Lynch Him!

News: Richard Stallman – the grandfather of Software Freedom, without whose efforts “free software” might still be seen as the worthless crap that featured on 1980s floppies given out with computer mags – to rejoin FSF board.

Online community erupts in horror. How can anyone give him a platform after his “crimes”? There is some thoughtful and reasoned reaction against his comeback (I think the best example I’ve seen is Gunnar Wolf), but it seems the majority is a pure lynch mob, whose baying I won’t grace with a link. My irony meter goes off the scale when they seek to exclude Stallman while at the same time preaching inclusivity.

Stallman undoubtedly has a strong personality. That goes with the territory of being someone who Gets Things Done. In his case, most famously he didn’t take it lying down when he was prevented from adapting an expensive printer to meet his and his department’s needs. I admire that: it’s a contrast to the timid alternatives of submissive (write off an expensive door stop or at best live with it) or passive-aggressive, to both of which I would have to plead guilty at one time or another. But it’s surely also part of the personality package (shared by the greatest of both heroes and villains) that doesn’t easily Suffer Fools, and that gets labelled toxic in an anti-excellence culture.

As I understand it, the crime the mob absolutely can’t forgive is to have defended the late prof. Marvin Minsky (who stood accused of sexual impropriety), and then risen to the bait when challenged. Minsky was no longer alive to defend himself, and his accuser stood (indeed, stands) on a pedestal where neither what she says nor even the most monstrous inferences from it can be questioned. Stallman – who I understand had known Minsky – committed the unforgiveable crime not of calling her a liar[1], but of suggesting an explanation that failed to damn Minsky. For that, he must be excommunicated. A weaker man would surely have backed down in the face of such an onslaught of hatred!

I have a problem with accusations like these of sexual impropriety. A witch-hunt environment[2] and a strong streak of historical revisionism[3] provoke automatic scepticism, particularly about cases given high media coverage. A second problem with them, or rather with the witch-hunt environment and related SJW issues – is that it provokes division, and leads to backlashes that can themselves be pretty hideous (Trump being an obvious example – and a future backlash could be worse). A plague on both their houses: Trump and the anti-Stallman mob!

[1] Though Minsky’s wikipedia entry tells us his widow has indeed denied any possibility that the accusations could be true.

[2] In the UK, “operation midland” is an obvious example, where an accuser was for years given a pedestal similar to Minsky’s accuser[4], before eventually being discredited. Some of those leading that witch-hunt and pressuring the police over it are still in place: Tom Watson may have fallen on his sword (as have some in the media), but fellow witchfinder-general Vera Baird is still in place and generally gets an uncritical media platform.

[3] Minsky’s crime is to have – allegedly – had sex with a teenager. That’s identical in all but name to the crime for which today’s hero[5] Alan Turing was convicted, and treated rather less harshly than he would have been today. In Turing’s time homosexuality was De Jure illegal but De Facto tolerated between consenting adults like Turing’s contemporaries Britten and Pears.

[4] Note: I’m not saying the two accusers are alike: that’s a subject on which I have no knowledge. What clearly is very similar is the pedestals given to them to accuse others.

[5] To be clear, calling Turing today’s hero is with reference to the story of his sexuality and downfall. His achievements, including his considerable legacy in computing and AI, stand on their own merits without reference to “today”.

Boiler

Greetings from my disappointingly-modernised house.

When I moved to this house right on the river[1], I knew the boiler was rather old and would want replacing. The house has nowhere suitable for solar panels, but I could make some effort and get a heat pump drawing heat from the river. That’s a whole lot more efficient than either a ground or air source heat pump: ground because the river water is constantly renewed rather than the pump chilling its own surroundings; air because water has more than four times the specific heat of air. So while not free of the need for a pump, it’s the best possible of its kind.

I spent some considerable time looking for someone who might install such a heat pump. Most prospective suppliers never even answered my enquiries. One did, and came to survey the place at the beginning of October, and agreed that the location is excellent for it. The up-front cost would be ballpark ten times higher than a new gas boiler, but the government offers a rather bizarre subsidy scheme through which I could recoup that difference over a seven-year period. Great! Combined with switching to an induction hob in the kitchen, I could become gas-free.

However, my prospective supplier told me it would have to wait for the summer, to carry out works while the river is at low summer levels. And wasn’t good at following up, despite having taken the trouble to survey the place.

Then we had the cold snap just after christmas, and my existing boiler got rapidly worse. It got erratic firing up, and wouldn’t give hot water unless the heating had been running long enough to heat the radiators. Neither did that always happen: I started to resort to various wheezes like the classic turn-it-off-and-on-again. Getting it serviced didn’t help. And after too many cold showers – at a time when the emergency alternative of going to a public baths and showering there is unavailable[2] – I concluded it’s become too urgent: I don’t want to wait until summer and the heat pump.

Reluctantly I did some online research, and was pleasantly surprised to find a number of suppliers competing to offer prices fully inclusive of boiler, installation, and associated extras – and cheaper than I’d dared hope for a reputable boiler[3]. Presumably a low margin, high volume business model. What a contrast to the difficulty sourcing a heat pump! I placed an order with one of those suppliers.

Today[4] was the day, and a very pleasant young chap has installed my new boiler and taken away the old one. I feel more confident in my shower already, and I also expect running a bath to be quick and straightforward. Furthermore, I now have a modern wireless controller sitting in the hallway, offering timer and thermostatic controls. And controls on the boiler itself to determine how hot it heats water: I may want to turn that down in the summer!

Of course the heat pump would have delivered much the same range of mod-cons, albeit based on hot water coming from a tank in the basement. And I’d’ve liked to combine installation of that with switching the downstairs rooms from radiators to underfloor heating. The latter may yet happen, but will have to be part of another project. But with a new gas boiler, the heatpump project is dead. RIP.

For what it’s worth, I mentioned the heatpump project to my installer. He told me he’d looked at going on a course to qualify to install them, but couldn’t justify the cost and time to qualify in a rare niche when he has an ample and reliable stream of very mainstream work with gas boilers. I expect that’s a common story, and the reason why the one is so much easier than t’other for me as customer to source.

[1] It’s a former industrial building, converted to houses in the 1990s. Before the days of mains power, the river was used to power it. Nowadays the lowest level of the building is underground parking: I don’t believe it’s ever flooded, but if it does, better that than inside peoples’ homes!

[2] Covid lockdown rules. Yes, we all know that, but someone reading this a few years hence might not instantly make the association.

[3] The latest model from the same stable as the boiler at my last (rented) house, which impressed me by always working flawlessly and without fuss.

[4] Monday. As I blog it’s past midnight, so the timestamp will say Tuesday.

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.