Search Results: "scott"

12 May 2024

Daniel Lange: htop and PCP have a new home at Hack Club

After the unfortunate and somewhat surprising shutdown of the Open Collective Foundation (OCF), htop and Performance Co-Pilot (PCP) have migrated to Hack Club. Initially founded to improve STEM education, support high school computer science clubs and firmly founded in the hacker culture, Hack Club have created a US IRS approved 501(c)(3) charity that provides what Open Collective did/does1 and more at a flat 7% fee of the project income. Nathan Scott organized these moves with Paul Spitler. Many thanks! We considered other options for the projects, e.g. Gentoo has moved to Software in the Public Interest (SPI) and I know SPI quite well as they were created initially to host Debian. But PCP moved from SPI to OCF in 2021. Open Collective has a European branch that seems independent of the dissolved US foundation. But all-in-all Hack Club seemed the best fit. You can find the new fiscal sponsorship and donation landing pages at:
htophttps://hcb.hackclub.com/htop/https://hcb.hackclub.com/donations/start/htop
PCPhttps://hcb.hackclub.com/pcp/https://hcb.hackclub.com/donations/start/pcp

  1. Open Collective as in the fancy "manage your project donations and reimbursements" website still continues to run but the foundation of the same name that provided the actual fiscal sponsorship (i.e. managing the funds) got dissolved. It's ... complicated.

30 January 2024

Matthew Palmer: Why Certificate Lifecycle Automation Matters

If you ve perused the ActivityPub feed of certificates whose keys are known to be compromised, and clicked on the Show More button to see the name of the certificate issuer, you may have noticed that some issuers seem to come up again and again. This might make sense after all, if a CA is issuing a large volume of certificates, they ll be seen more often in a list of compromised certificates. In an attempt to see if there is anything that we can learn from this data, though, I did a bit of digging, and came up with some illuminating results.

The Procedure I started off by finding all the unexpired certificates logged in Certificate Transparency (CT) logs that have a key that is in the pwnedkeys database as having been publicly disclosed. From this list of certificates, I removed duplicates by matching up issuer/serial number tuples, and then reduced the set by counting the number of unique certificates by their issuer. This gave me a list of the issuers of these certificates, which looks a bit like this:
/C=BE/O=GlobalSign nv-sa/CN=AlphaSSL CA - SHA256 - G4
/C=GB/ST=Greater Manchester/L=Salford/O=Sectigo Limited/CN=Sectigo RSA Domain Validation Secure Server CA
/C=GB/ST=Greater Manchester/L=Salford/O=Sectigo Limited/CN=Sectigo RSA Organization Validation Secure Server CA
/C=US/ST=Arizona/L=Scottsdale/O=GoDaddy.com, Inc./OU=http://certs.godaddy.com/repository//CN=Go Daddy Secure Certificate Authority - G2
/C=US/ST=Arizona/L=Scottsdale/O=Starfield Technologies, Inc./OU=http://certs.starfieldtech.com/repository//CN=Starfield Secure Certificate Authority - G2
/C=AT/O=ZeroSSL/CN=ZeroSSL RSA Domain Secure Site CA
/C=BE/O=GlobalSign nv-sa/CN=GlobalSign GCC R3 DV TLS CA 2020
Rather than try to work with raw issuers (because, as Andrew Ayer says, The SSL Certificate Issuer Field is a Lie), I mapped these issuers to the organisations that manage them, and summed the counts for those grouped issuers together.

The Data
Lieutenant Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation Insert obligatory "not THAT data" comment here
The end result of this work is the following table, sorted by the count of certificates which have been compromised by exposing their private key:
IssuerCompromised Count
Sectigo170
ISRG (Let's Encrypt)161
GoDaddy141
DigiCert81
GlobalSign46
Entrust3
SSL.com1
If you re familiar with the CA ecosystem, you ll probably recognise that the organisations with large numbers of compromised certificates are also those who issue a lot of certificates. So far, nothing particularly surprising, then. Let s look more closely at the relationships, though, to see if we can get more useful insights.

Volume Control Using the issuance volume report from crt.sh, we can compare issuance volumes to compromise counts, to come up with a compromise rate . I m using the Unexpired Precertificates colume from the issuance volume report, as I feel that s the number that best matches the certificate population I m examining to find compromised certificates. To maintain parity with the previous table, this one is still sorted by the count of certificates that have been compromised.
IssuerIssuance VolumeCompromised CountCompromise Rate
Sectigo88,323,0681701 in 519,547
ISRG (Let's Encrypt)315,476,4021611 in 1,959,480
GoDaddy56,121,4291411 in 398,024
DigiCert144,713,475811 in 1,786,586
GlobalSign1,438,485461 in 31,271
Entrust23,16631 in 7,722
SSL.com171,81611 in 171,816
If we now sort this table by compromise rate, we can see which organisations have the most (and least) leakiness going on from their customers:
IssuerIssuance VolumeCompromised CountCompromise Rate
Entrust23,16631 in 7,722
GlobalSign1,438,485461 in 31,271
SSL.com171,81611 in 171,816
GoDaddy56,121,4291411 in 398,024
Sectigo88,323,0681701 in 519,547
DigiCert144,713,475811 in 1,786,586
ISRG (Let's Encrypt)315,476,4021611 in 1,959,480
By grouping by order-of-magnitude in the compromise rate, we can identify three bands :
  • The Super Leakers: Customers of Entrust and GlobalSign seem to love to lose control of their private keys. For Entrust, at least, though, the small volumes involved make the numbers somewhat untrustworthy. The three compromised certificates could very well belong to just one customer, for instance. I m not aware of anything that GlobalSign does that would make them such an outlier, either, so I m inclined to think they just got unlucky with one or two customers, but as CAs don t include customer IDs in the certificates they issue, it s not possible to say whether that s the actual cause or not.
  • The Regular Leakers: Customers of SSL.com, GoDaddy, and Sectigo all have compromise rates in the 1-in-hundreds-of-thousands range. Again, the low volumes of SSL.com make the numbers somewhat unreliable, but the other two organisations in this group have large enough numbers that we can rely on that data fairly well, I think.
  • The Low Leakers: Customers of DigiCert and Let s Encrypt are at least three times less likely than customers of the regular leakers to lose control of their private keys. Good for them!
Now we have some useful insights we can think about.

Why Is It So?
Professor Julius Sumner Miller If you don't know who Professor Julius Sumner Miller is, I highly recommend finding out
All of the organisations on the list, with the exception of Let s Encrypt, are what one might term traditional CAs. To a first approximation, it s reasonable to assume that the vast majority of the customers of these traditional CAs probably manage their certificates the same way they have for the past two decades or more. That is, they generate a key and CSR, upload the CSR to the CA to get a certificate, then copy the cert and key somewhere. Since humans are handling the keys, there s a higher risk of the humans using either risky practices, or making a mistake, and exposing the private key to the world. Let s Encrypt, on the other hand, issues all of its certificates using the ACME (Automatic Certificate Management Environment) protocol, and all of the Let s Encrypt documentation encourages the use of software tools to generate keys, issue certificates, and install them for use. Given that Let s Encrypt has 161 compromised certificates currently in the wild, it s clear that the automation in use is far from perfect, but the significantly lower compromise rate suggests to me that lifecycle automation at least reduces the rate of key compromise, even though it doesn t eliminate it completely.

Explaining the Outlier The difference in presumed issuance practices would seem to explain the significant difference in compromise rates between Let s Encrypt and the other organisations, if it weren t for one outlier. This is a largely traditional CA, with the manual-handling issues that implies, but with a compromise rate close to that of Let s Encrypt. We are, of course, talking about DigiCert. The thing about DigiCert, that doesn t show up in the raw numbers from crt.sh, is that DigiCert manages the issuance of certificates for several of the biggest hosted TLS providers, such as CloudFlare and AWS. When these services obtain a certificate from DigiCert on their customer s behalf, the private key is kept locked away, and no human can (we hope) get access to the private key. This is supported by the fact that no certificates identifiably issued to either CloudFlare or AWS appear in the set of certificates with compromised keys. When we ask for all certificates issued by DigiCert , we get both the certificates issued to these big providers, which are very good at keeping their keys under control, as well as the certificates issued to everyone else, whose key handling practices may not be quite so stringent. It s possible, though not trivial, to account for certificates issued to these hosted TLS providers, because the certificates they use are issued from intermediates branded to those companies. With the crt.sh psql interface we can run this query to get the total number of unexpired precertificates issued to these managed services:
SELECT SUM(sub.NUM_ISSUED[2] - sub.NUM_EXPIRED[2])
  FROM (
    SELECT ca.name, max(coalesce(coalesce(nullif(trim(cc.SUBORDINATE_CA_OWNER), ''), nullif(trim(cc.CA_OWNER), '')), cc.INCLUDED_CERTIFICATE_OWNER)) as OWNER,
           ca.NUM_ISSUED, ca.NUM_EXPIRED
      FROM ccadb_certificate cc, ca_certificate cac, ca
     WHERE cc.CERTIFICATE_ID = cac.CERTIFICATE_ID
       AND cac.CA_ID = ca.ID
  GROUP BY ca.ID
  ) sub
 WHERE sub.name ILIKE '%Amazon%' OR sub.name ILIKE '%CloudFlare%' AND sub.owner = 'DigiCert';
The number I get from running that query is 104,316,112, which should be subtracted from DigiCert s total issuance figures to get a more accurate view of what DigiCert s regular customers do with their private keys. When I do this, the compromise rates table, sorted by the compromise rate, looks like this:
IssuerIssuance VolumeCompromised CountCompromise Rate
Entrust23,16631 in 7,722
GlobalSign1,438,485461 in 31,271
SSL.com171,81611 in 171,816
GoDaddy56,121,4291411 in 398,024
"Regular" DigiCert40,397,363811 in 498,732
Sectigo88,323,0681701 in 519,547
All DigiCert144,713,475811 in 1,786,586
ISRG (Let's Encrypt)315,476,4021611 in 1,959,480
In short, it appears that DigiCert s regular customers are just as likely as GoDaddy or Sectigo customers to expose their private keys.

What Does It All Mean? The takeaway from all this is fairly straightforward, and not overly surprising, I believe.

The less humans have to do with certificate issuance, the less likely they are to compromise that certificate by exposing the private key. While it may not be surprising, it is nice to have some empirical evidence to back up the common wisdom. Fully-managed TLS providers, such as CloudFlare, AWS Certificate Manager, and whatever Azure s thing is called, is the platonic ideal of this principle: never give humans any opportunity to expose a private key. I m not saying you should use one of these providers, but the security approach they have adopted appears to be the optimal one, and should be emulated universally. The ACME protocol is the next best, in that there are a variety of standardised tools widely available that allow humans to take themselves out of the loop, but it s still possible for humans to handle (and mistakenly expose) key material if they try hard enough. Legacy issuance methods, which either cannot be automated, or require custom, per-provider automation to be developed, appear to be at least four times less helpful to the goal of avoiding compromise of the private key associated with a certificate.

Humans Are, Of Course, The Problem
Bender, the robot from Futurama, asking if we'd like to kill all humans No thanks, Bender, I'm busy tonight
This observation that if you don t let humans near keys, they don t get leaked is further supported by considering the biggest issuers by volume who have not issued any certificates whose keys have been compromised: Google Trust Services (fourth largest issuer overall, with 57,084,529 unexpired precertificates), and Microsoft Corporation (sixth largest issuer overall, with 22,852,468 unexpired precertificates). It appears that somewhere between most and basically all of the certificates these organisations issue are to customers of their public clouds, and my understanding is that the keys for these certificates are managed in same manner as CloudFlare and AWS the keys are locked away where humans can t get to them. It should, of course, go without saying that if a human can never have access to a private key, it makes it rather difficult for a human to expose it. More broadly, if you are building something that handles sensitive or secret data, the more you can do to keep humans out of the loop, the better everything will be.

Your Support is Appreciated If you d like to see more analysis of how key compromise happens, and the lessons we can learn from examining billions of certificates, please show your support by buying me a refreshing beverage. Trawling CT logs is thirsty work.

Appendix: Methodology Limitations In the interests of clarity, I feel it s important to describe ways in which my research might be flawed. Here are the things I know of that may have impacted the accuracy, that I couldn t feasibly account for.
  • Time Periods: Because time never stops, there is likely to be some slight mismatches in the numbers obtained from the various data sources, because they weren t collected at exactly the same moment.
  • Issuer-to-Organisation Mapping: It s possible that the way I mapped issuers to organisations doesn t match exactly with how crt.sh does it, meaning that counts might be skewed. I tried to minimise that by using the same data sources (the CCADB AllCertificates report) that I believe that crt.sh uses for its mapping, but I cannot be certain of a perfect match.
  • Unwarranted Grouping: I ve drawn some conclusions about the practices of the various organisations based on their general approach to certificate issuance. If a particular subordinate CA that I ve grouped into the parent organisation is managed in some unusual way, that might cause my conclusions to be erroneous. I was able to fairly easily separate out CloudFlare, AWS, and Azure, but there are almost certainly others that I didn t spot, because hoo boy there are a lot of intermediate CAs out there.

29 January 2024

Russell Coker: Thinkpad X1 Yoga Gen3

I just bought myself a Thinkpad X1 Yoga Gen3 for $359.10. I have been quite happy with the Thinkpad X1 Carbon Gen5 I ve had for just over a year (apart from my mistake in buying one with lost password) [1] and I normally try to get more use out of a computer than that. If I divide total cost by the time that I ve had it working that comes out to about $1.30 per day. I would pay more than that for a laptop and I have paid much more than that for laptops in the past, but I prefer not to. I was initially tempted to buy a new Thinkpad by the prices of high end X1 devices dropping, this new Yoga has 16G of RAM and a 2560*1440 screen that s a good upgrade from 8G with 1920*1080. The CPU of my new Thinkpad is a quad core i5-8350U that rates 6226 [2] and is a decent upgrade from the dual core i5-6300U that rates 3239 [3] although that wasn t a factor as I found the old CPU fast enough. The Yoga Gen3 has a minimum weight of 1.4Kg and mine might not be the lightest model in the range while the old Carbon weighs 1.14Kg. I can really feel the difference. It s also slightly larger but fortunately still fits in the pocket of my Scottware jacket. The higher resolution screen and more RAM were not sufficient to make me want to spend some money. The deciding factor is that as I m working on phones with touch screens it is a benefit to use a laptop with a touch screen so I can do more testing. The Yoga I bought was going cheap because the touch part of the touch screen is broken but the stylus still works, this is apparently a common failure mode of the Yoga. The Yoga has a brighter screen than the Carbon and seems to have better contrast. I think Lenovo had some newer technology for that generation of laptops or maybe my Carbon is slightly defective in that regard. It s a hazard of buying second hand that if something basically works but isn t quite as good as it should be then you will never know. I m happy with this purchase and I recommend that everyone who buys laptops secondhand the way I do only get 1440p or better displays. I ve currently got the Kitty terminal emulator [4] setup with 9 windows that each have 103 or 104 columns and 26 or 28 rows of text. That s a lot of terminals on a laptop screen!

27 September 2023

Bits from Debian: New Debian Developers and Maintainers (July and August 2023)

The following contributors got their Debian Developer accounts in the last two months: The following contributors were added as Debian Maintainers in the last two months: Congratulations!

12 July 2023

Reproducible Builds: Reproducible Builds in June 2023

Welcome to the June 2023 report from the Reproducible Builds project In our reports, we outline the most important things that we have been up to over the past month. As always, if you are interested in contributing to the project, please visit our Contribute page on our website.


We are very happy to announce the upcoming Reproducible Builds Summit which set to take place from October 31st November 2nd 2023, in the vibrant city of Hamburg, Germany. Our summits are a unique gathering that brings together attendees from diverse projects, united by a shared vision of advancing the Reproducible Builds effort. During this enriching event, participants will have the opportunity to engage in discussions, establish connections and exchange ideas to drive progress in this vital field. Our aim is to create an inclusive space that fosters collaboration, innovation and problem-solving. We are thrilled to host the seventh edition of this exciting event, following the success of previous summits in various iconic locations around the world, including Venice, Marrakesh, Paris, Berlin and Athens. If you re interesting in joining us this year, please make sure to read the event page] which has more details about the event and location. (You may also be interested in attending PackagingCon 2023 held a few days before in Berlin.)
This month, Vagrant Cascadian will present at FOSSY 2023 on the topic of Breaking the Chains of Trusting Trust:
Corrupted build environments can deliver compromised cryptographically signed binaries. Several exploits in critical supply chains have been demonstrated in recent years, proving that this is not just theoretical. The most well secured build environments are still single points of failure when they fail. [ ] This talk will focus on the state of the art from several angles in related Free and Open Source Software projects, what works, current challenges and future plans for building trustworthy toolchains you do not need to trust.
Hosted by the Software Freedom Conservancy and taking place in Portland, Oregon, FOSSY aims to be a community-focused event: Whether you are a long time contributing member of a free software project, a recent graduate of a coding bootcamp or university, or just have an interest in the possibilities that free and open source software bring, FOSSY will have something for you . More information on the event is available on the FOSSY 2023 website, including the full programme schedule.
Marcel Fourn , Dominik Wermke, William Enck, Sascha Fahl and Yasemin Acar recently published an academic paper in the 44th IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy titled It s like flossing your teeth: On the Importance and Challenges of Reproducible Builds for Software Supply Chain Security . The abstract reads as follows:
The 2020 Solarwinds attack was a tipping point that caused a heightened awareness about the security of the software supply chain and in particular the large amount of trust placed in build systems. Reproducible Builds (R-Bs) provide a strong foundation to build defenses for arbitrary attacks against build systems by ensuring that given the same source code, build environment, and build instructions, bitwise-identical artifacts are created.
However, in contrast to other papers that touch on some theoretical aspect of reproducible builds, the authors paper takes a different approach. Starting with the observation that much of the software industry believes R-Bs are too far out of reach for most projects and conjoining that with a goal of to help identify a path for R-Bs to become a commonplace property , the paper has a different methodology:
We conducted a series of 24 semi-structured expert interviews with participants from the Reproducible-Builds.org project, and iterated on our questions with the reproducible builds community. We identified a range of motivations that can encourage open source developers to strive for R-Bs, including indicators of quality, security benefits, and more efficient caching of artifacts. We identify experiences that help and hinder adoption, which heavily include communication with upstream projects. We conclude with recommendations on how to better integrate R-Bs with the efforts of the open source and free software community.
A PDF of the paper is now available, as is an entry on the CISPA Helmholtz Center for Information Security website and an entry under the TeamUSEC Human-Centered Security research group.
On our mailing list this month:
The antagonist is David Schwartz, who correctly says There are dozens of complex reasons why what seems to be the same sequence of operations might produce different end results, but goes on to say I totally disagree with your general viewpoint that compilers must provide for reproducability [sic]. Dwight Tovey and I (Larry Doolittle) argue for reproducible builds. I assert Any program especially a mission-critical program like a compiler that cannot reproduce a result at will is broken. Also it s commonplace to take a binary from the net, and check to see if it was trojaned by attempting to recreate it from source.

Lastly, there were a few changes to our website this month too, including Bernhard M. Wiedemann adding a simplified Rust example to our documentation about the SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH environment variable [ ], Chris Lamb made it easier to parse our summit announcement at a glance [ ], Mattia Rizzolo added the summit announcement at a glance [ ] itself [ ][ ][ ] and Rahul Bajaj added a taxonomy of variations in build environments [ ].

Distribution work 27 reviews of Debian packages were added, 40 were updated and 8 were removed this month adding to our knowledge about identified issues. A new randomness_in_documentation_generated_by_mkdocs toolchain issue was added by Chris Lamb [ ], and the deterministic flag on the paths_vary_due_to_usrmerge issue as we are not currently testing usrmerge issues [ ] issues.
Roland Clobus posted his 18th update of the status of reproducible Debian ISO images on our mailing list. Roland reported that all major desktops build reproducibly with bullseye, bookworm, trixie and sid , but he also mentioned amongst many changes that not only are the non-free images being built (and are reproducible) but that the live images are generated officially by Debian itself. [ ]
Jan-Benedict Glaw noticed a problem when building NetBSD for the VAX architecture. Noting that Reproducible builds [are] probably not as reproducible as we thought , Jan-Benedict goes on to describe that when two builds from different source directories won t produce the same result and adds various notes about sub-optimal handling of the CFLAGS environment variable. [ ]
F-Droid added 21 new reproducible apps in June, resulting in a new record of 145 reproducible apps in total. [ ]. (This page now sports missing data for March May 2023.) F-Droid contributors also reported an issue with broken resources in APKs making some builds unreproducible. [ ]
Bernhard M. Wiedemann published another monthly report about reproducibility within openSUSE

Upstream patches

Testing framework The Reproducible Builds project operates a comprehensive testing framework (available at tests.reproducible-builds.org) in order to check packages and other artifacts for reproducibility. In June, a number of changes were made by Holger Levsen, including:
  • Additions to a (relatively) new Documented Jenkins Maintenance (djm) script to automatically shrink a cache & save a backup of old data [ ], automatically split out previous months data from logfiles into specially-named files [ ], prevent concurrent remote logfile fetches by using a lock file [ ] and to add/remove various debugging statements [ ].
  • Updates to the automated system health checks to, for example, to correctly detect new kernel warnings due to a wording change [ ] and to explicitly observe which old/unused kernels should be removed [ ]. This was related to an improvement so that various kernel issues on Ubuntu-based nodes are automatically fixed. [ ]
Holger and Vagrant Cascadian updated all thirty-five hosts running Debian on the amd64, armhf, and i386 architectures to Debian bookworm, with the exception of the Jenkins host itself which will be upgraded after the release of Debian 12.1. In addition, Mattia Rizzolo updated the email configuration for the @reproducible-builds.org domain to correctly accept incoming mails from jenkins.debian.net [ ] as well as to set up DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) signing [ ]. And working together with Holger, Mattia also updated the Jenkins configuration to start testing Debian trixie which resulted in stopped testing Debian buster. And, finally, Jan-Benedict Glaw contributed patches for improved NetBSD testing.

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:

25 June 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Wee Free Men

Review: The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #30
Publisher: HarperTempest
Copyright: 2003
Printing: 2006
ISBN: 0-06-001238-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 375
The Wee Free Men is the 30th Discworld novel but the first Tiffany Aching book and doesn't rely on prior knowledge of Discworld, although the witches from previous books do appear. You could start here, although I think the tail end of the book has more impact if you already know who Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was the first Discworld novel written to be young adult, and although I could see that if I squinted, it didn't feel that obviously YA to me. The Wee Free Men is clearly young adult (or perhaps middle grade), right down to the quintessential protagonist: a nine-year-old girl who is practical and determined and a bit of a misfit and does a lot of growing up over the course of the story. Tiffany Aching is the youngest daughter in a large Aching family that comes from a long history of Aching families living in the Chalk. She has a pile of older relatives and one younger brother named Wentworth who is an annoying toddler obsessed with sweets. Her family work a farm that is theoretically the property of the local baron but has been in their family for years. There is always lots to do and Tiffany is an excellent dairymaid, so people mostly leave her alone with her thoughts and her tiny collection of books from her grandmother. Her now-deceased Grandma Aching was a witch. Tiffany, as it turns out, is also a witch, not that she knows that. As the book opens, certain... things are trying to get into her world from elsewhere. The first is a green monster that pops up out of the river and attempts to snatch Wentworth, much to Tiffany's annoyance. She identifies it as Jenny Green-Teeth via a book of fairy tales and dispatches it with a frying pan, somewhat to her surprise, but worse are coming. Even more surprised by her frying pan offensive are the Nac Mac Feegle, last seen in Carpe Jugulum, who know something about where this intrusion is coming from. In short order, the Aching farm has a Nac Mac Feegle infestation. This is, unfortunately, another book about Discworld's version of fairy (or elves, as they were called in Lords and Ladies). I find stories about the fae somewhat hit and miss, and Pratchett's version is one of my least favorites. The Discworld Queen of Fairy is mostly a one-dimensional evil monster and not a very interesting one. A big chunk of the plot is an extended sequence of dreams that annoyed me and went on for about twice as long as it needed to. That's the downside of this book. The upside is that Tiffany Aching is exactly the type of protagonist I loved reading about as a kid, and still love reading about as an adult. She's thoughtful, curious, observant, determined, and uninterested in taking any nonsense from anyone. She has a lot to learn, both about the world and about herself, but she doesn't have to be taught lessons twice and she has a powerful innate sense of justice. She also has a delightfully sarcastic sense of humor.
"Zoology, eh? That's a big word, isn't it." "No, actually it isn't," said Tiffany. "Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short."
One of the best things that Pratchett does with this book is let Tiffany dislike her little brother. Wentworth eventually ends up in trouble and Tiffany has to go rescue him, which of course she does because he's her baby brother. But she doesn't like him; he's annoying and sticky and constantly going on about sweets and never says anything interesting. Tiffany is aware that she's supposed to love him because he's her little brother, but of course this is not how love actually works, and she doesn't. But she goes and rescues him anyway, because that's the right thing to do, and because he's hers. There are a lot of adult novels that show the nuanced and sometimes uncomfortable emotions we have about family members, but this sort of thing is a bit rarer in novels pitched at pre-teens, and I loved it. One valid way to read it is that Tiffany is neurodivergent, but I think she simply has a reasonable reaction to a brother who is endlessly annoying and too young to have many redeeming qualities in her eyes, and no one forces her to have a more socially expected one. It doesn't matter what you feel about things; it matters what you do, and as long as you do the right thing, you can have whatever feelings about it you want. This is a great lesson for this type of book. The other part of this book that I adored was the stories of Grandma Aching. Tiffany is fairly matter-of-fact about her dead grandmother at the start of the book, but it becomes clear over the course of the story that she's grieving in her own way. Grandma Aching was a taciturn shepherd who rarely put more than two words together and was much better with sheep than people, but she was the local witch in the way that Granny Weatherwax was a witch, and Tiffany was paying close attention. They never managed to communicate as much as either of them wanted, but the love shines through Tiffany's memories. Grandma Aching was teaching her how to be a witch: not the magical parts, but the far more important parts about justice and fairness and respect for other people. This was a great introduction of a new character and a solid middle-grade or young YA novel. I was not a fan of the villain and I can take or leave the Nac Mac Feegle (who are basically Scottish Smurfs crossed with ants and are a little too obviously the comic relief, for all that they're also effective warriors). But Tiffany is great and the stories of Grandma Aching are even better. This was not as good as Night Watch (very few things are), but it was well worth reading. Followed in publication order by Monstrous Regiment. The next Tiffany Aching novel is A Hat Full of Sky. Rating: 8 out of 10

21 May 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Stone Canal

Review: The Stone Canal, by Ken MacLeod
Series: Fall Revolution #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 1996
Printing: January 2001
ISBN: 0-8125-6864-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 339
The Stone Canal is a sort of halfway sequel to The Star Fraction. They both take place in the same universe, but the characters are almost entirely disjoint. Half of The Stone Canal happens (mostly) well before the previous book and the other half happens well after it. This book does contain spoilers for the ending of The Star Fraction if one connects the events of the two books correctly (which was a bit harder than I thought it should be), so I would not read them out of order. At the start of The Stone Canal, Jon Wilde wakes up on New Mars beside the titular canal, in the middle of nowhere, accompanied only by a robot that says it made him. Wilde remembers dying on Earth; this new life is apparently some type of resurrection. It's a long walk to Ship City, the center of civilization of a place the robot tells him is New Mars. In Ship City, an android named Dee Model has escaped from her owner and is hiding in a bar. There, she meets an AI abolitionist named Tamara, who helps her flee out the back and down the canal on a boat when Wilde walks into the bar and immediately recognizes her. The abolitionists provide her protection and legal assistance to argue her case for freedom from her owner, a man named Reid. The third thread of the story, and about half the book, is Jon Wilde's life on Earth, starting in 1975 and leading up to the chaotic wars, political fracturing, and revolutions that formed the background and plot of The Star Fraction. Eventually that story turns into a full-fledged science fiction setting, but not until the last 60 pages of the book. I successfully read two books in a Ken MacLeod series! Sadly, I'm not sure I enjoyed the experience. I commented in my review of The Star Fraction that the appeal for me in MacLeod's writing was his reputation as a writer of political science fiction. Unfortunately that's been a bust. The characters are certainly political, in the sense that they profess to have strong political viewpoints and are usually members of some radical (often Trotskyite) organization. There are libertarian anarchist societies and lots of political conflict. But there is almost no meaningful political discussion in any of these books so far. The politics are all tactical or background, and often seem to be created by authorial fiat. For example, New Mars is a sort of libertarian anarchy that somehow doesn't have corporations or a strongman ruler, even though the history (when we finally learn it) would have naturally given rise to one or the other (and has, in numerous other SF novels with similar plots). There's a half-assed explanation for this towards the end of the book that I didn't find remotely believable. Another part of the book describes the formation of the libertarian microstate in The Star Fraction, but never answers a "why" or "how" question I had in the previous book in a satisfying way. Somehow people stop caring about control or predictability or stability or traditional hierarchy without any significant difficulties except external threats, in situations of chaos and disorder where historically humans turn to anyone promising firm structure. It's common to joke about MacLeod winning multiple libertarian Prometheus Awards for his fiction despite being a Scottish communist. I'm finding that much less surprising now that I've read more of his books. Whether or not he believes in it himself, he's got the cynical libertarian smugness and hand-waving down pat. What his characters do care deeply about is smoking, drinking, and having casual sex. (There's more political fire here around opposition to anti-smoking laws than there is about any of the society-changing political structures that somehow fall into place.) I have no objections to any of those activities from a moral standpoint, but reading about other people doing them is a snoozefest. The flashback scenes sketch out enough imagined history to satisfy some curiosity from the previous book, but they're mostly about the world's least interesting love triangle, involving two completely unlikable men and lots of tedious jealousy and posturing. The characters in The Stone Canal are, in general, a problem. One of those unlikable men is Wilde, the protagonist for most of the book. Not only did I never warm to him, I never figured out what motivates him or what he cares about. He's a supposedly highly political person who seems to engage in politics with all the enthusiasm of someone filling out tax forms, and is entirely uninterested in explaining to the reader any sort of coherent philosophical approach. The most interesting characters in this book are the women (Annette, Dee Model, Tamara, and, very late in the book, Meg), but other than Dee Model they rarely get much focus from the story. By far the best part of this book is the last 60 pages, where MacLeod finally explains the critical bridge events between Wilde's political history on earth and the New Mars society. I thought this was engrossing, fast-moving, and full of interesting ideas (at least for a 1990s book; many of them feel a bit stale now, 25 years later). It was also frustrating, because this was the book I wanted to have been reading for the previous 270 pages, instead of MacLeod playing coy with his invented history or showing us interminable scenes about Wilde's insecure jealousy over his wife. It's also the sort of book where at one point characters (apparently uniformly male as far as one could tell from the text of the book) get assigned sex slaves, and while MacLeod clearly doesn't approve of this, the plot is reminiscent of a Heinlein novel: the protagonist's sex slave becomes a very loyal permanent female companion who seems to have the same upside for the male character in question. This was unfortunately not the book I was hoping for. I did enjoy the last hundred pages, and it's somewhat satisfying to have the history come together after puzzling over what happened for 200 pages. But I found the characters tedious and annoying and the politics weirdly devoid of anything like sociology, philosophy, or political science. There is the core of a decent 1990s AI and singularity novel here, but the technology is now rather dated and a lot of other people have tackled the same idea with fewer irritating ticks. Not recommended, although I'll probably continue to The Cassini Division because the ending was a pretty great hook for another book. Followed by The Cassini Division. Rating: 5 out of 10

20 March 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Star Fraction

Review: The Star Fraction, by Ken MacLeod
Series: Fall Revolution #1
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: 1995
Printing: 2001
ISBN: 1-85723-833-8
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 341
Ken MacLeod is a Scottish science fiction writer who has become amusingly famous for repeatedly winning the libertarian Prometheus Award despite being a (somewhat libertarian-leaning) socialist. The Star Fraction is the first of a loose series of four novels about future solar system politics and was nominated for the Clarke Award (as well as winning the Prometheus). It was MacLeod's first novel. Moh Kohn is a mercenary, part of the Felix Dzerzhinsky Workers' Defence collective. They're available for hire to protect research labs and universities against raids from people such as animal liberationists and anti-AI extremists (or, as Moh calls them, creeps and cranks). As The Star Fraction opens, he and his smart gun are protecting a lab against an attack. Janis Taine is a biologist who is currently testing a memory-enhancing drug on mice. It's her lab that is attacked, although it isn't vandalized the way she expected. Instead, the attackers ruined her experiment by releasing the test drug into the air, contaminating all of the controls. This sets off a sequence of events that results in Moh, Janis, and Jordon Brown, a stock trader for a religious theocracy, on the run from the US/UN and Space Defense. I had forgotten what it was like to read the uncompromising old-school style of science fiction novel that throws you into the world and explains nothing, leaving it to the reader to piece the world together as you go. It's weirdly fun, but I'm either out of practice or this was a particularly challenging example of the genre. MacLeod throws a lot of characters at you quickly, including some that have long and complicated personal histories, and it's not until well into the book that the pieces start to cohere into a narrative. Even once that happens, the relationship between the characters and the plot is unobvious until late in the book, and comes from a surprising direction. Science fiction as a genre is weirdly conservative about political systems. Despite the grand, futuristic ideas and the speculation about strange alien societies, the human governments rarely rise to the sophistication of a modern democracy. There are a lot of empires, oligarchies, and hand-waved libertarian semi-utopias, but not a lot of deep engagement with the speculative variety of government systems humans have proposed. The rare exceptions therefore get a lot of attention from those of us who find political systems fascinating. MacLeod has a reputation for writing political SF in that sense, and The Star Fraction certainly delivers. Moh (despite the name of his collective, which is explained briefly in the book) is a Trotskyist with a family history with the Fourth International that is central to the plot. The setting is a politically fractured Britain full of autonomous zones with wildly different forms of government, theoretically ruled by a restored monarchy. That monarchy is opposed by the Army of the New Republic, which claims to be the legitimate government of the United Kingdom and is considered by everyone else to be terrorists. Hovering in the background is a UN entirely subsumed by the US, playing global policeman over a chaotic world shattered by numerous small-scale wars. This satisfyingly different political world is a major plus for me. The main drawback is that I found the world-building and politics more interesting than the characters. It's not that I disliked them; I found them enjoyably quirky and odd. It's more that so much is happening and there are so many significant characters, all set in an unfamiliar and unexplained world and often divided into short scenes of a few pages, that I had a hard time keeping track of them all. Part of the point of The Star Fraction is digging into their tangled past and connecting it up with the present, but the flashbacks added a confused timeline on top of the other complexity and made it hard for me to get lost in the story. The characters felt a bit too much like puzzle pieces until the very end of the book. The technology is an odd mix with a very 1990s feel. MacLeod is one of the SF authors who can make computers and viruses believable, avoiding the cyberpunk traps, but AI becomes relevant to the plot and the conception of AI here feels oddly retro. (Not MacLeod's fault; it's been nearly 30 years and a lot has changed.) On-line discussion in the book is still based on newsgroups, which added to the nostalgic feel. I did like the eventual explanation for the computing part of the plot, though; I can't say much while avoiding spoilers, but it's one of the more believable explanations for how a technology could spread in a way required for the plot that I've read. I've been planning on reading this series for years but never got around to it. I enjoyed my last try at a MacLeod series well enough to want to keep reading, but not well enough to keep reading immediately, and then other books happened and now it's been 19 years. I feel similarly about The Star Fraction: it's good enough (and in a rare enough subgenre of SF) that I want to keep reading, but not enough to keep reading immediately. We'll see if I manage to get to the next book in a reasonable length of time. Followed by The Stone Canal. Rating: 6 out of 10

13 February 2023

Valhalla's Things: Cernit Sets for the Royal Game of UR

Posted on February 13, 2023
Some months ago I stumbled on the video where Irving Finkel teaches Tom Scott how to play the Royal Game of Ur and my takeout was:
  1. Irving Finkel is Gandalf or something;
  2. the game sounded quite fun!;
so I did the almost sensible thing, quickly drew a board with inkscape, printed it on 160 g/m paper and used my piecepack pieces to try a few games. two copies of a game board made of plain squares: a 3   4 squares area at the top, a 3   2 area at the bottom, connected by a 1   2 corridor in the middle. I say almost sensible, because rather than drawing the rosettes with inkscape I decided to carve a rubber stamp and use that to print them on the board (which is why the svgs on this page are missing them: if you print them you ll have to add the rosettes in some way). And if I had been a sensible person, that s where I would have stopped, since that s perfectly enough to play games and find out that it actually is quite a fun game, and one of our staples. As some of you probably know, I m not a sensible person. I also have quite a few blocks and half-blocks of cernit, and one day after I ve had used some, my hands were still moving and accidentally made some pyramidal dice, and a handful of tokens. Royal game of Ur pieces in marbled grey and white plastic: the tokens are small coins in one colour with a small circle of the other colour in the middle, the dice are tetrahedrons in one colour with two points marked in the other colour. And after baking and trying them I liked them, but they had not been planned in any way, and they were a bit too small for the board, so the next time I was using cernit I tried to make a new set. And while I was doing that I tried a new shape for the dice, as coins marked with a dot in the middle of one of the sides, because I don t really like tetrahedral dice. A set of red and green tokens, like the ones above, plus tetrahedron dice and four more coins with a dot of a different colour just on one side. Everything is on top of a board that folds up. And now, I realized this wasn t going to be my last set, and urgently felt the need for some container to keep them in and avoid missing pieces. (Yes, in the picture above one piece was already missing. While taking it I didn t realize it, and neither I did when picking up everything to put it away, getting the missing piece and storing it safely together with the rest of the set. It must have been hiding in plain sight nearby, but I will never know where.) Anyway, back to Inkscape, and to a board printed on scrap paper that I tried to fold up until I came up with a layout that folded up in a small drawer, and then I added a case to wrap around it to keep it closed. A white box, about 2.5 cm   2.5 cm   7.5 cm; a drawer is sliding out of one small end. The drawer from the box above, extracted to show it's made of a folded game of Ur board and contains a set with tokens and dice. I played around with the case until it was big enough to actually slide around the folded board, and this is the result, ready to be printed out on A4 paper, cut, folded and glued. (This takes most of the sheet, and I m not sure that the case would still fit around the board/drawer if printed with scaling, so if you want to print it on Letter paper I d recommend to move the pieces around.) two copies of the game board above, plus two cut / fold / glue boxes Now, the only problem left was that green isn t really my colour, and while I did like the stone effect of this set, I wasn t exactly pleased by the colour scheme. (why did I do it this way in the first place? probably because I was trying to use up old cernit blocks before opening new ones.) So, the only possible way out was to make yet another set, right? A set of red and grey tokens, tetrahedron dice, coins with one side marked with a dot that are square-ish rather than circular and four lozenge-shaped coins with each side of a different colour. I still used stone effect cernit, but this time in a red/grey scheme that knew I would have liked more, and while I was doing it I tried a few improvements on the randomization devices. The tetrahedral dice are still the same: they work, it s what they use in the replica sets, so I keep making them even if they re not my first choice. I ve changed the coins to make them almost square for two reasons, however: one is that the round one tended to roll away into inconvenient places when throwing them with emphasis, and the other one is to make it easier to recognise them from the tokens with no need to flip each one around before starting the game. The lozenges were a bit of a failure, instead. They work fine when thrown, but I don t think that there is a self-evident way to decide which side should be counted, and the only intuitive way I can think of (count the ones in the player s colour) would be unbalanced. Speaking of balance issues: of course the hand-modelled dice and coins aren t perfectly balanced but:
  • they don t feel obviously unbalanced;
  • both players use the same set, so any subtle unbalance isn t going to affect the chance of winning in an uneven way.
Maybe one day I will find a way to easily roll them a statistically significant number of times, collect data and analyze it to find out how imbalanced they are, but that s not going to happen with manual data collecting, and I m not really ready to go down the yak shaving filled road to automatize it. To wrap up: is it going to be the last set I make for the Royal Game of Ur? lol. Is it going to be the last cernit set I make this month? definitely yes, I now have one I m happy with, I m routinely playing with it and I m currently doing other crafts rather than cernit.

8 February 2023

Chris Lamb: Most anticipated films of 2023

Very few highly-anticipated movies appear in January and February, as the bigger releases are timed so they can be considered for the Golden Globes in January and the Oscars in late February or early March, so film fans have the advantage of a few weeks after the New Year to collect their thoughts on the year ahead. In other words, I'm not actually late in outlining below the films I'm most looking forward to in 2023...

Barbie No, seriously! If anyone can make a good film about a doll franchise, it's probably Greta Gerwig. Not only was Little Women (2019) more than admirable, the same could be definitely said for Lady Bird (2017). More importantly, I can't help feel she was the real 'Driver' behind Frances Ha (2012), one of the better modern takes on Claudia Weill's revelatory Girlfriends (1978). Still, whenever I remember that Barbie will be a film about a billion-dollar toy and media franchise with a nettlesome history, I recall I rubbished the "Facebook film" that turned into The Social Network (2010). Anyway, the trailer for Barbie is worth watching, if only because it seems like a parody of itself.

Blitz It's difficult to overstate just how important the aerial bombing of London during World War II is crucial to understanding the British psyche, despite it being a constructed phenomenon from the outset. Without wishing to underplay the deaths of over 40,000 civilian deaths, Angus Calder pointed out in the 1990s that the modern mythology surrounding the event "did not evolve spontaneously; it was a propaganda construct directed as much at [then neutral] American opinion as at British." It will therefore be interesting to see how British Grenadian Trinidadian director Steve McQueen addresses a topic so essential to the British self-conception. (Remember the controversy in right-wing circles about the sole Indian soldier in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017)?) McQueen is perhaps best known for his 12 Years a Slave (2013), but he recently directed a six-part film anthology for the BBC which addressed the realities of post-Empire immigration to Britain, and this leads me to suspect he sees the Blitz and its surrounding mythology with a more critical perspective. But any attempt to complicate the story of World War II will be vigorously opposed in a way that will make the recent hullabaloo surrounding The Crown seem tame. All this is to say that the discourse surrounding this release may be as interesting as the film itself.

Dune, Part II Coming out of the cinema after the first part of Denis Vileneve's adaptation of Dune (2021), I was struck by the conception that it was less of a fresh adaptation of the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert than an attempt to rehabilitate David Lynch's 1984 version and in a broader sense, it was also an attempt to reestablish the primacy of cinema over streaming TV and the myriad of other distractions in our lives. I must admit I'm not a huge fan of the original novel, finding within it a certain prurience regarding hereditary military regimes and writing about them with a certain sense of glee that belies a secret admiration for them... not to mention an eyebrow-raising allegory for the Middle East. Still, Dune, Part II is going to be a fantastic spectacle.

Ferrari It'll be curious to see how this differs substantially from the recent Ford v Ferrari (2019), but given that Michael Mann's Heat (1995) so effectively re-energised the gangster/heist genre, I'm more than willing to kick the tires of this about the founder of the eponymous car manufacturer. I'm in the minority for preferring Mann's Thief (1981) over Heat, in part because the former deals in more abstract themes, so I'd have perhaps prefered to look forward to a more conceptual film from Mann over a story about one specific guy.

How Do You Live There are a few directors one can look forward to watching almost without qualification, and Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke Howl's Moving Castle, etc.) is one of them. And this is especially so given that The Wind Rises (2013) was meant to be the last collaboration between Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Let's hope he is able to come out of retirement in another ten years.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny Given I had a strong dislike of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), I seriously doubt I will enjoy anything this film has to show me, but with 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark remaining one of my most treasured films (read my brief homage), I still feel a strong sense of obligation towards the Indiana Jones name, despite it feeling like the copper is being pulled out of the walls of this franchise today.

Kafka I only know Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland through her Spoor (2017), an adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk's 2009 eco-crime novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I wasn't an unqualified fan of Spoor (nor the book on which it is based), but I am interested in Holland's take on the life of Czech author Franz Kafka, an author enmeshed with twentieth-century art and philosophy, especially that of central Europe. Holland has mentioned she intends to tell the story "as a kind of collage," and I can hope that it is an adventurous take on the over-furrowed biopic genre. Or perhaps Gregor Samsa will awake from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed in his bed into a huge verminous biopic.

The Killer It'll be interesting to see what path David Fincher is taking today, especially after his puzzling and strangely cold Mank (2020) portraying the writing process behind Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). The Killer is said to be a straight-to-Netflix thriller based on the graphic novel about a hired assassin, which makes me think of Fincher's Zodiac (2007), and, of course, Se7en (1995). I'm not as entranced by Fincher as I used to be, but any film with Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton (with a score by Trent Reznor) is always going to get my attention.

Killers of the Flower Moon In Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese directs an adaptation of a book about the FBI's investigation into a conspiracy to murder Osage tribe members in the early years of the twentieth century in order to deprive them of their oil-rich land. (The only thing more quintessentially American than apple pie is a conspiracy combined with a genocide.) Separate from learning more about this disquieting chapter of American history, I'd love to discover what attracted Scorsese to this particular story: he's one of the few top-level directors who have the ability to lucidly articulate their intentions and motivations.

Napoleon It often strikes me that, despite all of his achievements and fame, it's somehow still possible to claim that Ridley Scott is relatively underrated compared to other directors working at the top level today. Besides that, though, I'm especially interested in this film, not least of all because I just read Tolstoy's War and Peace (read my recent review) and am working my way through the mind-boggling 431-minute Soviet TV adaptation, but also because several auteur filmmakers (including Stanley Kubrick) have tried to make a Napoleon epic and failed.

Oppenheimer In a way, a biopic about the scientist responsible for the atomic bomb and the Manhattan Project seems almost perfect material for Christopher Nolan. He can certainly rely on stars to queue up to be in his movies (Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Kenneth Branagh, etc.), but whilst I'm certain it will be entertaining on many fronts, I fear it will fall into the well-established Nolan mould of yet another single man struggling with obsession, deception and guilt who is trying in vain to balance order and chaos in the world.

The Way of the Wind Marked by philosophical and spiritual overtones, all of Terrence Malick's films are perfumed with themes of transcendence, nature and the inevitable conflict between instinct and reason. My particular favourite is his stunning Days of Heaven (1978), but The Thin Red Line (1998) and A Hidden Life (2019) also touched me ways difficult to relate, and are one of the few films about the Second World War that don't touch off my sensitivity about them (see my remarks about Blitz above). It is therefore somewhat Malickian that his next film will be a biblical drama about the life of Jesus. Given Malick's filmography, I suspect this will be far more subdued than William Wyler's 1959 Ben-Hur and significantly more equivocal in its conviction compared to Paolo Pasolini's ardently progressive The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). However, little beyond that can be guessed, and the film may not even appear until 2024 or even 2025.

Zone of Interest I was mesmerised by Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin (2013), and there is much to admire in his borderline 'revisionist gangster' film Sexy Beast (2000), so I will definitely be on the lookout for this one. The only thing making me hesitate is that Zone of Interest is based on a book by Martin Amis about a romance set inside the Auschwitz concentration camp. I haven't read the book, but Amis has something of a history in his grappling with the history of the twentieth century, and he seems to do it in a way that never sits right with me. But if Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997) proves anything at all, it's all in the adaption.

28 January 2023

Russ Allbery: Review: The Library of the Dead

Review: The Library of the Dead, by T.L. Huchu
Series: Edinburgh Nights #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
Printing: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-76777-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 329
The Library of the Dead is the first book in a post-apocalyptic (sort of) urban fantasy series set in Edinburgh, written by Zimbabwean author (and current Scotland resident) T.L. Huchu. Ropa is a ghosttalker. This means she can see people who have died but are still lingering because they have unfinished business. She can stabilize them and understand what they're saying with the help of her mbira. At the age of fourteen, she's the sole source of income for her small family. She lives with her grandmother and younger sister in a caravan (people in the US call it an RV), paying rent to an enterprising farmer turned landlord. Ropa's Edinburgh is much worse off than ours. Everything is poorer, more run-down, and more tenuous, but other than a few hints about global warming, we never learn the history. It reminded me a bit of the world in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower in the feel of civilization crumbling without a specific cause. Unlike that series, The Library of the Dead is not about the collapse or responses to it. The partial ruin of the city is the mostly unremarked backdrop of Ropa's life. Much of the book follows Ropa's daily life carrying messages for ghosts and taking care of her family. She does discover the titular library when a wealthier friend who got a job there shows it off to her, but it has no significant role in the plot. (That was disappointing.) The core plot, once Ropa is convinced by her grandmother to focus on it, is the missing son of a dead woman, who turns out to not be the only missing child. This is urban fantasy with the standard first-person perspective, so Ropa is the narrator. This style of book needs a memorable protagonist, and Ropa is certainly that. She's a talker who takes obvious delight in narrating her own story alongside a constant patter of opinions, observations, and Scottish dialect. Ropa is also poor. That last may not sound that notable; a lot of urban fantasy protagonists are not well-off. But most of them feel culturally middle-class in a way that Ropa does not. Money may be a story constraint in other books, but it rarely feels like a life constraint and experience the way it does here. It's hard to describe the difference in tone succinctly, since it's a lot of small things: the constant presence of money concerns, the frustration of possessions that are stolen or missing and can't be replaced, the tedious chores one has to do when there's no money, even the language and vulgarity Ropa uses. This is rare in fantasy and excellent characterization work. Given that, I am still frustrated with myself over how much I struggled with Ropa as a narrator. She's happy to talk about what is happening to her and what she's learning about (she listens voraciously to non-fiction while running messages), but she deflects, minimizes, or rushes past any mention of what she's feeling. If you don't like the angst that's common from urban fantasy protagonists, this may be the book for you. I have complained about that angst before, and therefore feel like this should have been the book for me, but apparently I need a minimum level of emotional processing and introspection from the narrator. Ropa is utterly unwilling to do any of that. It's possible to piece together what she's feeling and worrying about, but the reader has to rely on hints and oblique comments that she passes over quickly. It didn't help that Ropa is not interested in the same things in her world that I was interested in. She's not an unreliable narrator in the conventional sense; she doesn't lie to the reader or intentionally hide information. And yet, the experience of reading this book was, for me, similar to reading a book with an unreliable narrator. Ropa consistently refused to look at what I wanted her to look at or think about what I wanted her to think about. For example, when she has an opportunity to learn magic through books from the titular library, her initial enthusiasm is infectious. Huchu does a great job showing the excitement of someone who likes new ideas and likes telling other people about the neat things she just learned. But when things don't work the way she expected from the books, she doesn't follow up, experiment, or try to understand why. When her grandmother tries to explain something to her from a different angle, she blows her off and refuses to pay attention. And when she does get magic to work, she never tries to connect that to her previous understanding. I kept waiting for Ropa to try to build her own mental model of magic, but she would only toy with an idea for a few pages and then put it down and never mention it again. This is not a fault in the book, just a mismatch between the book and what I wanted to read. All of this is consistent with Ropa's defensive strategies, emotional resiliency, and approach to understanding the world. (I strongly suspect Huchu was giving Ropa some ADHD characteristics, and if so, I think he got it spot on.) Given that, I tried to pivot to appreciating the characterization and the world, but that ran into another mismatch I had with this book, and the reason why I passed on it when it initially came out. I tend to avoid fantasy novels about ghosts. This is not because I mind ghosts themselves, but I've learned from experience that authors who write about ghosts usually also write about other things that I don't want to read about. That unfortunately was the case here; The Library of the Dead was too far into horror for me. There's child abuse, drugs, body horror, and similar nastiness here, more than I wanted in my head. Ropa's full-speed-ahead attitude and refusal to dwell on anything made it a bit easier to read, but it was still too much for me. Ropa is a great character who is refreshingly different than the typical urban fantasy protagonist, and the few hints of the magical library and world background we get were intriguing. This book was not for me, but I can see why other people will love it. Followed by Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments. Rating: 6 out of 10

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.

23 December 2022

Scarlett Gately Moore: Debian uploads, Core22 KDE snap content pack and more!

I have been quite busy! I have been working on several projects so my cover image is a lovely sunset where I live. Debian: I have updated and uploaded several packages and working on more. KDE Snaps: I have reworked the CI to now do Core22 snaps! They will publish to the beta channel until we get them tested. First snap completed is the ever important KDE Frameworks / QT content snap + SDK! Applications will start after I tackle the kde-neon extention in snapcraft. GUI-Testing: I have begun learning/writing some GUI tests using python and https://invent.kde.org/sdk/selenium-webdriver-at-spi/, inspired by one of my favorite people, Harald. See https://apachelog.wordpress.com/2022/12/14/selenium-at-spi-gui-testing/ for more info and I hope to get these in repos near you soon! In closing, I am still seeking employment/sponsor amidst this terrible layoff season. If anyone knows of anyone with my diverse skill set please let me know. In the meantime if you can spare anything to keep the lights on I would be ever so grateful. Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/sgmoore Cash App: $ScarlettMoore0903 Stripe: https://buy.stripe.com/28o16y3PHcISfaE8ww Thank you, I want to wish everyone a very merry < insert your holiday here > !!!

8 December 2022

Russell Coker: Thinkpad X1 Carbon Gen5

Gen1 Since February 2018 I have been using a Thinkpad X1 Carbon Gen1 [1] as my main laptop. Generally I ve been very happy with it, it s small and light, has good performance for web browsing etc, and with my transition to doing all compiles etc on servers it works well. When I wrote my original review I was unhappy with the keyboard, but I got used to that and found it to be reasonably good. The things that I have found as limits on it are the display resolution as 1600*900 isn t that great by modern standards (most phones are a lot higher resolution), the size (slightly too large for the pocket of my Scott e Vest [2] jacket), and the lack of USB-C. Modern laptops can charge via USB-C/Thunderbolt while also doing USB and DisplayPort video over the same cable. USB-C monitors which support charging a laptop over the same cable as used for video input are becoming common (last time I checked the Dell web site for many models of monitor there was a USB-C one that cost about $100 more). I work at a company with lots of USB-C monitors and docks so being able to use my personal laptop with the same displays when on breaks is really handy. A final problem with the Gen1 is that it has a proprietary and unusual connector for the SSD which means that a replacement SSD costs about what I paid for the entire laptop. Ever since the SSD gave a BTRFS checksum error I ve been thinking of replacing it. Choosing a Replacement The Gen5 is the first Thinkpad X1 Carbon to have USB-C. For work I had used a Gen6 which was quite nice [3]. But it didn t seem to offer much over the Gen5. So I started looking for cheap Thinkpad X1 Carbons of Gen5+. A Cheap? Gen5 In July I saw an ebay advert for a Gen5 with FullHD display for $370 or nearest offer, with the downside being that the BIOS password had been lost. I offered $330 and the seller accepted, in retrospect that was unusually cheap and should have been a clue that I needed to do further investigation. It turned out that resetting the BIOS password is unusually difficult as it s in the TPM so the system would only boot Windows. When I learned that I should have sold the laptop to someone who wanted to run Windows and bought another. Instead I followed some instructions on the Internet about entering a wrong password multiple times to get to a password recovery screen, instead the machine locked up entirely and became unusable for windows (so don t do that). Then I looked for ways of fixing the motherboard. The cheapest was $75.25 for a replacement BIOS flash chip that had a BIOS that didn t check the validity of passwords. The aim was to solder that on, set a new password (with any random text being accepted as the old password), then solder the old one back on for normal functionality. It turned out that I m not good at fine soldering, after I had hacked at it a friend diagnosed the chip and motherboard to probably both be damaged (he couldn t get it going). The end solution was that my friend found a replacement motherboard for $170 from China. This gave a total cost of $575.25 for the laptop which is more than the usual price of a Gen6 and more than I expected to pay. In the past when advocating buying second hand or refurbished laptops people would say what happens if you get one that doesn t work properly , the answer to that question is that I paid a lot less than the new cost of $2700+ for a Thinkpad X1 Carbon and got a computer that does everything I need. One of the advantages of getting a cheap laptop is that I won t be so unhappy if I happen to drop it. A Cheap Gen6 After the failed experiment with a replacement BIOS on the Gen5 I was considering selling it for scrap. So I bought a Gen6 from Australian Computer Traders via Amazon for $390 in August. The advert clearly stated that it was for a laptop with USB-C and Thunderbolt (Gen5+ features) but they shipped me a Gen4 that didn t even have USB-C. They eventually refunded me but I will try to avoid buying from them again. Finally Working The laptop I now have has a i5-6300U CPU that rates 3242 on cpubenchmark.net. My Gen1 thinkpad has a i7-3667U CPU that rates 2378 on cpubenchmark.net, note that the cpubenchmark.net people have rescaled their benchmark since my review of the Gen1 in 2018. So according to the benchmarks my latest laptop is about 36% faster for CPU operations. Not much of a difference when comparing systems manufactured in 2012 and 2017! According to the benchmarks a medium to high end recent CPU will be more than 10* faster than the one in my Gen5 laptop, but such a CPU would cost more than my laptop cost. The storage is a 256G NVMe device that can do sustained reads at 900MB/s, that s not even twice as fast as the SSD in my Gen1 laptop although NVMe is designed to perform better for small IO. It has 2*USB-C ports both of which can be used for charging, which is a significant benefit over the Gen6 I had for work in 2018 which only had one. I don t know why Lenovo made Gen6 machines that were lesser than Gen5 in such an important way. It can power my Desklab portable 4K monitor [4] but won t send a DisplayPort signal over the same USB-C cable. I don t know if this is a USB-C cable issue or some problem with the laptop recognising displays. It works nicely with Dell USB-C monitors and docks that power the laptop over the same cable as used for DisplayPort. Also the HDMI port works with 4K monitors, so at worst I could connect my Desklab monitor via a USB-C cable for power and HDMI for data. The inability to change the battery without disassembly is still a problem, but hopefully USB-C connected batteries capable of charging such a laptop will become affordable in the near future and I have had some practice at disassembling this laptop. It still has the Ethernet dongle annoyance, and of course the seller didn t include that. But USB ethernet devices are quite good and I have a few of them. In conclusion it s worth the $575.25 I paid for it and would have been even better value for money if I had been a bit smarter when buying. It meets the initial criteria of USB-C power and display and of fitting in my jacket pocket as well as being slightly better than my old laptop in every other way.

Louis-Philippe V ronneau: Debian Python Team 2022 Sprint Report

This is the report for the Debian Python Team remote sprint that took place on December 2-3-4 2022. Many thanks to those who participated, namely: Here is a list of issues we worked on: pybuild autodep8 feature About a year ago, Antonio Terceiro contributed code to pybuild to make it possible to automatically run the upstream test suite as autopkgtests. This feature has now been merged and uploaded to unstable. Although you can find out more about it in the pybuild-autopkgtest manpage, an email providing more details should be sent to the debian-python mailing list relatively soon. Fixing packages that run tests via python3 setup.py test Last August, Stefano Rivera poked the team about the deprecation of the python3 setup.py test command to run tests in pybuild. Although this feature has been deprecated upstream for 6 years now, many packages in the archive still use it to run the upstream test suite during build. Around 29 of the 67 packages that are team-maintained by the Debian Python Team were fixed during the sprint. Ideally, all of them would be before the feature is removed from pybuild. if a package you maintain still runs this command, please consider fixing it! Fixing packages that use nose nose, provided by the python3-nose package, is an obsolete testing framework for Python and has been unmaintained since 2015. During the sprint, people worked on fixing some of the many bugs filled against packages still running tests via nose, but there are still around 240 packages affected by this issue in the archive. Again, if a package you maintain still runs this command, please consider fixing it! Removal of the remaining Python2 packages With the upload of dh-python 5.20221202, Stefano Rivera officially removed support for dh_python2 and dh_pypy, thus closing the "Python2 removal in sid/bullseye" bug. It seems some work still needs to be done for complete Python2 removal from Sid, but I expect this will be done in time for the Bookworm release. Working on Lintian tags for the Team During the sprint, I managed to work on some Lintian issues that we had targeted, namely: I also worked on a few other Lintian tags, but they were unrelated to the Debian Python Team itself. I'm also happy to report many of the tags I wrote for the team in the past few months were merged by the awesome Russ Allbery and should land in unstable as soon as a new release is made. I'm particularly looking forward the new "uses-python-distutils" tag that should help us flag packages that still use the deprecated distutils library. Patching distro-tracker (tracker.debian.org) to show pending team MRs It's often hard to have a good overview of pending merge requests when working with team-maintained packages, as by default, Salsa doesn't notify anyone when a MR is opened. Although our workflow typically does not involve creating merge requests, some people still do and they end up sitting there, unnoticed. During the sprint, Kurt Kremitzki worked on solving this issue by having distro-tracker show the pending MRs on our team's tracker page. Sadly, it seems little progress was made, as the removal of python3-django-jsonfield from the archive and breaking changes in python3-selenium has broken the test suite. Migrate packages building with the flit plugin to the generic pyproject one pybuild has been supporting building with PEP-517 style pyproject.toml files via a generic plugin (pybuild-plugin-pyproject) for a while now. As this plugin supersedes the old flit plugin, we've been thinking of deprecating it in time for the Bookworm release. To make this possible, most of the packages in the archive that still used this plugin were migrated to the generic one and I opened bugs on the last handful of packages that were not team-maintained. Other work Many other things were done during the sprint, such as: Thanks Thanks again to everyone who joined the sprint, and three big cheers for all the folks who donate to Debian and made it possible for us to have a food budget for the event.

3 November 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Carpe Jugulum

Review: Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #23
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 1998
Printing: May 2014
ISBN: 0-06-228014-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 409
Carpe Jugulum is the 23rd Discworld novel and the 6th witches novel. I would not recommend reading it before Maskerade, which introduces Agnes. There are some spoilers for Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies, and Maskerade in the setup here and hence in the plot description below. I don't think they matter that much, but if you're avoiding all spoilers for earlier books, you may want to skip over this one. (You're unlikely to want to read it before those books anyway.) It is time to name the child of the king of Lancre, and in a gesture of good will and modernization, he has invited his neighbors in Uberwald to attend. Given that those neighbors are vampires, an open invitation was perhaps not the wisest choice. Meanwhile, Granny Weatherwax's invitation has gone missing. On the plus side, that meant she was home to be summoned to the bedside of a pregnant woman who was kicked by a cow, where she makes the type of hard decision that Granny has been making throughout the series. On the minus side, the apparent snub seems to send her into a spiral of anger at the lack of appreciation. Points off right from the start for a plot based on a misunderstanding and a subsequent refusal of people to simply talk to each other. It is partly engineered, but still, it's a cheap and irritating plot. This is an odd book. The vampires (or vampyres, as the Count wants to use) think of themselves as modern and sophisticated, making a break from the past by attempting to overcome such traditional problems as burning up in the sunlight and fear of religious symbols and garlic. The Count has put his family through rigorous training and desensitization, deciding such traditional vulnerabilities are outdated things of the past. He has, however, kept the belief that vampires are at the top of a natural chain of being, humans are essentially cattle, and vampires naturally should rule and feed on the population. Lancre is an attractive new food source. Vampires also have mind control powers, control the weather, and can put their minds into magpies. They are, in short, enemies designed for Granny Weatherwax, the witch expert in headology. A shame that Granny is apparently off sulking. Nanny and Agnes may have to handle the vampires on their own, with the help of Magrat. One of the things that makes this book odd is that it seemed like Pratchett was setting up some character growth, giving Agnes a chance to shine, and giving Nanny Ogg a challenge that she didn't want. This sort of happens, but then nothing much comes of it. Most of the book is the vampires preening about how powerful they are and easily conquering Lancre, while everyone else flails ineffectively. Pratchett does pull together an ending with some nice set pieces, but that ending doesn't deliver on any of the changes or developments it felt like the story was setting up. We do get a lot of Granny, along with an amusingly earnest priest of Om (lots of references to Small Gods here, while firmly establishing it as long-ago history). Granny is one of my favorite Discworld characters, so I don't mind that, but we've seen Granny solve a lot of problems before. I wanted to see more of Agnes, who is the interesting new character and whose dynamic with her inner voice feels like it has a great deal of unrealized potential. There is a sharp and condensed version of comparative religion from Granny, which is probably the strongest part of the book and includes one of those Discworld quotes that has been widely repeated out of context:
"And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is." "It's a lot more complicated than that " "No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won t like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."
This loses a bit in context because this book is literally about treating people as things, and thus the observation feels more obvious when it arrives in this book than when you encounter it on its own, but it's still a great quote. Sadly, I found a lot of this book annoying. One of those annoyances is a pet peeve that others may or may not share: I have very little patience for dialogue in phonetically-spelled dialect, and there are two substantial cases of that here. One is a servant named Igor who speaks with an affected lisp represented by replacing every ess sound with th, resulting in lots of this:
"No, my Uncle Igor thtill workth for him. Been thtruck by lightning three hundred timeth and thtill putth in a full night'th work."
I like Igor as a character (he's essentially a refugee from The Addams Family, which adds a good counterpoint to the malicious and arrogant evil of the vampires), but my brain stumbles over words like "thtill" every time. It's not that I can't decipher it; it's that the deciphering breaks the flow of reading in a way that I found not at all fun. It bugged me enough that I started skipping his lines if I couldn't work them out right away. The other example is the Nac Mac Feegles, who are... well, in the book, they're Pictsies and a type of fairy, but they're Scottish Smurfs, right down to only having one female (at least in this book). They're entertainingly homicidal, but they all talk like this:
"Ach, hins tak yar scaggie, yer dank yowl callyake!"
I'm from the US and bad with accents and even worse with accents reproduced in weird spellings, and I'm afraid that I found 95% of everything said by Nac Mac Feegles completely incomprehensible to the point where I gave up even trying to read it. (I'm now rather worried about the Tiffany Aching books and am hoping Pratchett toned the dialect down a lot, because I'm not sure I can deal with more of this.) But even apart from the dialect, I thought something was off about the plot structure of this book. There's a lot of focus on characters who don't seem to contribute much to the plot resolution. I wanted more of the varied strengths of Lancre coming together, rather than the focus on Granny. And the vampires are absurdly powerful, unflappable, smarmy, and contemptuous of everyone, which makes for threatening villains but also means spending a lot of narrative time with a Discworld version of Jacob Rees-Mogg. I feel like there's enough of that in the news already. Also, while I will avoid saying too much about the plot, I get very suspicious when older forms of oppression are presented as good alternatives to modernizing, rationalist spins on exploitation. I see what Pratchett was trying to do, and there is an interesting point here about everyone having personal relationships and knowing their roles (a long-standing theme of the Lancre Discworld stories). But I think the reason why there is some nostalgia for older autocracy is that we only hear about it from stories, and the process of storytelling often creates emotional distance and a patina of adventure and happy outcomes. Maybe you can make an argument that classic British imperialism is superior to smug neoliberalism, but both of them are quite bad and I don't want either of them. On a similar note, Nanny Ogg's tyranny over her entire extended clan continues to be played for laughs, but it's rather unappealing and seems more abusive the more one thinks about it. I realize the witches are not intended to be wholly good or uncomplicated moral figures, but I want to like Nanny, and Pratchett seems to be writing her as likable, even though she has an astonishing lack of respect for all the people she's related to. One might even say that she treats them like things. There are some great bits in this book, and I suspect there are many people who liked it more than I did. I wouldn't be surprised if it was someone's favorite Discworld novel. But there were enough bits that didn't work for me that I thought it averaged out to a middle-of-the-road entry. Followed by The Fifth Elephant in publication order. This is the last regular witches novel, but some of the thematic thread is picked up by The Wee Free Men, the first Tiffany Aching novel. Rating: 7 out of 10

1 November 2022

Jonathan Dowland: Halloween playlist 2022

I hope you had a nice Halloween! I've collected together some songs that I've enjoyed over the last couple of years that loosely fit a theme: ambient, instrumental, experimental, industrial, dark, disconcerting, etc. I've prepared a Spotify playlist of most of them, but not all. The list is inline below as well, with many (but not all) tracks linking to Bandcamp, if I could find them there. This is a bit late, sorry. If anyone listens to something here and has any feedback I'd love to hear it. (If you are reading this on an aggregation site, it's possible the embeds won't work. If so, click through to my main site) Spotify playlist: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3bEvEguRnf9U1RFrNbv5fk?si=9084cbf78c364ac8; The list, with Bandcamp embeds where possible: Some sources
  1. Via Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone
  2. Via Mary Anne Hobbs
  3. Via Lose yourself with
  4. Soma FM - Doomed (Halloween Special)

1 September 2022

Shirish Agarwal: Culture, Books, Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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