Wed 2020-07-29 18:32

Watching the Congressional hearings [YouTube] investigating the monopoly power of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google - this is frickin' hilarious. There is more tap dancing in this show than a Fred Astaire movie.

Mon 2020-07-27 01:48

Syncthing is one of those tools that I can count on 99% of the time. But every once in a while - man, it's a galactic pain in my ass. When it breaks, it breaks deep and awful. I just spent over 10 hours today getting three machines sharing a mere 15GB of files back into sync after I found that Syncthing had been churning disks in the NAS for days in some weird spinning of its own wheels - during which of course, nothing was actually syncing.

Resolving this failure (after trying the typical stuff to no avail) involved:

  1. Stopping sync on all nodes.
  2. Wiping the Syncthing db on each node.
  3. Re-indexing each node independently.
  4. Turning off "low priority" processing on each node (go on son, take all the cycles while you're at it).
  5. Allocating an additional 2GB of memory and two additional vCPUs to the "hub" node.
  6. Re-enabling each sync connection one at a time and waiting for sync to complete.

FFS. Not how I planned to spend my Sunday.

You know, I'd switch to another application for this function but the fact is that Syncthing (usually) tends to suck less than any of the other file synchronization tools I've tried. It's just that every now and then, it kind of screws me over for a day or so.

Fri 2020-06-26 15:54

Dangerously naive statement of the day:

Gopher is faster than the rest of the Internet, because opening Gopher pages doesn't entail downloading megabytes of Javascipt. And, no SSL handshaking occurs. The lack of SSL in gopherspace is not a problem, because no one is spying on you in gopherspace the way they are on the rest of the Internet. [emphasis mine]


No. Just... No.

This is a perfect example of how the rose-colored glasses of retro-tech fetishism can blind one to the realities and challenges of the modern age. Of course gopherspace is spied upon. All Internet traffic is spied upon. That is why HTTPS was invented. If you use the Gopher protocol to read Internet content then, due to the inherent limitations of the protocol, what you read is with certainty not private. It's all clear text, easily captured (and/or changed) by any device in the path between your computer and the Gopher server on which you are accessing the content.

I understand the appeal of having information available in the fast, accessible form of plain text. But in 2020, we can't just dismiss very real security and privacy concerns by saying "no problem, nobody's watching anyway." What I choose to read or view on the Internet should be nobody's business but my own. Further, I should be able to determine with certainty the source of the information I'm accessing, and that the information is being received in its original, unaltered form.

The problems with the modern Web are not inherent to the HTTP and HTTPS protocols. This website is served over HTTPS. It has no tracking code, no cookies, and uses very limited Javascript. This site remains usable even in a text-based web browser. Because I choose to code this site in such a manner. The problems with the modern Web are not technical, they are people problems that can be solved if web designers and programmers would only choose not to use the antisocial elements that make the modern Web so terrible.

There are projects like Gemini that seek to modernize Gopher. I applaud the authors for not dismissing the objective shortcomings of Gopher and instead actually trying to fix them. However, I do tend to think they are barking up the wrong tree. They are trying to solve the problems of feature abuse with a supply-side solution: restricting the available capabilities such that features which might possibly be abused are simply not available. Setting aside that this approach generally doesn't work (see: Prohibition, the War on Drugs, etc.), it also overlooks the history of why HTTP overtook Gopher in the first place - because it was the more flexible, extensible protocol.

Tue 2020-06-23 23:41

So, the President of the United States tweets a statement that Rule of Law will be enforced in our nation's capitol:

There will never be an “Autonomous Zone” in Washington, D.C., as long as I’m your President. If they try they will be met with serious force!

And Twitter puts an advisory on the tweet:

This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about abusive behavior. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public's interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.

Because Twitter calls the President's statement of fact a "threat of harm".

SMFH. Well, I guess that's scientific evidence that TDS is a real thing. Or it's a sign that Twitter has finally jumped the shark and gone from a fetid cesspool of human discourse, to an asylum run by the inmates that is now on fire.

If Jack Dorsey had a group of anarchists peaceful protesters forcibly take over his neighborhood and declare an "autonomous zone," I'm guessing he'd be on the phone to the police within seconds demanding the use of "serious force" to remove them. It's all fun and games until it's your house getting burned down.

Mon 2020-06-22 15:24

Apparently, Andrew Yang is fine with perpetuating our dystopic surveillance culture as long as Big Tech gives token payments to its users for all of the personal data they siphon up. Setting aside the fact that this pipe dream will never happen - purely for reasons of corporate finance - users of Big Tech platforms are already getting paid for their data. They are exchanging their data for digital services. Why should those platforms sweeten the deal with cash payments that would basically destroy their profit model? Google and Facebook aren't charities, and they aren't public utilities.

If you don't like surveillance capitalism, then convince Big Tech to offer a direct capitalism alternative and pay for the services you use. Seems like that would be a common sense idea to anyone who doesn't live in the "I want everything for free" mentality. I didn't think my opinion of Andrew Yang could get much lower but he keeps pushing that bar down. Next week he'll probably suggest that Apple should pay people to own the latest iPhone because people want iPhones, Apple has lots of money, and it's not fair that you have to pay for stuff.

Sun 2020-06-21 18:32

Michael Corn at Salon says that we’re losing the war against surveillance capitalism because we let Big Tech frame the debate. That the issue of personal data collection, reuse, and sale has been manipulated and mislabeled by the Big Tech firms under the heading of "privacy".

All of the Big Tech platforms and websites have "privacy policies" that they provide links to that no one ever bothers to click because they know it will just be a 20-page wall of text in thick legalese. If you do take the time to read the "privacy" policy you'll find it says that they (the platform or website) collect all of this data about you from your smartphone, your voice assistant, your browsing history, etc., and their policy is to only give it to people and agencies who give them money. Your personal information will only be shared with a tight knit circle of thousands of paid advertisers, thus keeping it "private".

Except, that's not what "privacy" means. Corn rightly points out:

Privacy in this case means freedom to engage in conversation or thought without unwanted or unknown surveillance.

When it comes to taking measures to protect one's own privacy, Corn states this:

We are told to "resist" by abandoning digital services; ... Yet this very neoliberal notion of personal agency fails to acknowledge the role these services play in modern life. Being asked to resist only punishes those of us struggling to preserve our privacy.

So there's the rub. He wants the convenient, useful service but he also wants actual privacy in his use of the service. Okay, so then what does Corn propose?

The preservationist solution is simple and easy to visualize. Imagine a world where we didn't have to figure out how to reign in Facebook. Where creating a set of regulations wasn't something we had to do, but rather Facebook (or Google, or the furniture store down the street) had to figure out how to operate with the principle that personal information may not be bought or sold. That is, we preserve our privacy by simply forbidding our personal information from being used as a commodity.

That solution solves the first half of the problem in the phrase "surveillance capitalism". But what about the second half? The very business model of the online platforms is to collect personal information and trade it as a commodity. Take that away, and how do these companies survive? I'm sure Corn has a sound proposal for that also:

Would this mean the end of Facebook or Google? Of course not. These companies have legions of bright energetic people working for them and they'd quickly adapt.

They'll "quickly adapt" ... somehow. You can actually visualize the hand-wave in that sentence. Even before I read his bio I knew from that one statement that Michael Corn must be an academic with no experience in business. For those folks like Michael who have never run so much as a lemonade stand, let me explain how this works:

If you remove the "surveillance" from "surveillance capitalism" what you're left with is "capitalism" - trading payment for goods and services. The problem is that for years companies like Google and Facebook have been propagating the illusion that their services are "free". The people who use them have never paid money to do so, they just went to a website and signed up. But data centers, huge Internet pipes, corporate offices, and the "legions of bright energetic people" working in them all have associated financial costs. Someone, somewhere has to pay real money in order to have the infrastructure to provide those wonderful, convenient services that Michael accurately pointed out above - no one wants to give up.

The truth is, those services were never really free. Users "paid" Google and Facebook for their services by giving those companies personal information. In turn, Google and Facebook then collected that personal information, packaged it up, and sold it to other companies (advertisers) for real money. That money then paid for the infrastructure and the people who keep coming up with cool new services that everybody wants. And the circle is complete.

Everyday, more and more people are starting to wake up to the idea that this status quo is not to their advantage and like Michael Corn, are saying "hey, these companies should stop abusing my personal information." And from a moral perspective, they are right. But that's only half of the equation. If you don't want to give up your personal information but you still want the services those companies provide, then someone has to pay actual money.

If it won't be advertisers who pay, then it will be the users who pay - in the form of subscription fees. What people should be demanding is not that Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al stop trading in personal information and somehow figure out how to run their businesses without it. Users of those services should be demanding that the companies behind them provide a paid subscription option that allows use of the services without advertising, and without data collection. In point of fact, Google already offers such a service but it's aimed at businesses rather than consumers. There is no reason Google couldn't offer the same paid no-ads option for personal accounts. There's no reason Facebook couldn't do the same.

If users of online platforms want to end the practice of "surveillance capitalism", it's not enough to simply demand an end to data collection. You have to offer those companies a better, more honest business model by demonstrating that you're willing to engage in a "direct capitalism" alternative and pay for the goods and services you receive.

Sun 2020-06-21 08:06

I really need to stop reading the news, as it does nothing but depress me and cause me to wax philosophical and write long-winded political screeds.

So instead, here's a fun project I've been working on lately:

Hacktop 2020

Hacktop open Hacktop closed, front Hacktop closed, rear

This is my new mobile computing platform and smartphone replacement (for data services - I still use a phone for voice and SMS).

It's a GPD MicroPC UMPC with an Intel N4100 CPU, 8GB of memory, and 256GB SSD. It has on-board dual-band WiFi and Bluetooth, as well as features you won't find on any smartphone such as a physical keyboard and trackpad, an RS-232 serial port, a full-sized HDMI port, a wired Ethernet port, and three USB 3.0 type A ports. Those USB ports provide tons of expansion options. I've added a Yubikey 5 Nano smartcard for private key storage and attached a USB 3.0 hub with hardware switches and SD card reader slots to the lid. The hub provides ports for a ZTE MF833V LTE modem and U-blox7 GPS module, each of which can be manually turned off and on only when needed.

Best of all, the unit runs my standard desktop OS: openSUSE Tumbleweed. All the portable data connectivity of a smartphone (and then some) but with no need for mobile apps, app stores, etc. I just use all of my standard FOSS applications, including GNU Emacs. With Syncthing and generous internal storage, my hacktop has all of the same files as my other desktops and laptops.

Battery life on the device is limited to about 5-6 hours. That may not sound great compared to a smartphone, but consider that it's 5-6 hours of active use time. The hacktop suspends when the lid is closed, with standby time of up to a week in my bag.

Speaking of bag, the obvious downside is that the hacktop won't fit in your pocket. But considering the security, privacy, and performance benefits - it's a trade-off I'm willing to make. Plus, I just love the look of the thing. It's bulky, hacky, and has a definite bolted-on quality that I find appealing - in contrast to the streamlined but boring aesthetics of modern consumer electronics.

Sun 2020-06-21 01:14

I had a memory today that sort of caught me, evolved into a deep thought, and then morphed into a quasi-epiphany.

The memory begins when I was a small child living in Dexter, Maine in the latter half of the 1970s. It was a late summer afternoon, and I had been playing in the empty residential street with a group of my friends. My mother leaned out of the front door of our house and called me home. I said goodbye to my friends and bounded across the lawn to our house.

My mother saw my beaming face and asked, "What are you so excited about?"

I said, "Danny has a pet turtle and he was showing everybody!"

"Oh, that's nice," said my mother. She didn't recognize the name I had mentioned and, glancing over at the crowd of kids, asked "Which one is Danny?"

I pointed and said, "He's the boy in the red t-shirt."

My mother's face changed. The corners of her mouth curled down a little and she squinted her eyes.

When I turned back and saw my mother's face, there was an expression there I didn't yet recognize at that age. Confused, I asked her what was wrong.

"Huh? Nothing. That's great." My mother smiled thinly down at me, then she ushered me inside and told me to go wash up for dinner. She went into the kitchen and stood at the sink, staring out the window.

There's some things I haven't yet told you about Danny. He was the same age as me. He liked turtles and Tonka trucks. And he was black. In fact, he was the only black kid in my neighborhood, the son of a couple that had moved to Dexter just a short time prior. Danny may have been the first black person I ever met. He is certainly the first black person I remember meeting.

Now at this point, you may have already come to the conclusion that my mother was in fact, a bigot or a racist. That the expression on her face was that of disapproval over the fact that "those people" had moved into our safe, peaceful, white neighborhood.

But if you would, please hold back your outrage for just a bit longer.

For some background on this memory, you should know that my mother was born in 1946 in the northeastern United States, into a white working-class family in urban Connecticut. She was the youngest of three children, and the only daughter. She grew up some years prior to the Women's Liberation movement, but even in the early 1960s young women were trying to change what it meant to be female in America. As a girl, my mother was rebellious and possessed of unpopular ideas. As my mother got older, she found that she desperately wanted more out of life than to be relegated by default to the role of wife and homemaker.

My mother was just a teenager at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. She graduated high school shortly before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a year after Martin Luther King led a march on Washington and delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. When I was a teenager, she would later tell me that King had been inspirational to her in those years. That the idea of blacks struggling to get an equal seat at the table resonated with her own feelings and experiences as a young woman trying to be treated as an equal in a man's world. That core idea of equality as a guiding principle acted as a lens through which she viewed the world around her - showing her the way it was and the way it should be. I think it can be fairly stated that my mother believed strongly in equal rights for all people, and wanted to see an end to both racism and sexism in America.

So standing on the doorstep of our house in Dexter a decade later, my mother did not scrunch up her face at the mention of my black friend because she was a racist.

In truth, my mother had felt a swell of emotion in that moment and was trying not to break out in tears at the realization that her young white son didn't even know that he had a black friend. That children born just a few years after all the marches and protests, violence and division, hatred and anger - could possibly grow up "color blind." To me, Danny wasn't the black kid. Danny was the kid in the red shirt who had a neat turtle. To my mother, that was almost a miracle.

That kind of color blind equality is what we used to strive for in America less than half a century ago. To see all people as equal, endowed with the same rights and privileges regardless of their color or gender. To create a world where the color of one's skin has no more bearing on one's life than the color of one's eyes.

I feel like there was a point where we as a nation were on the path towards that vision of equality, and then somehow, somewhere we lost our way. 40-something years after that summer afternoon in my memory, the focus in our country has shifted from trying to see everyone as the same to instead having a hyper-awareness of our differences.

The popular methodology now seems to be to identify people not as unique individuals but as members of one group or another, sorting them into boxes as homogeneous widgets classified along racial, ideological, sexual, and political lines. Ultimately, it seems the goal is no longer unity as a country but rather to divide people on the basis of nothing more than the most superficial qualities. To reinforce group identities and to focus one group's anger and frustration against another. The very notion of equality has been superseded by a hierarchical structure based on the relative privilege of opposing groups with "oppression" no longer being something to overcome, but rather serving as the social currency with which to purchase compliance of others to one's own demands.

I've seen enough of the road behind to know that if we don't change course soon, the road ahead is going to take us right off a cliff. I only hope that there is time yet to turn the wheel.

Fri 2020-06-12 00:30

I really feel like the Black Lives Matter movement squandered an opportunity in recent days. They organized, took to the streets, shook up the establishment, and when they had the attention of the nation they demanded... "defund the police." An idea which (almost) nobody in this country will actually get behind when the political rubber meets the road. I can think of two different demands that would have not only directly improved the lives of black Americans in poverty, but would have likely garnered widespread support from many Americans:

  1. End the expensive, destructive, and ultimately pointless War on Drugs that has been waged in the U.S. for nearly 50 years. Decriminalize at a national level the possession and sale of common narcotics (at least cannabis, if not cocaine and certain psychedelics, as well). Discharge sentences and expunge the convictions of non-violent drug-related offenders so that they can rejoin society without the crippling stigma of a criminal record. Maybe take the roughly $40 billion we spend as a nation every year enforcing morality and instead spend it on improving the many failed inner-city school systems in our country.
  2. Repeal the ill-considered, socially damaging policies that encourage and even enforce single-parent households for families in need of government assistance programs like welfare and public housing.

Low-income black Americans are impacted by the War on Drugs to a disproportionate degree, criminal convictions for even non-violent drug offenses are basically employment-ending events, and over 50% of black children in America grow up in a home without a father. While I agree that we need police reform and demilitarization I don't think what high-crime neighborhoods need are fewer (or no) cops. And I don't think that's what the people who actually live in those places really want!

Unfortunately, the problems faced by black Americans in poverty are complex and not readily solved by three-word, easy-to-chant, fits-on-a-banner solutions. Hang on a second! I've got one that might actually help to solve our country's problems:

"Defund career politicians"