I have a Morphy Richards filter coffee machine. It makes very good coffee. But the display and firmware are quite annoying: Also, I m lazy and wanted to be able to cause coffee to exist from upstairs in bed, without having to make a special trip down just to turn the machine on. Planning My original feeling was I can t be bothered dealing with the coffee machine innards so I thought I would make a mechanical contraption to physically press the coffee machine s on button. I could have my contraption press the button to turn the machine on (timed, or triggered remotely), and then periodically in pairs to reset the 25-minute keep-warm timer. But a friend pointed me at a blog post by Andy Bradford, where Andy recounts modifying his coffee machine, adding an ESP8266 and connecting it to his MQTT-based Home Assistant setup. I looked at the pictures and they looked very similar to my machine. I decided to take a look inside. Inside the Morphy Richards filter coffee machine My coffee machine seemed to be very similar to Andy s. His disassembly report was very helpful. Inside I found the high-voltage parts with the heating elements, and the front panel with the display and buttons. I spent a while poking about, masuring things, and so on. Unexpected electrical hazard At one point I wanted to use my storage oscilloscope to capture the duration and amplitude of the beep signal. I needed to connect the scope ground to the UI board s ground plane, but then when I switched the coffee machine on at the wall socket, it tripped the house s RCD. It turns out that the low voltage UI board is coupled to the mains. In my setting, there s an offset of about 8V between the UI board ground plane, and true earth. (In my house the neutral is about 2-3V away from true earth.) This alarmed me rather. To me, this means that my modifications needed to still properly electrically isolate everything connected to the UI board from anything external to the coffee machine s housing. In Andy s design, I think the internal UI board ground plane is directly brought out to an external USB-A connector. This means that if there were a neutral fault, the USB-A connector would be at live potential, possibly creating an electrocution or fire hazard. I made a comment in Andy Bradford s blog, reporting this issue, but it doesn t seem to have appeared. This is all quite alarming. I hope Andy is OK! Design approach I don t have an MQTT setup at home, or an installation of Home Assistant. I didn t feel like adding a lot of complicated software to my life, if I could avoid it. Nor did I feel like writing a web UI myself. I ve done that before, but I m lazy and in this case my requirements were quite modest. Also, the need for electrical isolation would further complicate any attempt to do something sophisticated (that could, for example, sense the state of the coffee machine). I already had a Tasmota-based cloud-free smart plug, which controls the fairy lights on our gazebo. We just operate that through its web UI. So, I decided I would add a small and stupid microcontroller. The microcontroller would be powered via a smart plug and an off-the-shelf USB power supply. The microcontroller would have no inputs. It would simply simulate an on button press once at startup, and thereafter two presses every 24 minutes. After the 4th double press the microcontroller would stop, leaving the coffee machine to time out itself, after a total period of about 2h. Implementation - hardware I used a DigiSpark board with an ATTiny85. One of the GPIOs is connected to an optoisolator, whose output transistor is wired across the UI board s on button. circuit diagram; board layout diagram; (click for diagram scans as pdfs). The DigiSpark has just a USB tongue, which is very wobbly in a normal USB socket. I designed a 3D printed case which also had an approximation of the rest of the USB A plug. The plug is out of spec; our printer won t go fine enough - and anyway, the shield is supposed to be metal, not fragile plastic. But it fit in the USB PSU I was using, satisfactorily if a bit stiffly, and also into the connector for programming via my laptop. Inside the coffee machine, there s the boundary between the original, coupled to mains, UI board, and the isolated low voltage of the microcontroller. I used a reasonably substantial cable to bring out the low voltage connection, past all the other hazardous innards, to make sure it stays isolated. I added a drain power supply resistor on another of the GPIOs. This is enabled, with a draw of about 30mA, when the microcontroller is soon going to off / on cycle the coffee machine. That reduces the risk that the user will turn off the smart plug, and turn off the machine, but that the microcontroller turns the coffee machine back on again using the remaining power from USB PSU. Empirically in my setup it reduces the time from smart plug off to microcontroller stops from about 2-3s to more like 1s. Optoisolator board (inside coffee machine) pictures (Click through for full size images.) optoisolator board, front; optoisolator board, rear; optoisolator board, fitted. Microcontroller board (in USB-plug-ish housing) pictures microcontroller board, component side; microcontroller board, wiring side, part fitted; microcontroller in USB-plug-ish housing. Implementation - software I originally used the Arduino IDE, writing my program in C. I had a bad time with that and rewrote it in Rust. The firmware is in a repository on Debian s gitlab Results I can now cause the coffee to start, from my phone. It can be programmed more than 12h in advance. And it stays warm until we ve drunk it. UI is worse There s one aspect of the original Morphy Richards machine that I haven t improved: the user interface is still poor. Indeed, it s now even worse: To turn the machine on, you probably want to turn on the smart plug instead. Unhappily, the power button for that is invisible in its installed location. In particular, in the usual case, if you want to turn it off, you should ideally turn off both the smart plug (which can be done with the button on it) and the coffee machine itself. If you forget to turn off the smart plug, the machine can end up being turned on, very briefly, a handful of times, over the next hour or two. Epilogue We had used the new features a handful of times when one morning the coffee machine just wouldn t make coffee. The UI showed it turning on, but it wouldn t get hot, so no coffee. I thought oh no, I ve broken it! But, on investigation, I found that the machine s heating element was open circuit (ie, completely broken). I didn t mess with that part. So, hooray! Not my fault. Probably, just being inverted a number of times and generally lightly jostled, had precipitated a latent fault. The machine was a number of years old. Happily I found a replacement, identical, machine, online. I ve transplanted my modification and now it all works well. Bonus pictures (Click through for full size images.) probing the innards; machine base showing new cable route.
edited 2023-11-26 14:59 UTC in an attempt to fix TOC links


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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!

1 November 2023

Joachim Breitner: Joining the Lean FRO

Tomorrow is going to be a new first day in a new job for me: I am joining the Lean FRO, and I m excited.

What is Lean? Lean is the new kid on the block of theorem provers. It s a pure functional programming language (like Haskell, with and on which I have worked a lot), but it s dependently typed (which Haskell may be evolving to be as well, but rather slowly and carefully). It has a refreshing syntax, built on top of a rather good (I have been told, not an expert here) macro system. As a dependently typed programming language, it is also a theorem prover, or proof assistant, and there exists already a lively community of mathematicians who started to formalize mathematics in a coherent library, creatively called mathlib.

What is a FRO? A Focused Research Organization has the organizational form of a small start up (small team, little overhead, a few years of runway), but its goals and measure for success are not commercial, as funding is provided by donors (in the case of the Lean FRO, the Simons Foundation International, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and Richard Merkin). This allows us to build something that we believe is a contribution for the greater good, even though it s not (or not yet) commercially interesting enough and does not fit other forms of funding (such as research grants) well. This is a very comfortable situation to be in.

Why am I excited? To me, working on Lean seems to be the perfect mix: I have been working on language implementation for about a decade now, and always with a preference for functional languages. Add to that my interest in theorem proving, where I have used Isabelle and Coq so far, and played with Agda and others. So technically, clearly up my alley. Furthermore, the language isn t too old, and plenty of interesting things are simply still to do, rather than tried before. The ecosystem is still evolving, so there is a good chance to have some impact. On the other hand, the language isn t too young either. It is no longer an open question whether we will have users: we have them already, they hang out on zulip, so if I improve something, there is likely someone going to be happy about it, which is great. And the community seems to be welcoming and full of nice people. Finally, this library of mathematics that these users are building is itself an amazing artifact: Lots of math in a consistent, machine-readable, maintained, documented, checked form! With a little bit of optimism I can imagine this changing how math research and education will be done in the future. It could be for math what Wikipedia is for encyclopedic knowledge and OpenStreetMap for maps and the thought of facilitating that excites me. With this new job I find that when I am telling friends and colleagues about it, I do not hesitate or hedge when asked why I am doing this. This is a good sign.

What will I be doing? We ll see what main tasks I ll get to tackle initially, but knowing myself, I expect I ll get broadly involved. To get up to speed I started playing around with a few things already, and for example created Loogle, a Mathlib search engine inspired by Haskell s Hoogle, including a Zulip bot integration. This seems to be useful and quite well received, so I ll continue maintaining that. Expect more about this and other contributions here in the future.

11 July 2023

Simon Josefsson: Coping with non-free software in Debian

A personal reflection on how I moved from my Debian home to find two new homes with Trisquel and Guix for my own ethical computing, and while doing so settled my dilemma about further Debian contributions. Debian s contributions to the free software community has been tremendous. Debian was one of the early distributions in the 1990 s that combined the GNU tools (compiler, linker, shell, editor, and a set of Unix tools) with the Linux kernel and published a free software operating system. Back then there were little guidance on how to publish free software binaries, let alone entire operating systems. There was a lack of established community processes and conflict resolution mechanisms, and lack of guiding principles to motivate the work. The community building efforts that came about in parallel with the technical work has resulted in a steady flow of releases over the years. From the work of Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) during the 1980 s and early 1990 s, there was at the time already an established definition of free software. Inspired by free software definition, and a belief that a social contract helps to build a community and resolve conflicts, Debian s social contract (DSC) with the free software community was published in 1997. The DSC included the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG), which directly led to the Open Source Definition.

Slackware 3.5" disksOne of my earlier Slackware install disk sets, kept for nostalgic reasons.
I was introduced to GNU/Linux through Slackware in the early 1990 s (oh boy those nights calculating XFree86 modeline s and debugging sendmail.cf) and primarily used RedHat Linux during ca 1995-2003. I switched to Debian during the Woody release cycles, when the original RedHat Linux was abandoned and Fedora launched. It was Debian s explicit community processes and infrastructure that attracted me. The slow nature of community processes also kept me using RedHat for so long: centralized and dogmatic decision processes often produce quick and effective outcomes, and in my opinion RedHat Linux was technically better than Debian ca 1995-2003. However the RedHat model was not sustainable, and resulted in the RedHat vs Fedora split. Debian catched up, and reached technical stability once its community processes had been grounded. I started participating in the Debian community around late 2006. My interpretation of Debian s social contract is that Debian should be a distribution of works licensed 100% under a free license. The Debian community has always been inclusive towards non-free software, creating the contrib/non-free section and permitting use of the bug tracker to help resolve issues with non-free works. This is all explained in the social contract. There has always been a clear boundary between free and non-free work, and there has been a commitment that the Debian system itself would be 100% free. The concern that RedHat Linux was not 100% free software was not critical to me at the time: I primarily (and happily) ran GNU tools on Solaris, IRIX, AIX, OS/2, Windows etc. Running GNU tools on RedHat Linux was an improvement, and I hadn t realized it was possible to get rid of all non-free software on my own primary machine. Debian realized that goal for me. I ve been a believer in that model ever since. I can use Solaris, macOS, Android etc knowing that I have the option of using a 100% free Debian. While the inclusive approach towards non-free software invite and deserve criticism (some argue that being inclusive to non-inclusive behavior is a bad idea), I believe that Debian s approach was a successful survival technique: by being inclusive to and a compromise between free and non-free communities, Debian has been able to stay relevant and contribute to both environments. If Debian had not served and contributed to the free community, I believe free software people would have stopped contributing. If Debian had rejected non-free works completely, I don t think the successful Ubuntu distribution would have been based on Debian. I wrote the majority of the text above back in September 2022, intending to post it as a way to argue for my proposal to maintain the status quo within Debian. I didn t post it because I felt I was saying the obvious, and that the obvious do not need to be repeated, and the rest of the post was just me going down memory lane. The Debian project has been a sustainable producer of a 100% free OS up until Debian 11 bullseye. In the resolution on non-free firmware the community decided to leave the model that had resulted in a 100% free Debian for so long. The goal of Debian is no longer to publish a 100% free operating system, instead this was added: The Debian official media may include firmware . Indeed the Debian 12 bookworm release has confirmed that this would not only be an optional possibility. The Debian community could have published a 100% free Debian, in parallel with the non-free Debian, and still be consistent with their newly adopted policy, but chose not to. The result is that Debian s policies are not consistent with their actions. It doesn t make sense to claim that Debian is 100% free when the Debian installer contains non-free software. Actions speaks louder than words, so I m left reading the policies as well-intended prose that is no longer used for guidance, but for the peace of mind for people living in ivory towers. And to attract funding, I suppose. So how to deal with this, on a personal level? I did not have an answer to that back in October 2022 after the vote. It wasn t clear to me that I would ever want to contribute to Debian under the new social contract that promoted non-free software. I went on vacation from any Debian work. Meanwhile Debian 12 bookworm was released, confirming my fears. I kept coming back to this text, and my only take-away was that it would be unethical for me to use Debian on my machines. Letting actions speak for themselves, I switched to PureOS on my main laptop during October, barely noticing any difference since it is based on Debian 11 bullseye. Back in December, I bought a new laptop and tried Trisquel and Guix on it, as they promise a migration path towards ppc64el that PureOS do not. While I pondered how to approach my modest Debian contributions, I set out to learn Trisquel and gained trust in it. I migrated one Debian machine after another to Trisquel, and started to use Guix on others. Migration was easy because Trisquel is based on Ubuntu which is based on Debian. Using Guix has its challenges, but I enjoy its coherant documented environment. All of my essential self-hosted servers (VM hosts, DNS, e-mail, WWW, Nextcloud, CI/CD builders, backup etc) uses Trisquel or Guix now. I ve migrated many GitLab CI/CD rules to use Trisquel instead of Debian, to have a more ethical computing base for software development and deployment. I wish there were official Guix docker images around. Time has passed, and when I now think about any Debian contributions, I m a little less muddled by my disappointment of the exclusion of a 100% free Debian. I realize that today I can use Debian in the same way that I use macOS, Android, RHEL or Ubuntu. And what prevents me from contributing to free software on those platforms? So I will make the occasional Debian contribution again, knowing that it will also indirectly improve Trisquel. To avoid having to install Debian, I need a development environment in Trisquel that allows me to build Debian packages. I have found a recipe for doing this: # System commands:
sudo apt-get install debhelper git-buildpackage debian-archive-keyring
sudo wget -O /usr/share/debootstrap/scripts/debian-common https://sources.debian.org/data/main/d/debootstrap/1.0.128%2Bnmu2/scripts/debian-common
sudo wget -O /usr/share/debootstrap/scripts/sid https://sources.debian.org/data/main/d/debootstrap/1.0.128%2Bnmu2/scripts/sid
# Run once to create build image:
DIST=sid git-pbuilder create --mirror http://deb.debian.org/debian/ --debootstrapopts "--exclude=usr-is-merged" --basepath /var/cache/pbuilder/base-sid.cow
# Run in a directory with debian/ to build a package:
gbp buildpackage --git-pbuilder --git-dist=sid
How to sustainably deliver a 100% free software binary distributions seems like an open question, and the challenges are not all that different compared to the 1990 s or early 2000 s. I m hoping Debian will come back to provide a 100% free platform, but my fear is that Debian will compromise even further on the free software ideals rather than the opposite. With similar arguments that were used to add the non-free firmware, Debian could compromise the free software spirit of the Linux boot process (e.g., non-free boot images signed by Debian) and media handling (e.g., web browsers and DRM), as Debian have already done with appstore-like functionality for non-free software (Python pip). To learn about other freedom issues in Debian packaging, browsing Trisquel s helper scripts may enlight you. Debian s setback and the recent setback for RHEL-derived distributions are sad, and it will be a challenge for these communities to find internally consistent coherency going forward. I wish them the best of luck, as Debian and RHEL are important for the wider free software eco-system. Let s see how the community around Trisquel, Guix and the other FSDG-distributions evolve in the future. The situation for free software today appears better than it was years ago regardless of Debian and RHEL s setbacks though, which is important to remember! I don t recall being able install a 100% free OS on a modern laptop and modern server as easily as I am able to do today. Happy Hacking! Addendum 22 July 2023: The original title of this post was Coping with non-free Debian, and there was a thread about it that included feedback on the title. I do agree that my initial title was confrontational, and I ve changed it to the more specific Coping with non-free software in Debian. I do appreciate all the fine free software that goes into Debian, and hope that this will continue and improve, although I have doubts given the opinions expressed by the majority of developers. For the philosophically inclined, it is interesting to think about what it means to say that a compilation of software is freely licensed. At what point does a compilation of software deserve the labels free vs non-free? Windows probably contains some software that is published as free software, let s say Windows is 1% free. Apple authors a lot of free software (as a tangent, Apple probably produce more free software than what Debian as an organization produces), and let s say macOS contains 20% free software. Solaris (or some still maintained derivative like OpenIndiana) is mostly freely licensed these days, isn t it? Let s say it is 80% free. Ubuntu and RHEL pushes that closer to let s say 95% free software. Debian used to be 100% but is now slightly less at maybe 99%. Trisquel and Guix are at 100%. At what point is it reasonable to call a compilation free? Does Debian deserve to be called freely licensed? Does macOS? Is it even possible to use these labels for compilations in any meaningful way? All numbers just taken from thin air. It isn t even clear how this can be measured (binary bytes? lines of code? CPU cycles? etc). The caveat about license review mistakes applies. I ignore Debian s own claims that Debian is 100% free software, which I believe is inconsistent and no longer true under any reasonable objective analysis. It was not true before the firmware vote since Debian ships with non-free blobs in the Linux kernel for example.

29 April 2023

Simon Josefsson: How To Trust A Machine

Let s reflect on some of my recent work that started with understanding Trisquel GNU/Linux, improving transparency into apt-archives, working on reproducible builds of Trisquel, strengthening verification of apt-archives with Sigstore, and finally thinking about security device threat models. A theme in all this is improving methods to have trust in machines, or generally any external entity. While I believe that everything starts by trusting something, usually something familiar and well-known, we need to deal with misuse of that trust that leads to failure to deliver what is desired and expected from the trusted entity. How can an entity behave to invite trust? Let s argue for some properties that can be quantitatively measured, with a focus on computer software and hardware: Essentially, this boils down to: Trust, Verify and Hold Accountable. To put this dogma in perspective, it helps to understand that this approach may be harmful to human relationships (which could explain the social awkwardness of hackers), but it remains useful as a method to improve the design of computer systems, and a useful method to evaluate safety of computer systems. When a system fails some of the criteria above, we know we have more work to do to improve it. How far have we come on this journey? Through earlier efforts, we are in a fairly good situation. Richard Stallman through GNU/FSF made us aware of the importance of free software, the Reproducible/Bootstrappable build projects made us aware of the importance of verifiability, and Certificate Transparency highlighted the need for accountable signature logs leading to efforts like Sigstore for software. None of these efforts would have seen the light of day unless people wrote free software and packaged them into distributions that we can use, and built hardware that we can run it on. While there certainly exists more work to be done on the software side, with the recent amazing full-source build of Guix based on a 357-byte hand-written seed, I believe that we are closing that loop on the software engineering side. So what remains? Some inspiration for further work: Onwards and upwards, happy hacking! Update 2023-05-03: Added the Liberating property regarding free software, instead of having it be part of the Verifiability and Transparency .

13 March 2023

Dima Kogan: Debian at SCaLE 20x

SCaLE 20x just wrapped up. We spent three days running the Debian booth: passing out stickers, penguin swag, coffee and cookies, and telling everyone that would listen about about our great OS. As usual, Richard Hecker, Chris McKenzie and I attended as the "LA Debian contingent". Mathias Gibbens flew in from Albuquerque, and Ha Lam and Syed Reza stopped by periodically. Chris created extra demand by restricting the supply of plushy penguins. Some kid was shocked at my old laptop, only to see Mathias pull out an even older one. And we finished off the conference by listening to Ken Thompson's tale about his music collection. Good times. The crew:
R0003400.jpg
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Looking forward to next year!

7 March 2023

Robert McQueen: Flathub in 2023

It s been quite a few months since the most recent updates about Flathub last year. We ve been busy behind the scenes, so I d like to share what we ve been up to at Flathub and why and what s coming up from us this year. I want to focus on: Today Flathub is going strong: we offer 2,000 apps from over 1,500 collaborators on GitHub. We re averaging 700,000 app downloads a day, with 898 million HTTP requests totalling 88.3 TB served by our CDN each day (thank you Fastly!). Flatpak has, in my opinion, solved the largest technical issue which has held back the mainstream growth and acceptance of Linux on the desktop (or other personal computing devices) for the past 25 years: namely, the difficulty for app developers to publish their work in a way that makes it easy for people to discover, download (or sideload, for people in challenging connectivity environments), install and use. Flathub builds on that to help users discover the work of app developers and helps that work reach users in a timely manner. Initial results of this disintermediation are promising: even with its modest size so far, Flathub has hundreds of apps that I have never, ever heard of before and that s even considering I ve been working in the Linux desktop space for nearly 20 years and spent many of those staring at the contents of dselect (showing my age a little) or GNOME Software, attending conferences, and reading blog posts, news articles, and forums. I am also heartened to see that many of our OS distributor partners have recognised that this model is hugely complementary and additive to the indispensable work they are doing to bring the Linux desktop to end users, and that having more apps available to your users is a value-add allowing you to focus on your core offering and not a zero-sum game that should motivate infighting. Ongoing Progress Getting Flathub into its current state has been a long ongoing process. Here s what we ve been up to behind the scenes: Development Last year, we concluded our first engagement with Codethink to build features into the Flathub web app to move from a build service to an app store. That includes accounts for users and developers, payment processing via Stripe, and the ability for developers to manage upload tokens for the apps they control. In parallel, James Westman has been working on app verification and the corresponding features in flat-manager to ensure app metadata accurately reflects verification and pricing, and to provide authentication for paying users for app downloads when the developer enables it. Only verified developers will be able to make direct uploads or access payment settings for their apps. Legal So far, the GNOME Foundation has acted as an incubator and legal host for Flathub even though it s not purely a GNOME product or initiative. Distributing software to end users along with processing and forwarding payments and donations also has a different legal profile in terms of risk exposure and nonprofit compliance than the current activities of the GNOME Foundation. Consequently, we plan to establish an independent legal entity to own and operate Flathub which reduces risk for the GNOME Foundation, better reflects the independent and cross-desktop interests of Flathub, and provides flexibility in the future should we need to change the structure. We re currently in the process of reviewing legal advice to ensure we have the right structure in place before moving forward. Governance As Flathub is something we want to set outside of the existing Linux desktop and distribution space and ensure we represent and serve the widest community of Linux users and developers we ve been working on a governance model that ensures that there is transparency and trust in who is making decisions, and why. We have set up a working group with myself and Mart n Abente Lahaye from GNOME, Aleix Pol Gonzalez, Neofytos Kolokotronis, and Timoth e Ravier from KDE, and Jorge Castro flying the flag for the Flathub community. Thanks also to Neil McGovern and Nick Richards who were also more involved in the process earlier on. We don t want to get held up here creating something complex with memberships and elections, so at first we re going to come up with a simple/balanced way to appoint people into a board that makes key decisions about Flathub and iterate from there. Funding We have received one grant for 2023 of $100K from Endless Network which will go towards the infrastructure, legal, and operations costs of running Flathub and setting up the structure described above. (Full disclosure: Endless Network is the umbrella organisation which also funds my employer, Endless OS Foundation.) I am hoping to grow the available funding to $250K for this year in order to cover the next round of development on the software, prepare for higher operations costs (e.g., accounting gets more complex), and bring in a second full-time staff member in addition to Bart omiej Piotrowski to handle enquiries, reviews, documentation, and partner outreach. We re currently in discussions with NLnet about funding further software development, but have been unfortunately turned down for a grant from the Plaintext Group for this year; this Schmidt Futures project around OSS sustainability is not currently issuing grants in 2023. However, we continue to work on other funding opportunities. Remaining Barriers My personal hypothesis is that our largest remaining barrier to Linux desktop scale and impact is economic. On competing platforms mobile or desktop a developer can offer their work for sale via an app store or direct download with payment or subscription within hours of making a release. While we have taken the time to first download time down from months to days with Flathub, as a community we continue to have a challenging relationship with money. Some creators are lucky enough to have a full-time job within the FLOSS space, while a few superstar developers are able to nurture some level of financial support by investing time in building a following through streaming, Patreon, Kickstarter, or similar. However, a large proportion of us have to make do with the main payback from our labours being a stream of bug reports on GitHub interspersed with occasional conciliatory beers at FOSDEM (other beverages and events are available). The first and most obvious consequence is that if there is no financial payback for participating in developing apps for the free and open source desktop, we will lose many people in the process despite the amazing achievements of those who have brought us to where we are today. As a result, we ll have far fewer developers and apps. If we can t offer access to a growing base of users or the opportunity to offer something of monetary value to them, the reward in terms of adoption and possible payment will be very small. Developers would be forgiven for taking their time and attention elsewhere. With fewer apps, our platform has less to entice and retain prospective users. The second consequence is that this also represents a significant hurdle for diverse and inclusive participation. We essentially require that somebody is in a position of privilege and comfort that they have internet, power, time, and income not to mention childcare, etc. to spare so that they can take part. If that s not the case for somebody, we are leaving them shut out from our community before they even have a chance to start. My belief is that free and open source software represents a better way for people to access computing, and there are billions of people in the world we should hope to reach with our work. But if the mechanism for participation ensures their voices and needs are never represented in our community of creators, we are significantly less likely to understand and meet those needs. While these are my thoughts, you ll notice a strong theme to this year will be leading a consultation process to ensure that we are including, understanding and reflecting the needs of our different communities app creators, OS distributors and Linux users as I don t believe that our initiative will be successful without ensuring mutual benefit and shared success. Ultimately, no matter how beautiful, performant, or featureful the latest versions of the Plasma or GNOME desktops are, or how slick the newly rewritten installer is from your favourite distribution, all of the projects making up the Linux desktop ecosystem are subdividing between ourselves an absolutely tiny market share of the global market of personal computers. To make a bigger mark on the world, as a community, we need to get out more. What s Next? After identifying our major barriers to overcome, we ve planned a number of focused initiatives and restructuring this year: Phased Deployment We re working on deploying the work we have been doing over the past year, starting first with launching the new Flathub web experience as well as the rebrand that Jakub has been talking about on his blog. This also will finally launch the verification features so we can distinguish those apps which are uploaded by their developers. In parallel, we ll also be able to turn on the Flatpak repo subsets that enable users to select only verified and/or FLOSS apps in the Flatpak CLI or their desktop s app center UI. Consultation We would like to make sure that the voices of app creators, OS distributors, and Linux users are reflected in our plans for 2023 and beyond. We will be launching this in the form of Flathub Focus Groups at the Linux App Summit in Brno in May 2023, followed up with surveys and other opportunities for online participation. We see our role as interconnecting communities and want to be sure that we remain transparent and accountable to those we are seeking to empower with our work. Whilst we are being bold and ambitious with what we are trying to create for the Linux desktop community, we also want to make sure we provide the right forums to listen to the FLOSS community and prioritise our work accordingly. Advisory Board As we build the Flathub organisation up in 2023, we re also planning to expand its governance by creating an Advisory Board. We will establish an ongoing forum with different stakeholders around Flathub: OS vendors, hardware integrators, app developers and user representatives to help us create the Flathub that supports and promotes our mutually shared interests in a strong and healthy Linux desktop community. Direct Uploads Direct app uploads are close to ready, and they enable exciting stuff like allowing Electron apps to be built outside of flatpak-builder, or driving automatic Flathub uploads from GitHub actions or GitLab CI flows; however, we need to think a little about how we encourage these to be used. Even with its frustrations, our current Buildbot ensures that the build logs and source versions of each app on Flathub are captured, and that the apps are built on all supported architectures. (Is 2023 when we add RISC-V? Reach out if you d like to help!). If we hand upload tokens out to any developer, even if the majority of apps are open source, we will go from this relatively structured situation to something a lot more unstructured and we fear many apps will be available on only 64-bit Intel/AMD machines. My sketch here is that we need to establish some best practices around how to integrate Flathub uploads into popular CI systems, encouraging best practices so that we promote the properties of transparency and reproducibility that we don t want to lose. If anyone is a CI wizard and would like to work with us as a thought partner about how we can achieve this make it more flexible where and how build tasks can be hosted, but not lose these cross-platform and inspectability properties we d love to hear from you. Donations and Payments Once the work around legal and governance reaches a decent point, we will be in the position to move ahead with our Stripe setup and switch on the third big new feature in the Flathub web app. At present, we have already implemented support for one-off payments either as donations or a required purchase. We would like to go further than that, in line with what we were describing earlier about helping developers sustainably work on apps for our ecosystem: we would also like to enable developers to offer subscriptions. This will allow us to create a relationship between users and creators that funds ongoing work rather than what we already have. Security For Flathub to succeed, we need to make sure that as we grow, we continue to be a platform that can give users confidence in the quality and security of the apps we offer. To that end, we are planning to set up infrastructure to help ensure developers are shipping the best products they possibly can to users. For example, we d like to set up automated linting and security scanning on the Flathub back-end to help developers avoid bad practices, unnecessary sandbox permissions, outdated dependencies, etc. and to keep users informed and as secure as possible. Sponsorship Fundraising is a forever task as is running such a big and growing service. We hope that one day, we can cover our costs through some modest fees built into our payments but until we reach that point, we re going to be seeking a combination of grant funding and sponsorship to keep our roadmap moving. Our hope is very much that we can encourage different organisations that buy into our vision and will benefit from Flathub to help us support it and ensure we can deliver on our goals. If you have any suggestions of who might like to support Flathub, we would be very appreciative if you could reach out and get us in touch. Finally, Thank You! Thanks to you all for reading this far and supporting the work of Flathub, and also to our major sponsors and donors without whom Flathub could not exist: GNOME Foundation, KDE e.V., Mythic Beasts, Endless Network, Fastly, and Equinix Metal via the CNCF Community Cluster. Thanks also to the tireless work of the Freedesktop SDK community to give us the runtime platform most Flatpaks depend on, particularly Seppo Yli-Olli, Codethink and others. I wanted to also give my personal thanks to a handful of dedicated people who keep Flathub working as a service and as a community: Bart omiej Piotrowski is keeping the infrastructure working essentially single-handedly (in his spare time from keeping everything running at GNOME); Kolja Lampe and Bart built the new web app and backend API for Flathub which all of the new functionality has been built on, and Filippe LeMarchand maintains the checker bot which helps keeps all of the Flatpaks up to date. And finally, all of the submissions to Flathub are reviewed to ensure quality, consistency and security by a small dedicated team of reviewers, with a huge amount of work from Hubert Figui re and Bart to keep the submissions flowing. Thanks to everyone named or unnamed for building this vision of the future of the Linux desktop together with us. (originally posted to Flathub Discourse, head there if you have any questions or comments)

30 December 2022

Chris Lamb: Favourite books of 2022: Non-fiction

In my three most recent posts, I went over the memoirs and biographies, classics and fiction books that I enjoyed the most in 2022. But in the last of my book-related posts for 2022, I'll be going over my favourite works of non-fiction. Books that just missed the cut here include Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost (1998) on the role of Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo Free State, Johann Hari's Stolen Focus (2022) (a personal memoir on relating to how technology is increasingly fragmenting our attention), Amia Srinivasan's The Right to Sex (2021) (a misleadingly named set of philosophic essays on feminism), Dana Heller et al.'s The Selling of 9/11: How a National Tragedy Became a Commodity (2005), John Berger's mindbending Ways of Seeing (1972) and Louise Richardson's What Terrorists Want (2006).

The Great War and Modern Memory (1975)
Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989) Paul Fussell Rather than describe the battles, weapons, geopolitics or big personalities of the two World Wars, Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory & Wartime are focused instead on how the two wars have been remembered by their everyday participants. Drawing on the memoirs and memories of soldiers and civilians along with a brief comparison with the actual events that shaped them, Fussell's two books are a compassionate, insightful and moving piece of analysis. Fussell primarily sets himself against the admixture of nostalgia and trauma that obscures the origins and unimaginable experience of participating in these wars; two wars that were, in his view, a "perceptual and rhetorical scandal from which total recovery is unlikely." He takes particular aim at the dishonesty of hindsight:
For the past fifty years, the Allied war has been sanitised and romanticised almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty. I have tried to balance the scales. [And] in unbombed America especially, the meaning of the war [seems] inaccessible.
The author does not engage in any of the customary rose-tinted view of war, yet he remains understanding and compassionate towards those who try to locate a reason within what was quite often senseless barbarism. If anything, his despondency and pessimism about the Second World War (the war that Fussell himself fought in) shines through quite acutely, and this is especially the case in what he chooses to quote from others:
"It was common [ ] throughout the [Okinawa] campaign for replacements to get hit before we even knew their names. They came up confused, frightened, and hopeful, got wounded or killed, and went right back to the rear on the route by which they had come, shocked, bleeding, or stiff. They were forlorn figures coming up to the meat grinder and going right back out of it like homeless waifs, unknown and faceless to us, like unread books on a shelf."
It would take a rather heartless reader to fail to be sobered by this final simile, and an even colder one to view Fussell's citation of such an emotive anecdote to be manipulative. Still, stories and cruel ironies like this one infuse this often-angry book, but it is not without astute and shrewd analysis as well, especially on the many qualitative differences between the two conflicts that simply cannot be captured by facts and figures alone. For example:
A measure of the psychological distance of the Second [World] War from the First is the rarity, in 1914 1918, of drinking and drunkenness poems.
Indeed so. In fact, what makes Fussell's project so compelling and perhaps even unique is that he uses these non-quantitive measures to try and take stock of what happened. After all, this was a war conducted by humans, not the abstract school of statistics. And what is the value of a list of armaments destroyed by such-and-such a regiment when compared with truly consequential insights into both how the war affected, say, the psychology of postwar literature ("Prolonged trench warfare, whether enacted or remembered, fosters paranoid melodrama, which I take to be a primary mode in modern writing."), the specific words adopted by combatants ("It is a truism of military propaganda that monosyllabic enemies are easier to despise than others") as well as the very grammar of interaction:
The Field Service Post Card [in WW1] has the honour of being the first widespread exemplary of that kind of document which uniquely characterises the modern world: the "Form". [And] as the first widely known example of dehumanised, automated communication, the post card popularised a mode of rhetoric indispensable to the conduct of later wars fought by great faceless conscripted armies.
And this wouldn't be a book review without argument-ending observations that:
Indicative of the German wartime conception [of victory] would be Hitler and Speer's elaborate plans for the ultimate reconstruction of Berlin, which made no provision for a library.
Our myths about the two world wars possess an undisputed power, in part because they contain an essential truth the atrocities committed by Germany and its allies were not merely extreme or revolting, but their full dimensions (embodied in the Holocaust and the Holodomor) remain essentially inaccessible within our current ideological framework. Yet the two wars are better understood as an abyss in which we were all dragged into the depths of moral depravity, rather than a battle pitched by the forces of light against the forces of darkness. Fussell is one of the few observers that can truly accept and understand this truth and is still able to speak to us cogently on the topic from the vantage point of experience. The Second World War which looms so large in our contemporary understanding of the modern world (see below) may have been necessary and unavoidable, but Fussell convinces his reader that it was morally complicated "beyond the power of any literary or philosophic analysis to suggest," and that the only way to maintain a na ve belief in the myth that these wars were a Manichaean fight between good and evil is to overlook reality. There are many texts on the two World Wars that can either stir the intellect or move the emotions, but Fussell's two books do both. A uniquely perceptive and intelligent commentary; outstanding.

Longitude (1995) Dava Sobel Since Man first decided to sail the oceans, knowing one's location has always been critical. Yet doing so reliably used to be a serious problem if you didn't know where you were, you are far more likely to die and/or lose your valuable cargo. But whilst finding one's latitude (ie. your north south position) had effectively been solved by the beginning of the 17th century, finding one's (east west) longitude was far from trustworthy in comparison. This book first published in 1995 is therefore something of an anachronism. As in, we readily use the GPS facilities of our phones today without hesitation, so we find it difficult to imagine a reality in which knowing something fundamental like your own location is essentially unthinkable. It became clear in the 18th century, though, that in order to accurately determine one's longitude, what you actually needed was an accurate clock. In Longitude, therefore, we read of the remarkable story of John Harrison and his quest to create a timepiece that would not only keep time during a long sea voyage but would survive the rough ocean conditions as well. Self-educated and a carpenter by trade, Harrison made a number of important breakthroughs in keeping accurate time at sea, and Longitude describes his novel breakthroughs in a way that is both engaging and without talking down to the reader. Still, this book covers much more than that, including the development of accurate longitude going hand-in-hand with advancements in cartography as well as in scientific experiments to determine the speed of light: experiments that led to the formulation of quantum mechanics. It also outlines the work being done by Harrison's competitors. 'Competitors' is indeed the correct word here, as Parliament offered a huge prize to whoever could create such a device, and the ramifications of this tremendous financial incentive are an essential part of this story. For the most part, though, Longitude sticks to the story of Harrison and his evolving obsession with his creating the perfect timepiece. Indeed, one reason that Longitude is so resonant with readers is that many of the tropes of the archetypical 'English inventor' are embedded within Harrison himself. That is to say, here is a self-made man pushing against the establishment of the time, with his groundbreaking ideas being underappreciated in his life, or dishonestly purloined by his intellectual inferiors. At the level of allegory, then, I am minded to interpret this portrait of Harrison as a symbolic distillation of postwar Britain a nation acutely embarrassed by the loss of the Empire that is now repositioning itself as a resourceful but plucky underdog; a country that, with a combination of the brains of boffins and a healthy dose of charisma and PR, can still keep up with the big boys. (It is this same search for postimperial meaning I find in the fiction of John le Carr , and, far more famously, in the James Bond franchise.) All of this is left to the reader, of course, as what makes Longitute singularly compelling is its gentle manner and tone. Indeed, at times it was as if the doyenne of sci-fi Ursula K. LeGuin had a sideline in popular non-fiction. I realise it's a mark of critical distinction to downgrade the importance of popular science in favour of erudite academic texts, but Latitude is ample evidence that so-called 'pop' science need not be patronising or reductive at all.

Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court (1998) Edward Lazarus After the landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in *Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization that ended the Constitutional right to abortion conferred by Roe v Wade, I prioritised a few books in the queue about the judicial branch of the United States. One of these books was Closed Chambers, which attempts to assay, according to its subtitle, "The Rise, Fall and Future of the Modern Supreme Court". This book is not merely simply a learned guide to the history and functioning of the Court (although it is completely creditable in this respect); it's actually an 'insider' view of the workings of the institution as Lazurus was a clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun during the October term of 1988. Lazarus has therefore combined his experience as a clerk and his personal reflections (along with a substantial body of subsequent research) in order to communicate the collapse in comity between the Justices. Part of this book is therefore a pure history of the Court, detailing its important nineteenth-century judgements (such as Dred Scott which ruled that the Constitution did not consider Blacks to be citizens; and Plessy v. Ferguson which failed to find protection in the Constitution against racial segregation laws), as well as many twentieth-century cases that touch on the rather technical principle of substantive due process. Other layers of Lazurus' book are explicitly opinionated, however, and they capture the author's assessment of the Court's actions in the past and present [1998] day. Given the role in which he served at the Court, particular attention is given by Lazarus to the function of its clerks. These are revealed as being far more than the mere amanuenses they were hitherto believed to be. Indeed, the book is potentially unique in its the claim that the clerks have played a pivotal role in the deliberations, machinations and eventual rulings of the Court. By implication, then, the clerks have plaedy a crucial role in the internal controversies that surround many of the high-profile Supreme Court decisions decisions that, to the outsider at least, are presented as disinterested interpretations of Constitution of the United States. This is of especial importance given that, to Lazarus, "for all the attention we now pay to it, the Court remains shrouded in confusion and misunderstanding." Throughout his book, Lazarus complicates the commonplace view that the Court is divided into two simple right vs. left political factions, and instead documents an ever-evolving series of loosely held but strongly felt series of cabals, quid pro quo exchanges, outright equivocation and pure personal prejudices. (The age and concomitant illnesses of the Justices also appears to have a not insignificant effect on the Court's rulings as well.) In other words, Closed Chambers is not a book that will be read in a typical civics class in America, and the only time the book resorts to the customary breathless rhetoric about the US federal government is in its opening chapter:
The Court itself, a Greek-style temple commanding the crest of Capitol Hill, loomed above them in the dim light of the storm. Set atop a broad marble plaza and thirty-six steps, the Court stands in splendid isolation appropriate to its place at the pinnacle of the national judiciary, one of the three independent and "coequal" branches of American government. Once dubbed the Ivory Tower by architecture critics, the Court has a Corinthian colonnade and massive twenty-foot-high bronze doors that guard the single most powerful judicial institution in the Western world. Lights still shone in several offices to the right of the Court's entrance, and [ ]
Et cetera, et cetera. But, of course, this encomium to the inherent 'nobility' of the Supreme Court is quickly revealed to be a narrative foil, as Lazarus soon razes this dangerously na ve conception to the ground:
[The] institution is [now] broken into unyielding factions that have largely given up on a meaningful exchange of their respective views or, for that matter, a meaningful explication or defense of their own views. It is of Justices who in many important cases resort to transparently deceitful and hypocritical arguments and factual distortions as they discard judicial philosophy and consistent interpretation in favor of bottom-line results. This is a Court so badly splintered, yet so intent on lawmaking, that shifting 5-4 majorities, or even mere pluralities, rewrite whole swaths of constitutional law on the authority of a single, often idiosyncratic vote. It is also a Court where Justices yield great and excessive power to immature, ideologically driven clerks, who in turn use that power to manipulate their bosses and the institution they ostensibly serve.
Lazurus does not put forward a single, overarching thesis, but in the final chapters, he does suggest a potential future for the Court:
In the short run, the cure for what ails the Court lies solely with the Justices. It is their duty, under the shield of life tenure, to recognize the pathologies affecting their work and to restore the vitality of American constitutionalism. Ultimately, though, the long-term health of the Court depends on our own resolve on whom [we] select to join that institution.
Back in 1998, Lazurus might have had room for this qualified optimism. But from the vantage point of 2022, it appears that the "resolve" of the United States citizenry was not muscular enough to meet his challenge. After all, Lazurus was writing before Bush v. Gore in 2000, which arrogated to the judicial branch the ability to decide a presidential election; the disillusionment of Barack Obama's failure to nominate a replacement for Scalia; and many other missteps in the Court as well. All of which have now been compounded by the Trump administration's appointment of three Republican-friendly justices to the Court, including hypocritically appointing Justice Barrett a mere 38 days before the 2020 election. And, of course, the leaking and ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, the true extent of which has not been yet. Not of a bit of this is Lazarus' fault, of course, but the Court's recent decisions (as well as the liberal hagiographies of 'RBG') most perforce affect one's reading of the concluding chapters. The other slight defect of Closed Chambers is that, whilst it often implies the importance of the federal and state courts within the judiciary, it only briefly positions the Supreme Court's decisions in relation to what was happening in the House, Senate and White House at the time. This seems to be increasingly relevant as time goes on: after all, it seems fairly clear even to this Brit that relying on an activist Supreme Court to enact progressive laws must be interpreted as a failure of the legislative branch to overcome the perennial problems of the filibuster, culture wars and partisan bickering. Nevertheless, Lazarus' book is in equal parts ambitious, opinionated, scholarly and dare I admit it? wonderfully gossipy. By juxtaposing history, memoir, and analysis, Closed Chambers combines an exacting evaluation of the Court's decisions with a lively portrait of the intellectual and emotional intensity that has grown within the Supreme Court's pseudo-monastic environment all while it struggles with the most impactful legal issues of the day. This book is an excellent and well-written achievement that will likely never be repeated, and a must-read for anyone interested in this ever-increasingly important branch of the US government.

Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (2018)
Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World's Economy (2021) Adam Tooze The economic historian Adam Tooze has often been labelled as an unlikely celebrity, but in the fourteen years since the global financial crisis of 2008, a growing audience has been looking for answers about the various failures of the modern economy. Tooze, a professor of history at New York's Columbia University, has written much that is penetrative and thought-provoking on this topic, and as a result, he has generated something of a cult following amongst economists, historians and the online left. I actually read two Tooze books this year. The first, Crashed (2018), catalogues the scale of government intervention required to prop up global finance after the 2008 financial crisis, and it characterises the different ways that countries around the world failed to live up to the situation, such as doing far too little, or taking action far too late. The connections between the high-risk subprime loans, credit default swaps and the resulting liquidity crisis in the US in late 2008 is fairly well known today in part thanks to films such as Adam McKay's 2015 The Big Short and much improved economic literacy in media reportage. But Crashed makes the implicit claim that, whilst the specific and structural origins of the 2008 crisis are worth scrutinising in exacting detail, it is the reaction of states in the months and years after the crash that has been overlooked as a result. After all, this is a reaction that has not only shaped a new economic order, it has created one that does not fit any conventional idea about the way the world 'ought' to be run. Tooze connects the original American banking crisis to the (multiple) European debt crises with a larger crisis of liberalism. Indeed, Tooze somehow manages to cover all these topics and more, weaving in Trump, Brexit and Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, as well as the evolving role of China in the post-2008 economic order. Where Crashed focused on the constellation of consequences that followed the events of 2008, Shutdown is a clear and comprehensive account of the way the world responded to the economic impact of Covid-19. The figures are often jaw-dropping: soon after the disease spread around the world, 95% of the world's economies contracted simultaneously, and at one point, the global economy shrunk by approximately 20%. Tooze's keen and sobering analysis of what happened is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it came out whilst the pandemic was still unfolding. In fact, this leads quickly to one of the book's few flaws: by being published so quickly, Shutdown prematurely over-praises China's 'zero Covid' policy, and these remarks will make a reader today squirm in their chair. Still, despite the regularity of these references (after all, mentioning China is very useful when one is directly comparing economic figures in early 2021, for examples), these are actually minor blemishes on the book's overall thesis. That is to say, Crashed is not merely a retelling of what happened in such-and-such a country during the pandemic; it offers in effect a prediction about what might be coming next. Whilst the economic responses to Covid averted what could easily have been another Great Depression (and thus showed it had learned some lessons from 2008), it had only done so by truly discarding the economic rule book. The by-product of inverting this set of written and unwritten conventions that have governed the world for the past 50 years, this 'Washington consensus' if you well, has yet to be fully felt. Of course, there are many parallels between these two books by Tooze. Both the liquidity crisis outlined in Crashed and the economic response to Covid in Shutdown exposed the fact that one of the central tenets of the modern economy ie. that financial markets can be trusted to regulate themselves was entirely untrue, and likely was false from the very beginning. And whilst Adam Tooze does not offer a singular piercing insight (conveying a sense of rigorous mastery instead), he may as well be asking whether we're simply going to lurch along from one crisis to the next, relying on the technocrats in power to fix problems when everything blows up again. The answer may very well be yes.

Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness (2021) Elizabeth D. Samet Elizabeth D. Samet's Looking for the Good War answers the following question what would be the result if you asked a professor of English to disentangle the complex mythology we have about WW2 in the context of the recent US exit of Afghanistan? Samet's book acts as a twenty-first-century update of a kind to Paul Fussell's two books (reviewed above), as well as a deeper meditation on the idea that each new war is seen through the lens of the previous one. Indeed, like The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) and Wartime (1989), Samet's book is a perceptive work of demystification, but whilst Fussell seems to have been inspired by his own traumatic war experience, Samet is not only informed by her teaching West Point military cadets but by the physical and ontological wars that have occurred during her own life as well. A more scholarly and dispassionate text is the result of Samet's relative distance from armed combat, but it doesn't mean Looking for the Good War lacks energy or inspiration. Samet shares John Adams' belief that no political project can entirely shed the innate corruptions of power and ambition and so it is crucial to analyse and re-analyse the role of WW2 in contemporary American life. She is surely correct that the Second World War has been universally elevated as a special, 'good' war. Even those with exceptionally giddy minds seem to treat WW2 as hallowed:
It is nevertheless telling that one of the few occasions to which Trump responded with any kind of restraint while he was in office was the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019.
What is the source of this restraint, and what has nurtured its growth in the eight decades since WW2 began? Samet posits several reasons for this, including the fact that almost all of the media about the Second World War is not only suffused with symbolism and nostalgia but, less obviously, it has been made by people who have no experience of the events that they depict. Take Stephen Ambrose, author of Steven Spielberg's Band of Brothers miniseries: "I was 10 years old when the war ended," Samet quotes of Ambrose. "I thought the returning veterans were giants who had saved the world from barbarism. I still think so. I remain a hero worshiper." If Looking for the Good War has a primary thesis, then, it is that childhood hero worship is no basis for a system of government, let alone a crusading foreign policy. There is a straight line (to quote this book's subtitle) from the "American Amnesia" that obscures the reality of war to the "Violent Pursuit of Happiness." Samet's book doesn't merely just provide a modern appendix to Fussell's two works, however, as it adds further layers and dimensions he overlooked. For example, Samet provides some excellent insight on the role of Western, gangster and superhero movies, and she is especially good when looking at noir films as a kind of kaleidoscopic response to the Second World War:
Noir is a world ruled by bad decisions but also by bad timing. Chance, which plays such a pivotal role in war, bleeds into this world, too.
Samet rightfully weaves the role of women into the narrative as well. Women in film noir are often celebrated as 'independent' and sassy, correctly reflecting their newly-found independence gained during WW2. But these 'liberated' roles are not exactly a ringing endorsement of this independence: the 'femme fatale' and the 'tart', etc., reflect a kind of conditional freedom permitted to women by a post-War culture which is still wedded to an outmoded honour culture. In effect, far from being novel and subversive, these roles for women actually underwrote the ambient cultural disapproval of women's presence in the workforce. Samet later connects this highly-conditional independence with the liberation of Afghan women, which:
is inarguably one of the more palatable outcomes of our invasion, and the protection of women's rights has been invoked on the right and the left as an argument for staying the course in Afghanistan. How easily consequence is becoming justification. How flattering it will be one day to reimagine it as original objective.
Samet has ensured her book has a predominantly US angle as well, for she ends her book with a chapter on the pseudohistorical Lost Cause of the Civil War. The legacy of the Civil War is still visible in the physical phenomena of Confederate statues, but it also exists in deep-rooted racial injustice that has been shrouded in euphemism and other psychological devices for over 150 years. Samet believes that a key part of what drives the American mythology about the Second World War is the way in which it subconsciously cleanses the horrors of brother-on-brother murder that were seen in the Civil War. This is a book that is not only of interest to historians of the Second World War; it is a work for anyone who wishes to understand almost any American historical event, social issue, politician or movie that has appeared since the end of WW2. That is for better or worse everyone on earth.

29 December 2022

Chris Lamb: Favourite books of 2022: Memoir/biography

In my two most recent posts, I listed the fiction and classic fiction I enjoyed the most in 2022. I'll leave my roundup of general non-fiction until tomorrow, but today I'll be going over my favourite memoirs and biographies, in no particular order. Books that just missed the cut here include Roisin Kiberd's The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet (2019), Steve Richards' The Prime Ministers (2019) which reflects on UK leadership from Harold Wilson to Boris Johnson, Robert Graves Great War memoir Goodbye to All That (1929) and David Mikics's portrait of Stanley Kubrick called American Filmmaker.

Afropean: Notes from Black Europe (2019) Johny Pitts Johny Pitts is a photographer and writer who lives in the north of England who set out to explore "black Europe from the street up" those districts within European cities that, although they were once 'white spaces' in the past, they are now occupied by Black people. Unhappy with the framing of the Black experience back home in post-industrial Sheffield, Pitts decided to become a nomad and goes abroad to seek out the sense of belonging he cannot find in post-Brexit Britain, and Afropean details his journey through Paris, Brussels, Lisbon, Berlin, Stockholm and Moscow. However, Pitts isn't just avoiding the polarisation and structural racism embedded in contemporary British life. Rather, he is seeking a kind of super-national community that transcends the reductive and limiting nationalisms of all European countries, most of which have based their national story on a self-serving mix of nostalgia and postcolonial fairy tales. Indeed, the term 'Afropean' is the key to understanding the goal of this captivating memoir. Pitts writes at the beginning of this book that the word wasn't driven only as a response to the crude nativisms of Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, but that it:
encouraged me to think of myself as whole and unhyphenated. [ ] Here was a space where blackness was taking part in shaping European identity at large. It suggested the possibility of living in and with more than one idea: Africa and Europe, or, by extension, the Global South and the West, without being mixed-this, half-that or black-other. That being black in Europe didn t necessarily mean being an immigrant.
In search of this whole new theory of home, Pitts travels to the infamous banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois just to the East of Paris, thence to Matong in Brussels, as well as a quick and abortive trip into Moscow and other parallel communities throughout the continent. In these disparate environs, Pitts strikes up countless conversations with regular folk in order to hear their quotidian stories of living, and ultimately to move away from the idea that Black history is defined exclusively by slavery. Indeed, to Pitts, the idea of race is one that ultimately restricts one's humanity; the concept "is often forced to embody and speak for certain ideas, despite the fact it can't ever hold in both hands the full spectrum of a human life and the cultural nuances it creates." It's difficult to do justice to the effectiveness of the conversations Pitts has throughout his travels, but his shrewd attention to demeanour, language, raiment and expression vividly brings alive the people he talks to. Of related interest to fellow Brits as well are the many astute observations and comparisons with Black and working-class British life. The tone shifts quite often throughout this book. There might be an amusing aside one minute, such as the portrait of an African American tourist in Paris to whom "the whole city was a film set, with even its homeless people appearing to him as something oddly picturesque." But the register abruptly changes when he visits Clichy-sous-Bois on an anniversary of important to the area, and an element of genuine danger is introduced when Johny briefly visits Moscow and barely gets out alive. What's especially remarkable about this book is there is a freshness to Pitt s treatment of many well-worn subjects. This can be seen in his account of Belgium under the reign of Leopold II, the history of Portuguese colonialism (actually mostly unknown to me), as well in the way Pitts' own attitude to contemporary anti-fascist movements changes throughout an Antifa march. This chapter was an especial delight, and not only because it underlined just how much of Johny's trip was an inner journey of an author willing have his mind changed. Although Johny travels alone throughout his journey, in the second half of the book, Pitts becomes increasingly accompanied by a number of Black intellectuals by the selective citing of Frantz Fanon and James Baldwin and Caryl Phillips. (Nevertheless, Jonny has also brought his camera for the journey as well, adding a personal touch to this already highly-intimate book.) I suspect that his increasing exercise of Black intellectual writing in the latter half of the book may be because Pitts' hopes about 'Afropean' existence ever becoming a reality are continually dashed and undercut. The unity among potential Afropeans appears more-and-more unrealisable as the narrative unfolds, the various reasons of which Johny explores both prosaically and poetically. Indeed, by the end of the book, it's unclear whether Johny has managed to find what he left the shores of England to find. But his mix of history, sociology and observation of other cultures right on my doorstep was something of a revelation to me.

Orwell's Roses (2021) Rebecca Solnit Orwell s Roses is an alternative journey through the life and afterlife of George Orwell, reimaging his life primarily through the lens of his attentiveness to nature. Yet this framing of the book as an 'alternative' history is only revisionist if we compare it to the usual view of Orwell as a bastion of 'free speech' and English 'common sense' the roses of the title of this book were very much planted by Orwell in his Hertfordshire garden in 1936, and his yearning of nature one was one of the many constants throughout his life. Indeed, Orwell wrote about wildlife and outdoor life whenever he could get away with it, taking pleasure in a blackbird's song and waxing nostalgically about the English countryside in his 1939 novel Coming Up for Air (reviewed yesterday).
By sheer chance, I actually visited this exact garden immediately to the publication of this book
Solnit has a particular ability to evince unexpected connections between Orwell and the things he was writing about: Joseph Stalin's obsession with forcing lemons to grow in ludicrously cold climates; Orwell s slave-owning ancestors in Jamaica; Jamaica Kincaid's critique of colonialism in the flower garden; and the exploitative rose industry in Colombia that supplies the American market. Solnit introduces all of these new correspondences in a voice that feels like a breath of fresh air after decades of stodgy Orwellania, and without lapsing into a kind of verbal soft-focus. Indeed, the book displays a marked indifference towards the usual (male-centric) Orwell fandom. Her book draws to a close with a rereading of the 'dystopian' Nineteen Eighty-Four that completes her touching portrait of a more optimistic and hopeful Orwell, as well as a reflection on beauty and a manifesto for experiencing joy as an act of resistance.

The Disaster Artist (2013) Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell For those not already in the know, The Room was a 2003 film by director-producer-writer-actor Tommy Wiseau, an inscrutable Polish immigr with an impenetrable background, an idiosyncratic choice of wardrobe and a mysterious large source of income. The film, which centres on a melodramatic love triangle, has since been described by several commentators and publications as one of the worst films ever made. Tommy's production completely bombed at the so-called 'box office' (the release was actually funded entirely by Wiseau personally), but the film slowly became a favourite at cult cinema screenings. Given Tommy's prominent and central role in the film, there was always an inherent cruelty involved in indulging in the spectacle of The Room the audience was laughing because the film was astonishingly bad, of course, but Wiseau infused his film with sincere earnestness that in a heartless twist of irony may be precisely why it is so terrible to begin with. Indeed, it should be stressed that The Room is not simply a 'bad' film, and therefore not worth paying any attention to: it is uncannily bad in a way that makes it eerily compelling to watch. It unintentionally subverts all the rules of filmmaking in a way that captivates the attention. Take this representative example:
This thirty-six-second scene showcases almost every problem in The Room: the acting, the lighting, the sound design, the pacing, the dialogue and that this unnecessary scene (which does not advance the plot) even exists in the first place. One problem that the above clip doesn't capture, however, is Tommy's vulnerable ego. (He would later make the potentially conflicting claims that The Room was both an ironic cult success and that he is okay with people interpreting it sincerely). Indeed, the filmmaker's central role as Johnny (along with his Willy-Wonka meets Dracula persona) doesn't strike viewers as yet another vanity project, it actually asks more questions than it answers. Why did Tommy even make this film? What is driving him psychologically? And why and how? is he so spellbinding? On the surface, then, 2013's The Disaster Artist is a book about the making of one the strangest films ever made, written by The Room's co-star Greg Sestero and journalist Tom Bissell. Naturally, you learn some jaw-dropping facts about the production and inspiration of the film, the seed of which was planted when Greg and Tommy went to see an early screening of The Talented Mr Ripley (1999). It turns out that Greg's character in The Room is based on Tommy's idiosyncratic misinterpretation of its plot, extending even to the character's name Mark who, in textbook Tommy style, was taken directly (or at least Tommy believed) from one of Ripley's movie stars: "Mark Damon" [sic]. Almost as absorbing as The Room itself, The Disaster Artist is partly a memoir about Thomas P. Wiseau and his cinematic masterpiece. But it could also be described as a biography about a dysfunctional male relationship and, almost certainly entirely unconsciously, a text about the limitations of hetronormativity. It is this latter element that struck me the most whilst reading this book: if you take a step back for a moment, there is something uniquely sad about Tommy's inability to connect with others, and then, when Wiseau poured his soul into his film people just laughed. Despite the stories about his atrocious behaviour both on and off the film set, there's something deeply tragic about the whole affair. Jean-Luc Godard, who passed away earlier this year, once observed that every fictional film is a documentary of its actors. The Disaster Artist shows that this well-worn aphorism doesn't begin to cover it.

25 October 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: A Spaceship Repair Girl Supposedly Named Rachel

Review: A Spaceship Repair Girl Supposedly Named Rachel, by Richard Roberts
Publisher: Mystique Press
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-63789-763-4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 353
Rachel had snuck out of the house to sit on the hill, to write and draw in rare peace and quiet, when a bus fell out of the sky like a meteor and plowed into the ground in front of her. This is quickly followed by a baffling encounter with a seven-foot-tall man with a blunderbuss, two misunderstandings and a storytelling lie, and a hurried invitation to get into the bus and escape before they're both infected by math. That's how Rachel discovers that she's able to make on-the-fly repairs to bicycle-powered spaceships, and how she ends up at the Lighthouse of Ceres. The title comes from Rachel's initial hesitation to give her name, which propagates through the book to everyone she meets as certainty that Rachel isn't really her name. I enjoyed this running gag way more than I expected to. I don't read enough young adult and middle-grade books to be entirely clear on the boundaries, but this felt very middle-grade. It has a headlong plot, larger-than-life characters, excitingly imaginative scenery (such as a giant space lighthouse dwarfing the asteroid that it's attached to), a focus on friendship, and no romance. This is, to be clear, not a complaint. But it's a different feel than my normal fare, and there were a few places where I was going one direction and the book went another. The conceit of this book is that Earth is unique in the solar system in being stifled by the horrific weight of math, which infects anyone who visits and makes the routine wonders of other planets impossible. Other planets have their own styles and mythos (Saturn is full of pirates, the inhabitants of Venus are space bunnies with names like Passionfruit Nectar Ecstasy), but throughout the rest of the solar system, belief, style, and story logic reign supreme. That means Rachel's wild imagination and reflexive reliance on tall tales makes her surprisingly powerful. The first wild story she tells, to the man who crashed on earth, shapes most of the story. She had written in her sketchbook that it was the property of the Witch Queen of Eloquent Verbosity and Grandiose Ornamentation, and when challenged on it, says that she stole it to cure her partner. Much to her surprise, everyone outside of Earth takes this completely seriously. Also much to her surprise, her habit of sketching spaceships and imaginative devices makes her a natural spaceship mechanic, a skill in high demand. Some of the story is set on Ceres, a refuge for misfits with hearts of gold. That's where Rachel meets Wrench, a kobold who is by far my favorite character of the book and the one relationship that I thought had profound emotional depth. Rachel's other adventures are set off by the pirate girl Violet (she's literally purple), who is the sort of plot-provoking character that I think only works in middle-grade fiction. By normal standards, Violet's total lack of respect for other people's boundaries or consent would make her more of a villain. Here, while it often annoys Rachel, it's clear that both Rachel and the book take Violet's steamroller personality in good fun, more like the gentle coercion between neighborhood friends trying to pull each other into games. I still got rather tired of Violet, though, which caused me a few problems around the middle of the book. There's a bit of found family here (some of it quite touching), a lot of adventures, a lot of delightful spaceship repair, and even some more serious plot involving the actual Witch Queen of Charon. There is a bit of a plot arc to give some structure to the adventures, but this is not the book to read if you're looking for complex plotting or depth. I thought the story fell apart a bit at the tail end, with a conflict that felt like it was supposed to be metaphorical and then never resolved for me into something concrete. I was expecting Rachel to eventually have to do more introspection and more direct wrestling with her identity, but the resolution felt a bit superficial and unsatisfying. Reading this as an adult, I found it odd but fun. I wanted more from the ending, and I was surprised that Roberts does not do more to explain to the reader why Rachel does not regret leaving Earth and her family behind. It feels like something Rachel will have to confront eventually, but this is not the book for it. Instead we get some great friendships (some of which I agreed with wholeheartedly, and some of which I found annoying) and an imaginative, chaotic universe that Rachel takes to like a fish to water. The parts of the story focused on her surprising competence (and her delight in her own competence) were my favorites. The book this most reminds me of is Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. It is, to be clear, nowhere near as good as The Phantom Tollbooth, which is a very high bar, and it's not as focused on puns. But it has the same sense of internal logic and the same tendency to put far more weight on belief and stories than our world does, and to embrace the resulting chaos. I'm not sure this will be anyone's favorite book (although I'm also not the target age), but I enjoyed reading it. It was a great change of pace after Nona the Ninth. Recommended if you're in the mood for some space fantasy that doesn't take itself seriously. Rating: 7 out of 10

1 September 2022

Russ Allbery: Summer haul

It's been a while since I posted one of these! Or, really, much of anything else. Busy and distracted this summer and a bit behind on a wide variety of things at the moment, although thankfully not in a bad way. Sara Alfageeh & Nadia Shammas Squire (graphic novel)
Travis Baldree Legends & Lattes (sff)
Leigh Bardugo Six of Crows (sff)
Miles Cameron Artifact Space (sff)
Robert Caro The Power Broker (nonfiction)
Kate Elliott Servant Mage (sff)
Nicola Griffith Spear (sff)
Alix E. Harrow A Mirror Mended (sff)
Tony Judt Postwar (nonfiction)
T. Kingfisher Nettle & Bone (sff)
Matthys Levy & Mario Salvadori Why Buildings Fall Down (nonfiction)
Lev Menand The Fed Unbound (nonfiction)
Courtney Milan Trade Me (romance)
Elie Mystal Allow Me to Retort (nonfiction)
Quenby Olson Miss Percy's Pocket Guide (sff)
Anu Partanen The Nordic Theory of Everything (nonfiction)
Terry Pratchett Hogfather (sff)
Terry Pratchett Jingo (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Last Continent (sff)
Terry Pratchett Carpe Jugulum (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Fifth Elephant (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Truth (sff)
Victor Ray On Critical Race Theory (nonfiction)
Richard Roberts A Spaceship Repair Girl Supposedly Named Rachel (sff)
Nisi Shawl & Latoya Peterson (ed.) Black Stars (sff anthology)
John Scalzi The Kaiju Preservation Society (sff)
James C. Scott Seeing Like a State (nonfiction)
Mary Sisson Trang (sff)
Mary Sisson Trust (sff)
Benjanun Sriduangkaew And Shall Machines Surrender (sff)
Lea Ypi Free (nonfiction)
It's been long enough that I've already read and reviewed some of these. Already read and pending review are the next two Pratchett novels in my slow progress working through them. Had to catch up with the Tor.com re-read series. So many books and quite definitely not enough time at the moment, although I've been doing better at reading this summer than last summer!

30 August 2022

John Goerzen: The PC & Internet Revolution in Rural America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 February 2022

Russ Allbery: INN 2.6.5

This is a bit of a sneak preview announcement since I'm waiting for the ISC mirror to update before sending the official announcement to the normal channels, but INN 2.6.5 has been released. (The release was finalized a few days ago, and I'm a bit behind in posting it.) This is a bug fix and minor feature release over INN 2.6.4, and the upgrade should be painless. You can download the new release from ftp.isc.org (once it updates) or my personal INN pages. The latter also has links to the full changelog and the other INN documentation. As always, thanks to Julien LIE for preparing this release and doing most of the maintenance work on INN! Changes in this release:

5 January 2022

Reproducible Builds: Reproducible Builds in December 2021

Welcome to the December 2021 report from the Reproducible Builds project! In these reports, we try and summarise what we have been up to over the past month, as well as what else has been occurring in the world of software supply-chain security. As a quick recap of what reproducible builds is trying to address, whilst anyone may inspect the source code of free software for malicious flaws, almost all software is distributed to end users as pre-compiled binaries. The motivation behind the reproducible builds effort is to ensure no flaws have been introduced during this compilation process by promising identical results are always generated from a given source, thus allowing multiple third-parties to come to a consensus on whether a build was compromised. As always, if you would like to contribute to the project, please get in touch with us directly or visit the Contribute page on our website.
Early in December, Julien Voisin blogged about setting up a rebuilderd instance in order to reproduce Tails images. Working on previous work from 2018, Julien has now set up a public-facing instance which is providing build attestations. As Julien dryly notes in his post, Currently, this isn t really super-useful to anyone, except maybe some Tails developers who want to check that the release manager didn t backdoor the released image. Naturally, we would contend sincerely that this is indeed useful.
The secure/anonymous Tor browser now supports reproducible source releases. According to the project s changelog, version 0.4.7.3-alpha of Tor can now build reproducible tarballs via the make dist-reprod command. This issue was tracked via Tor issue #26299.
Fabian Keil posted a question to our mailing list this month asking how they might analyse differences in images produced with the FreeBSD and ElectroBSD s mkimg and makefs commands:
After rebasing ElectroBSD from FreeBSD stable/11 to stable/12
I recently noticed that the "memstick" images are unfortunately
still not 100% reproducible.
Fabian s original post generated a short back-and-forth with Chris Lamb regarding how diffoscope might be able to support the particular format of images generated by this command set.

diffoscope diffoscope is our in-depth and content-aware diff utility. Not only can it locate and diagnose reproducibility issues, it can provide human-readable diffs from many kinds of binary formats. This month, Chris Lamb prepared and uploading versions 195, 196, 197 and 198 to Debian, as well as made the following changes:
  • Support showing Ordering differences only within .dsc field values. [ ]
  • Add support for XMLb files. [ ]
  • Also add, for example, /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu to our local binary search path. [ ]
  • Support OCaml versions 4.11, 4.12 and 4.13. [ ]
  • Drop some unnecessary has_same_content_as logging calls. [ ]
  • Replace token variable with an anonymously-named variable instead to remove extra lines. [ ]
  • Don t use the runtime platform s native endianness when unpacking .pyc files. This fixes test failures on big-endian machines. [ ]
Mattia Rizzolo also made a number of changes to diffoscope this month as well, such as:
  • Also recognize GnuCash files as XML. [ ]
  • Support the pgpdump PGP packet visualiser version 0.34. [ ]
  • Ignore the new Lintian tag binary-with-bad-dynamic-table. [ ]
  • Fix the Enhances field in debian/control. [ ]
Finally, Brent Spillner fixed the version detection for Black uncompromising code formatter [ ], Jelle van der Waa added an external tool reference for Arch Linux [ ] and Roland Clobus added support for reporting when the GNU_BUILD_ID field has been modified [ ]. Thank you for your contributions!

Distribution work In Debian this month, 70 reviews of packages were added, 27 were updated and 41 were removed, adding to our database of knowledge about specific issues. A number of issue types were created as well, including: strip-nondeterminism version 1.13.0-1 was uploaded to Debian unstable by Holger Levsen. It included contributions already covered in previous months as well as new ones from Mattia Rizzolo, particularly that the dh_strip_nondeterminism Debian integration interface uses the new get_non_binnmu_date_epoch() utility when available: this is important to ensure that strip-nondeterminism does not break some kinds of binNMUs.
In the world of openSUSE, however, Bernhard M. Wiedemann posted his monthly reproducible builds status report.
In NixOS, work towards the longer-term goal of making the graphical installation image reproducible is ongoing. For example, Artturin made the gnome-desktop package reproducible.

Upstream patches The Reproducible Builds project attempts to fix as many currently-unreproducible packages as possible. In December, we wrote a large number of such patches, including:

Testing framework The Reproducible Builds project runs a significant testing framework at tests.reproducible-builds.org, to check packages and other artifacts for reproducibility. This month, the following changes were made:
  • Holger Levsen:
    • Run the Debian scheduler less often. [ ]
    • Fix the name of the Debian testing suite name. [ ]
    • Detect builds that are rescheduling due to problems with the diffoscope container. [ ]
    • No longer special-case particular machines having a different /boot partition size. [ ]
    • Automatically fix failed apt-daily and apt-daily-upgrade services [ ], failed e2scrub_all.service & user@ systemd units [ ][ ] as well as generic build failures [ ].
    • Simplify a script to powercycle arm64 architecture nodes hosted at/by codethink.co.uk. [ ]
    • Detect if the udd-mirror.debian.net service is down. [ ]
    • Various miscellaneous node maintenance. [ ][ ]
  • Roland Clobus (Debian live image generation):
    • If the latest snapshot is not complete yet, try to use the previous snapshot instead. [ ]
    • Minor: whitespace correction + comment correction. [ ]
    • Use unique folders and reports for each Debian version. [ ]
    • Turn off debugging. [ ]
    • Add a better error description for incorrect/missing arguments. [ ]
    • Report non-reproducible issues in Debian sid images. [ ]
Lastly, Mattia Rizzolo updated the automatic logfile parsing rules in a number of ways (eg. to ignore a warning about the Python setuptools deprecation) [ ][ ] and Vagrant Cascadian adjusted the config for the Squid caching proxy on a node. [ ]

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

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