I didn’t make it to FOSDEM last weekend.
This time I could perfectly well have done so: there was nowhere else I had to be, no deadline I was pressed to meet, no travel difficulties. No such excuse. I just didn’t go.
My loss. Certainly in terms of who I didn’t meet (old friends and new), what I didn’t learn, how my mind didn’t get stimulated, what projects and ideas haven’t excited me. Damn.
So what kept me away? Obviously it’s that bit harder work than higher-budget conferences. The venue is a bit hit-and-miss, with some of the rooms being quite an ordeal. On the other hand, the big lecture theatre with the keynotes and the smaller ones where most talks happen are perfectly good, the room with the “lightning talks” (always a good default place if there’s a time when you have nothing scheduled) likewise, and the better project rooms are good for a session – at least when there’s something in that limited space of interesting but not too overcrowded and stuffy.
No, what really put me off was the prospect of once again running the gamut of the smokers. The stench of it in the lobby and corridors, exhibition space and coffee area, coupled with the crowds that prevent getting from A to B on a single breath. The good reasons to go to FOSDEM are at an intellectual level, but the feeling of a descent into filth when I think about going is overwhelming at a basic, Proustian level.
On that analysis, I may never go again. That’s sad.
Now transcriptions of Trump’s inaugural speech are available, I can confirm the historic echo I thought I heard.
We are one nation – and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.
Wow! That is surely too close to be pure coincidence. His own words, or a speechwriter?
But will he do as well as his role model in rebuilding his country’s infrastructure and industries? History tells us where that eventually leads.
Back from Brighton a couple of days ago.
That’s kind-of more newsworthy than a simple journey should be. Travel to Brighton has been disrupted, first by a lot of general disruption on Southern Railways, and more recently by strikes adding to travel problems. Brighton’s commuters have a lot of horror stories about their troubles.
By planning my journey at specific times of day, I can travel from here to Brighton on just two trains, both operated by First Group, and changing at Westbury. So I can easily avoid the disrupted trains. However, that puts me on a short train of just three coaches for the Westbury-Brighton journey. And from Southampton, it’s a stretch served also by much longer Southern trains, many of them eight coaches. So the worry was that my train might be overwhelmed with refugees from disrupted Southern services.
So I took a few precautions. I booked in advance, and avoided not just any Southern services, but also their strike days. Booking in advance still seems to be a nightmare, but I eventually managed. Phew!
Come the actual travel, everything is far better than I’d dared hope. Not only are the trains running smoothly and on-time, but I find I have ample space to spread out. Indeed, a double-seat to myself throughout both outward and return journeys. Even in January low season, that’s unusual!
I can only infer that the news of disruption has driven potential passengers away. People with a choice about it are avoiding travel, not merely in the regions affected by disruption, but also on the mainline service from London to southwest England, well clear of the disruption. All the better for those of us who do travel!
Someone from the Red Cross describes our NHS as a humanitarian crisis. Oh dear. OK, bit of commentary in the media, politicians spin it. No big deal.
But then someone from the NHS denies it, thus invoking the Power of Denial to make it a much more serious story, less likely to be relegated to a footnote in Current Affairs by next week. And it’s not even an unqualified denial. Whoops!
My first reaction: how silly to rise to the bait. But was it deliberate? One shouldn’t attribute to Conspiracy what can be explained by Cockup, but in this case I’m not at all sure.
One of the many thoughts I composed in my head but never got around to posting was a reaction to the election of Donald Trump. An optimistic reaction, mixing tongue-in-cheek (to wind up some – probably most – readers), benefit of the doubt, and a few realistic hopes for how his presidency might lead, intentionally or otherwise, to real improvement in the world.
It’s too late for that now. He’s made so many appointments I’d have to dig into them before taking a Panglossian view on his rhetoric about surrounding himself with the best people. He still has the outsider’s potential advantage that, if he chooses, he can better afford to stand up to Vested Interests – including those who control purse-strings for US politicians of both parties – than his predecessors in modern times.
On one matter of foreign policy he’s sent a message which is both clear and constructive. He is not in favour of warmongering around the world where his country has no business. Like provoking civil war and supporting terrorist and rebel groups on a my enemy’s enemy basis. The most obvious potential beneficiary of that is Syria, where the hope and expectation of Western intervention launched and subsequently fuelled a devastating civil war.
Trump gets elected, and after just a couple of weeks the rebels in Aleppo finally cut their losses. Another couple of weeks and we get a ceasefire backed by Russia and Turkey, and for the first time the Western-backed rebels seem to have dropped their show-stopper precondition that Assad and his government be booted out.
Coincidence? Even if we attribute Aleppo to pure military victory, the change in the rebels’ stance is surely not unconnected with Trump’s election. Trump has sent them a clear signal that the leading warmongers in the West – like John McCain in the US or Andrew Mitchell in the UK – won’t persuade our governments to step up military involvement.
Of course that doesn’t mean peace: it remains to be seen to what extent that can happen, and indeed whether Russia and Turkey can make a better job of it than the West’s interventions in other countries (above all Iraq). The key point right now is that the US – and by extension the West – no longer stands in the way of peace.
Yahoo admits to a billion customer records being compromised. The numbers are staggering, but the news of the exploit is mundane.
Doubtless the raw numbers are very largely inactive accounts. People who long-since stopped using Yahoo accounts. People who signed up with some other company that subsequently got borged by Yahoo. People who once signed up to access some service but never used the accounts. Etcetera. Just as with social media numbers (even just the number of followers of this humble blog), to be taken with a big pinch of salt.
Nevertheless, that’s a billion signups. Allowing for fakes and duplicates, that might be a nine-digit number of real people who once answered security questions. That’s a bunch of answers that, unlike passwords, travel with the user across multiple services, not just online but also those you might access by other means such as the ‘phone or even face-to-face. The name of your first pet or your primary school are no more secure than the classic mother’s maiden name.
And now a billion such records have leaked. Give or take: we don’t know how many users ever were genuine, nor how many such questions and answers each genuine user disclosed.
So what does it mean if you’re one of the billion? If someone wants to steal your identity, your security questions and answers have passed from the realm of something they have to research to something easily automated. Well, we don’t know that for certain, but it’s certainly a risk that can no longer be dismissed.
You’d better change your security questions everywhere that matters. What do you mean, you can’t remember which questions you signed up to Yahoo with twenty years ago? Don’t tell me you can’t change the city of your birth, or the initials of your first lover. Oh dear [shakes head].
And even if you’re not one of the billion, you may already have started to get the phishing emails purporting to be from yahoo (or others) about changing passwords.
I’ve argued here before that security questions are not fit for purpose. Perhaps the Yahoo leak might help persuade the world to stop using them for things that matter!
With Castro dead, the world can draw another line under the Cold War. I have no intention of trying to comment on his life: a complex subject on which I have nothing really to say.
But the reporting of his death reveals an interesting split, between those who revered (or at least respected) him and mourn his passing, and those who hated him and danced on his grave. The former being Cubans in Cuba, the latter being Cubans in Miami. Plus a handful of global Cold Warriors on either side, who will dismiss the other side with a quasi-religious fervour.
Could that split between a home population and expats in the West be the exact same phenomenon that led us into fighting and provoking so many disastrous wars, particularly in the middle-east, in recent years? At various times, our media have presented us with articulate expats from countries we’ve openly invaded (like Iraq and Libya) or meddled more quietly in and stirred with agents provocateurs (like Syria), in support of our campaigns. Those would be their countries’ equivalent to the Miami Cubans dancing on Castro’s grave. And that’s where our narratives of our wars come from: when our powers-that-be want war, they can find some extreme but articulate expats and present them as the voice of ordinary people. Only once the die is cast do some in our media start to question dodgy dossiers and claims.
Damn, I seem to be blogging so rarely I might as well not be here. I guess too much of what I have to say is being said elsewhere, or falling victim to can’t be arsed syndrome.
So a little domestic event. Today I have taken delivery of a shiny new fridge-freezer, to replace the one bought in 2005 (when I moved from a furnished to an unfurnished apartment) and which has been malfunctioning increasingly badly. Of late the temperature regulator was completely dead and the pump on full blast 24/7 regardless of settings, so it would ice up within a week of defrosting, and everything was too cold.
[really boring paragraph you probably want to skip] Unusually (for me), I went into Currys in person to order the new one rather than order online. That’s because it has to fit under a shelf at 144 cm above the floor, and I wanted to see and measure one described as 143cm tall – which is the model I eventually bought. It fits nicely in the space, and like the old one, is low enough to use the top as my spice rack. The new one has slightly more fridge and less freezer space than the old one: a 60/40 split rather than 50/50 heightwise. The biggest drawback in the old one (back when it worked properly) was a shortage of even reasonably high shelf space in the fridge, which would tend to get more than a bit overfilled after a big shop. Now I’ll have space to stand things up easily, as well as a useful extra shelf in the door. As for the freezer, I think I can live with a little less space. The main difference is that the top drawer (of three) is a more a tray, and will do nicely for the wine cooler sleeve, icecubes, and miscellaneous small things.
Seeing the new one in action, I’m struck by two things. One, it’s blissfully quiet, even compared to a well-behaved older model. Two, the light inside is seriously cold: clearly a LED. I guess that’s the march of technology, and makes it not entirely a bad thing I had to replace the old one.
One more observation. In researching my options for replacing the old one, I saw all refrigeration equipment on sale today is advertised as both CFC-free and HFC-free. Does that mean the recent treaty on HFCs was just hot air, with the industry having long-since left them behind anyway?
When google comes under attack, I’m usually one of the voices in the peanut gallery defending them. That’s because most of the attacks on them, particularly the anti-trust stuff involving regulators, is grossly ill-informed and follows an Agenda that seeks to subvert Google’s central purpose of supplying the best possible search results for the person searching.
Now I’m going to attack. It may be true (as I’ve argued here before) that there’s a certain historic inevitability to the Enclosure of the Commons. But that doesn’t excuse Google’s crucial role, particularly in the demise of the Usenet commons.
The suicide and resurrection of an online community in which I participate has reminded me of that. It started on November 3rd, with an an announcement that a set of discussion boards was to close on Nov 17th. Just two weeks notice: quite a large number of boards and a thriving community. The reason given was problems with old/unmaintainable software (which had indeed left a lot to be desired), but we suspect that the more fundamental reason was that the website (which has, in other areas, a number of paid staff) was losing money.
Why they didn’t try to sell the boards – with community intact – to whomsoever thought they could make a go of it – eludes me. But that’s now water under the bridge. And it may be a long-term blessing, if a highest bidder might’ve been under financial pressure themselves and perhaps trashed the site with intrusive levels of advertising.
Of course, discussion turned to ideas for how it might be replaced. My own preferred option of a decentralised solution – individual blogs with an aggregator to focus the community – was a non-starter on that timescale, even if it could in principle have gained traction in the absence of time pressure. But someone else had a practical solution: they set up an alternative site at a new domain with well-chosen name, and phpbb driving a replacement set of boards. They announced it within hours of the closure notice, and rapidly gained traction. The community has been rapidly migrating to the new site, which now also has tremendous goodwill. Early days, but it seems we have a level of continuity, albeit with archives about to be relegated to what may be found in dusty attics.
So what has this little tale got to do with Google or Usenet? Well, the old boards originated in January 1998. The second half of the ’90s was precisely when lots of websites were making a land-grab for online discussion fora, and a rising non-techie user base would follow the best-advertised route oblivious to inherent limitations like private (often quixotic) control and single points of congestion and failure. As soon as a community moves from the Usenet commons to the private gardens – walled or otherwise – of a website, it becomes vulnerable to all kinds of things, like a rug being pulled.
Google’s role comes in their own land-grab, and in what they did to Dejanews. Actually, come to think of it, the first time I ever heard the name Google was in that context: they were a company that had bought Dejanews. So now the folks who run the fantastic Usenet search engine now also have web search, and … it turns out to be rather good, returning results more-or-less as good as Altavista but without all the clutter and crap that had made Altavista a pain to use. Nice!
But it turned out to be part of a much more sinister agenda. Google Groups started life as a WWW gateway to Usenet: all good. But the waves of new users coming through Google weren’t being told that: they saw web fora, with thriving communities. If memory serves, it was the whole of Usenet (less some of the wilds of alt.*) that had been hijacked in an audacious land grab. Old-timers found ourselves fighting a losing battle against the impression that the whole thing was Google’s territory. Google were far from the only people doing that (and public mailinglists got similar gateways), but they were unique in owning Dejanews.
But Dejanews itself disappeared. Or rather, became just a tab in an integrated Google search frontend. Then the tab wasn’t even labelled “news”, which took on the obvious meaning it still has today. Then the “groups” tab vanished: after all, the content was Google Groups, and that’s just Web content like any other, right? Over the following decade or so, Usenet content simply vanished, increasingly much of it literally so.
The community mindshare had been grabbed, except for old-timers. Search had been lost gradually and the community, like a boiling frog, had failed to react to incremental changes and create an alternative. In the face of such trends, the will to put much effort into other things like newsreader development and combating the rise of spam, also waned. The land grab has happened, the commons are lost, we live in a world of private gardens. Worse still, many including the biggest (Facebook) are walled off against us: access is limited to their registered users! And it’s very largely all Google’s fault.
If I can be arsed I may post a followup to this, proposing a new alternative. It won’t be Usenet: that ship has sailed. It will be based on aggregation and syndication of distributed content, under the control of individuals. Damn, am I fighting the same battle I pooh-poohed Moglen for?