Darwinian Selection and Award

Lockdown has failed: let’s have ever more lockdown! Much of the world – including Blighty – has gone mad.

Today’s news: it’s confirmed “the new strain” is indeed spreading a lot faster than its predecessor. A moment’s reflection suggests the hypothesis: is this Darwinian natural selection in action? “Social distancing” and isolation has reduced the virus’s opportunity to propagate, so a strain that better overcomes those limitations is thriving in the environment we’re giving it.

Similar story to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacterial nasties, albeit happening faster.

How would we be able to test how similar bugs – not least common cold coronaviruses – react to social distancing? I suspect a new and much more infectious strain would go unremarked, perhaps even unnoticed!

Oh, and the figures telling us the vaccines are unexpectedly much more effective than the ‘flu jab. Could that be because they’re new, and the coronavirus has not yet adapted to them as flu viruses have? Perhaps the ‘flu jab is a better guide to a future steady state.

Can we have a societal Darwin Award for societies that are getting the worst of both worlds: stopping normal life including much of the economy, yet failing miserably to stop the virus spreading? Though come to think of it, Blighty has a much stronger and also-very-topical claim than any mere virus to a Darwin award.

And, erm, happy new year. Don’t breathe, don’t hold your breath.

A vaccine

We’ve had a flurry of Good News announcements from developers of Covid vaccine candidates. The fact that one announcement has provoked more highlights how competitive the race is.

At the same time, we hear that governments are going to come down hard on antivax (is that how you spell it? – I don’t want to google). With drastic potential penalties on platforms, it’s inevitably going to be enforced as one of those taboos that may be used to shut down not just nutjob conspiracy theories but also legitimate discussion. That (always) bothers me.

I’m not anti-vaccination myself. I’ve had the flu jab for two or three years, and would have had it this year if Stuttley’s ultra-centralised crony-driven Soviet-lookalike system hadn’t proved itself incapable of delivering it. Yes, they’re going to roll out this massive Covid programme, but they can’t even manage a routine flu jab for those deemed vulnerable by the NHS!

Riiight …

In terms of the covid candidates, I have no doubt whatsoever that their inventors are working in good faith in the hope of protecting us – the people – from covid. There’s no sinister agenda of mind-control or anything like that. Where there’s a risk it’s cockup – the vaccination does something unintended – not conspiracy. On the basis that that risk will be lower than the risk of covid, I shall get it if offered.

Sadly that’s not the whole story. The risk is that under immense commercial pressure, corners get cut. Or – worse – adverse information is suppressed, and tests that raise red flags get redesigned to suppress it. No fewer than two news stories this week remind us of the real-life risks of suppressing adverse information: the Boeing 737 max being re-licenced after its disastrous history, and the Grenfell tower inquiry’s evidence of how highly flammable material was used in full knowledge of the danger.

The vaccine candidates are coming up for regulatory approval. Which begs a number of questions:

  • To what extent is regulatory approval a rubber-stamp exercise?
  • I understand the EU single market serves to save producers of regulated products (like medicines) a lot of per-country red tape. How far does EU approval go towards making a vaccine automatically legal/available in member countries?
  • Does anyone have a clue whether and how brexit affects this?
  • Do we have mutual recognition – or something approaching it – of medicines with any other countries, such as the US?
  • Is there jurisdiction-shopping by pharma companies seeking regulatory approval for a drug? If so, what jurisdictions are commonly favoured?

All in all, I’d have the greatest confidence in a vaccine developed in a politically-unloved country. With a Russian or Chinese candidate, I’d have that little bit more confidence that it hadn’t got through an EU or UK regulator on-the-nod at some level. Though that expectation is based on ignorance of the system: the argument for it is that humans are involved and will always come under pressures that may differ for drugs of different origins.

Who knows what the suppression of anti-vax disinformation will take with it? One of the first casualties will be any would-be whistleblower on adverse side-effects. Like flammable cladding, or flight control that causes crashes. Of course the counterargument to that is that most of us (certainly including me, and more importantly those tasked with the censorship) would stand little if any chance of telling whistleblowing from a conspiracy theory. But it’s no less concerning for that.

Crippled Voip (Motorola/Android)

Question 1: Is there any SIP softphone that works on today’s Motorola phones? Note, this is not at all the same question as working on Android: Motorola has, it seems, crippled both the native Android SIP capability and third-party softphones available from the play store (see for example nerdvittles or motorola’s own fora). Non-SIP communications – like voice calls, jitsi, zoom, sylk, skype work just fine, but not SIP.

Question 2: When buying an Android phone from A N Other manufacturer, how do I find out ahead of time whether SIP will be available or crippled?

The long story …

My first Android phone was a Moto G, from before the days when the Moto G had numbers – though as I recollect it did call itself 4G to distinguish itself from those with no 4G capability that were still available at the time. I was pretty happy with it, though there were occasional problems such as activating unintentionally whilst in my pocket.

When I moved house in 2013 I moved my old “landline” number to VOIP with a sipgate account. I installed CSipSimple on the Moto G, and it worked like a dream – reliable and with excellent call quality anywhere I had wifi and/or adequate phone data signal.

Fast forward to 2019, as I was in the throes of buying my present house. I lost that phone when it slipped out of my pocket on the bus. It was the worst possible moment to be without a phone, and I couldn’t wait to ask lost property. I used the web to disable the SIM (in case it was stolen), armed myself with proof of identity, jumped on the bike, and went into the O2 shop to get a replacement. They could do the SIM, and Argos just down the road could sell me a handset. They had Moto G in stock, so I bought it and fitted the new SIM.

The new handset (turns out to be G6) is annoyingly bigger and heavier than the old one, but does the job, and is in some ways an improvement. However, I found myself unable to get a SIP client working adequately on it. CSipSimple being discontinued, I first tried Zoiper, but found it highly unreliable and the call quality was poor. I’ve tried several other softphones, and none of them works adequately. The problem is the same whether I’m on wifi or 4G.

Googling is difficult here, because it turns up lots of results for Android that simply don’t apply on the Motorola. With “motorola” as a keyword I get a few results such as the links in the first paragraph indicating it’s not just me being inept!

The good news, I got my old Moto G back from the bus company’s Lost Property. It has no SIM, but I can still use it around the house with wifi, and with CSipSimple it still gives reliable calls and excellent quality. But that’s only a partial solution: without a SIM it only works around the house, and when a very elderly phone battery is charged!

Lockdown?

The news is now telling us there’s a likelihood of another covid “lockdown”. France has just gone full-on prison camp, and other countries are tightening measures.

Last time we gave them the benefit of the doubt: lockdown might just serve a purpose. But that’s conditional on there being an exit path: without it, lockdown is real pain for illusory gain. Six or seven months ago it seemed somewhat implausible, but evidently the government’s advisors thought otherwise and who was I to argue? At least, beyond reservations expressed in that post, notably:

… if the lockdown proves worse than useless in the longer term – perhaps because return to normality proves impossible without the Herd Immunity of most of the population catching it.  But if that happens we’re in good company, with much of the world likely to be in similar trouble.

Now we have experience: “lockdown” failed for lack of an exit strategy. Sweden got it closest to right (at least among European countries) when they introduced more relaxed guidelines that had the effect of lockdown in reducing case numbers but with less damaging side-effects.

Macron appears to have gone mad, repeating an already-failed experiment. Will our own powers-that-be behave more sensibly in this matter? If they lockdown now it’s far worse than in the spring, when we were at least free to go round the supermarket without wearing a germ-incubator. And when indeed it became for some weeks a particularly pleasant experience, with staff and shoppers sharing a “blitz spirit” of cheerful bonhomie.

A question that I’ve wondered about a few times, and raised elsewhere but not on this blog. I’m no historian, but I’ve heard said that Native American populations were devastated by the Common Cold when the arrival of European settlers introduced it. Is this not an interesting historical parallel (bearing in mind that the Common Cold is a generic description for a wide range of lurgies, some of them coronaviruses), and why is noone discussing it? A possible inference is that what makes covid worse than a regular cold is precisely its novelty to our populations.

Concluding ApacheCon

Three days of ApacheCon@home – not far short of a full regular ApacheCon. A comparable number of presentations, far more attendees, but missing some fun elements like lightning talks. I felt too knackered to blog on Wednesday or Thursday evenings, but a few more thoughts bear recording.

In fact it wasn’t just the evenings I felt knackered: I felt diminishing returns on the contents, both presentations and social (not helped by more glitches with the technology). If a change is as good as a rest, the changerest associated with a conference venue and atmosphere is perhaps essential to the familiar experience. Which leads me to the thought: this would have worked better as three separate one-day events. Shorter events could perhaps be themed further for different timezones.

And of course, the primary reasons for making it a multi-day event – to get a decent return on the overhead of travel and accommodation, and to make the most of the in-person event – is gone. It seems to me that more and shorter events make a lot of sense in the online space!

Regarding the substantial contents, I attended several talks in the Geospatial track. Of particular note was one by Lucian Plesea, whose interests seem to have a huge amount in common with my own. His work on accessing and visualising huge datasets look a lot like what I was aiming for with the HyperDAAC, a couple of generations on in terms of both computing and Big Data. Dr Plesea is working at ESRI, so hopefully his work shouldn’t languish unnoticed as HyperDAAC did!

Furthermore, at the core of his implementation (and talk) is a set of Apache modules, practicing what I preach in terms of making it his application server. I was gratified by his reference to my book in the BoF at the end of the day (after his talk). His modules are open source at github, and look interesting, and perhaps deserving of packaging for a wider audience.

ApacheCon@home

This year, for obvious reasons (covid), ApacheCon is taking place entirely online. Today was the first day. So what was it like?

Well, obviously it’s not a Jolly in a nice hotel in an interesting location, as the best events have been. Does that detract from it? Well of course those are part of the magic of the best ApacheCons – above all Budapest, where both the hotel and the city were fantastic. On the other hand, the money saved could buy quite a decent week’s holiday somewhere of my choosing! Better to focus on what did or didn’t work well in terms of presentations, communication, networking.

The economics of online worked nicely for lots of people, bringing in several thousand attendees compared to a few hundred at a “normal” event. A poll suggests that eightysomething percent of those thousands are attending their first ApacheCon: evidently a lot of people find it a lower hurdle (as I do). So we’re embracing a much bigger community, which is fantastic – so long as we don’t disappoint.

The times also worked nicely for us in European (and indeed African) timezones. While Americans, Asians and Antipodeans had it taking much of their nights at one end or t’other, here it opened at 09:30, and ended with BoF sessions at 21:00, much like a regular ApacheCon. The benefits of being in the middle of the world’s inhabited timezones!

After one or two initial glitches – a very short learning curve – the technology worked well. Presentations were clear, with the presentation window split to show the presenter, his/her screen, and a text chat window in separate panes: pretty-much ideal. “Corridor” action was, I thought, less successful, but then I’ve long found text chat easier to work with than face-to-face, which is why I don’t even have a webcam and audio system on my desktop ‘puter. Text chat there was a-plenty on every possible topic, but then we don’t need an organised event to benefit from that.

In terms of contents, the programme was easily as good as any I can remember. I enjoyed and was inspired by a number of talks, including some not merely on subjects but on projects with which I had no previous familiarity. In fact I think it worked rather better than sitting in a conference room, and I found it easy to stay alert and focussed, even in that after-lunch siesta slot when it can be hard to stay awake.

A major theme this year is the rapidly-growing Chinese community at Apache. In recent years it’s moved on from a handful of individual developers contributing to Apache projects, to quite a number of major projects originating in China and with Chinese core teams coming to Apache. Sheng Wu – a name I’ve hitherto known as a leading light of the Incubator and also lead on one of those projects – gave a keynote on the subject.

I don’t recollect when we had the main discussion of the language issues of Chinese communities coming to Apache, but some of these are now fully bi-lingual, with English being ultimately the official language but Mandarin also widely used. Mandarin was also used in a few of the morning’s talks – morning being of course the eastern-timezone-friendly time of day (and there was also a Hindi track). One Chinese speaker whose English-language talk I started to listen to proved hard to follow, and I found sneaking out unobtrusively a minor benefit of the online format!

The success of Chinese projects coming to Apache was demonstrated by two of today’s most interesting talks – by Western speakers (one American, one German) who don’t speak Chinese, but have become members of the respective core developer communities by virtue of participating. One was about the project itself, but Julian Feinauer’s talk was specifically focussed on the community: how a bi-lingual community works in practice (a question on which I’ve mused before, for example with reference to translations of my book, and regarding nginx). Answer: it’s working very well, with both languages, with machine translation to help “get the gist”, and with bilingual members of the community. And there are gotchas, when an insufficiently-comprehensive translation leads to confusion.

Summarising the Chinese theme, I think perhaps Sheng Wu’s keynote marks the point I dreamed of when I wrote the preface to the Chinese translation of my book.

Congratulations to Rich Bowen and his team on adapting to the circumstances and bringing us a fantastic event! More to come, about which I may or may not blog.

Bloat

Details still to be finalised, but I have a sponsor for a new task that’ll help improve security on the Web for all of us.  All to be open-source.  I expect I’ll blog details about it in the not-too-distant.

This has helped me feel more motivated than I have done for quite a while: even before covid and lockdown I was far from my most productive.  This week I’ve been updating infrastructure for the work, with a new raspberry pi on order, and many hours of huge dist-upgrade on my desktop box (running Debian).

The update appears to have run smoothly, though at one point the box wouldn’t wake from suspend (or from screen-blank) correctly and needed a hard power-cycle followed by recovery.  Touch wood: apart from that transient glitch, nothing worse happened (yet) than my (utterly unimportant) desktop background going away (now replaced).

What struck me though was the sheer bloat of a modern system, that bit me before the update.  In preparation I made a much more complete backup than my usual (which is, only data that matters and where mine is an original – so excluding huge areas like working git and svn repos that get committed upstream).  This time I tried to backup the whole of /home, and came a cropper: the compressed tar archive exceeded the 4Gb maximum file size on the USB stick I was using!

OK, how to reduce it?  There’s a fair bit of low-hanging fruit: for example, build directories where “make clean” removes much, and the Downloads directory whose contents are always dispensible.  But the real eye-opener was the caches for various applications – and not just obvious suspects like web browsers!  Some of it years old: for instance, an RSS reader I haven’t used for at least two or three years.  And in mailers, a huge discrepancy between Evolution and Claws mail: the former being many times larger, and appears to keep not just a copy of my archives but even long-deleted spam.  I cleaned a lot of cache, and removed some caches (including Evolution – which is in any case far too sluggish) entirely.

We’re spoiled rotten by the size of even the smallest modern storage, and get sloppy in accumulating junk.  df now (after big cleanup and dist-upgrade) shows my disc 18% full, so I’m under absolutely no pressure, but I shall nevertheless take this as a wakeup call to configure caches to limit their size and lifetimes for ancient entries.

Is it only us greybeards who ever give a thought to our digital hygiene?

Food Wasteland

The hummus in my fridge smells bad.  There’s visible mould on the remaining custard-like sauce, that was so good on various fruit, particularly the apricots I had to stew because they were rock-hard (not a hardship, but I rarely cook desserts and intended to eat the apricots raw).  Last week, three food items had to be thrown out, including fresh blueberries.

This is disturbing.  I occasionally hear stories of food waste, and shake my head in disbelief.  How and why do people waste so much?  OK, some inevitably goes astray when you’re feeding an infant, and cooking accidents happen once in a while.  But just going off through inadequate inventory management?  Inexcusable!

I’ve never been a particularly organised shopper: I’ve spent a lifetime (successfully) relying on memory of what I have and what I need, and pick much of my food on spec.  What’s available?  What looks good today (would you choose which tomatoes to pick up without seeing them?)  What’s on at an attractive price?  What simply takes my fancy?  It’s always worked well for me.

Until now.  The new rules about wearing a muzzle means I’m no longer alert or capable of thought when shopping.  And online shopping takes planning: if I have to order fresh food for a delivery slot several days away (hoping for the best – not the rock-hard apricots I had to stew, let alone the irredeemably tasteless and tough-skinned tomatoes) I can no longer do that in the context of what’s left now in the fridge.  And can I change my diet to make do with a single weekly shop?  That means half the week deprived of short-shelf-life food like green salad items 😮

I expect I’ll get the hang of it.  Others who stopped physical shopping back in March/April are doubtless ahead of me on the delivery-juggling learning curve, though only those who like me eat fresh and don’t plan to the level of shopping lists will be starting from a similar point.  But it’s a bleak prospect 😦  On the upside, I guess I’ll be marginally less helpless facing brexit-chaos in four months.

Reflections

For reasons too arcane to explain (aka “you have to have been there”), I recently wanted to post an upside-down photo in a forum I frequent.  I found a rather good subject in a couple of snaps I recently got of our canal in the early evening sunlight.

light1

(Click photo for a better version of the image – wordpress’s editor loses something by scaling it down further than I had done).

The reflection in the water gives the illusion of a photo the right way up, with something just slightly unnatural about it – impressionist art comes to mind.  Also reminded me slightly of playing with xv’s filters – like the “oil painting” option – back in the early days of colour displays for ‘puters, before “photoshop” became a generic term for that and other kinds of manipulation.  But this photo is completely natural: the only filter applied is reflection in dark water.

Here’s a more conventional (right way up) snap that shows the general scene:

canal

Lies, damn lies, and misinformation

What do you do if you’re the powers-that-be, you’ve bungled something badly, and you judge that trying to lie your way out of it will only make things worse?

Why of course, you muddy the waters: cast doubt on everything the public know about it.  That way you don’t have to tell any porkies, you just let your natural supporters infer it for themselves and argue the case for you.  Turn the whole subject into an argument noone can win in the court of public opinion – at least, not until you (or your successor) can say that things are different now.

Hence the abrupt change in England’s covid death count.  It serves to highlight the (true) fact that all statistical measures of that have problems – there are obvious issues with both the old and the new measures – and hence cast doubt on covid statistics in general.  Including the (also true) fact that the UK in general, and England in particular, has an exceptionally poor track record compared to our peers.  The most reliable measure – overall deaths in excess of average, encompassing both the disease itself and ill-considered responses to it – shows our track record as (to date) the worst of anywhere.  Turns out even Belgium’s higher headline count was no more than an artifact of different counting methodology.

But now we have doubt, and scope for argument, not just over the genuine shortcomings of our data, but equally over clear and stark facts.  And of course, people have a natural suspicion of statistics to reinforce the doubt.

Talking of which, I should clarify my prediction.  My end-of-August timescale was for death count, being much more reliable than case count, but which is of course a trailing statistic and subject to the artifacts we’ve seen highlighted by the change in methodology.

And on another troubling story in the news ….

The bizarre (and rather tragic) story of how our powers-that-be have awarded results to young people in A-level and other exams is surely a travesty on every level.   The statistical exercise used went to elaborate lengths to be more-or-less fair to schools (though even that is in some doubt), but is unquestionably monstrously unfair to individual students!  Those responsible – everywhere that’s done this – should be unceremoniously fired.

It’s been many years since I sat any such exams (and I expect I’d have got the same results either way) but I’d still have been mightily p***ed off to be lumped with such meaningless results[1]!  For those who have lost a university (or other) place they believe (rightly or wrongly) they deserve, and will now either lose a year of their young lives or go through life labelled as mediocre, it seems to me about as devastating as a wrongful criminal conviction!  My suggested solution: give every candidate an A-level, but ungraded.  All the legitimate inputs to an assessed grade – such as GCSE and mock exam results – are there to be assessed by whomsoever it may concern.

[1] To be honest, I was mightily p***ed off when I learned that top grades were devalued by being awarded for marks so low as to be utterly unthinkable!  Then as now, A-levels were hopelessly inadequate to distinguish the sheep from the goats.