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Monthly Archives: November 2009

I think it may be time for Fedora and I  §

to part ways, maybe next time I upgrade from F12 to something else. I’ve just had it with the excessively locked down defaults. It’s taken me a week to get my system back together after the upgrade, and 90 percent of that time has been spent actively fighting SELinux, PolicyKit, and other security-oriented nonsense.

I understand shipping with defaults that draw a strong barrier or line between “inside” and “outside,” i.e. locking down network ports. But I’m just not cool with having to track down and change security policies so that I can access my own video card from the console (i.e. get my desktop to work on my own screen).

USB flash drives? Locked out. Scanner? Locked out. Virtual machine? Locked out. Desktop graphics? Locked out.

No, I don’t suppose it’s an undoable task to either edit group memberships or an xorg.conf file or udev rules to give myself permission to use my own display from my own console.

But it’s fucking stupid in a “desktop” and “user-oriented” Linux distribution. No user wants to be locked out of his or her own USB ports and 3D graphics hardware at the console and by default.

That’s just madness. Someone inside Fedora has teh terror of teh h4x0rz and is going nuts. Next you’ll be locked out of the keyboard by default unless you connect a VT100 to a serial console via RS232 and login to a sandboxed/jailed area to pass a quiz about VAXen hardware and the personal lives of Kernighan and Ritchie in order to be given a chance to enter a 200 character password to unlock the keyboard so that you can hack for four days blind to unlock the screen so that you can log in and start trying to unlock your own god damned WiFi card so that you can visit Ubuntu and download that instead before you lose your mind.

Oh, and the SELinux notifications (also on by default) to the tune of 200-500 per hour notifying me of stuff like the fact that someone pressed a key and Linux can’t be sure of who it was because computers don’t have eyes or artificial intelligence either? NOT HELPFUL.

Get your shit together, Fedora security policy people. I think I remember reading that Fedora doesn’t actually have a security policy, that it’s an ad-hoc process up to package maintainers, who each try to implement security on the assumption that nobody else will. Now may be the time, Fedora people, to come up with a security policy so that people like me that have been with this basic system, version-by-version, since Red Hat 4 (and have written multiple books about them) don’t bolt for other distributions.

It’s the cold, quiet fire  §

that is unsettling to most.

Dismiss or pathologize the successful at your peril,  §

says the experienced competitive failure.

My life has been a long and mixed journey of “having been misunderstood.”

I am always and will forever be “not quite like everyone else.”

But of course they all just think I’m unsociable and lazy and that all of this is a euphemism for, or even better an excuse for, failings.

Fine. My failings make me different.

Only I am also tremendously successful with them.

Concept for an installation  §

though someone has probably already done it:

A giant computer operating on water pressure, hard-“wired” to do something like calculate and display epoch, or primes, or…?

It would be massive, couple of football fields or something. Maybe put it on a 45-degree incline. The idea would be that it replaces electrical current with water pressure in an intricate circuit of water pathways. It would be great if it was in fact run by gravity.

The UNIX way  §

used to be a kind of gold standard for computing and its flexibility, power, rapid development properties, and stability. It was based on three basic concepts:

(1) Modularity

(2) Transparency

(3) Control

Modularity (1) meant that systems and networks were built out of little, simple building blocks with standard input and output methods and basic functions and properties that could forever be quickly and simply reused and recombined in new and novel ways, ensuring a startling level of efficiency and an unmatched ability to adapt and master novel complex tasks over time. Transparency (2) made this not only possible but practical, by ensuring that every part of the system—even the tiniest component, configuration file, interface, or current system status—was well-documented and accessible with information easily searchable and readable online at any time. Total control (3) was always left in the hands of the system administrator (root) who, it was assumed, as the owner of the system, should be in total control; the administrator was always right and all aspects of the system were accessible to him or her. This kept developers’ assumptions from limiting the ways and contexts in which UNIX could be used, and made it one of the best systems around for trying to solve problems, whether radical or no.

I have had a hell of a week or two with computer operating systems. And the thing is, all of this has been lost. The UNIX way is no more, so far as I can tell.

I’ve been a die-hard Linux user since 1993. Before that, it was SunOS. I’ve flirted with and been comfortable with BSDs over the years as well. More and more, these are all trending toward the Windows model:

(1) No modularity, just giant, monolithic, purpose-specific applications

(2) No transparency or consistency for anything below the user interface

(3) The sense of an almost total lack of control

I’m frustrated with the direction that Linux distributions and the UNIX world in general have taken. More and more on Linux, one does not feel as though one is the administrator of one’s own system, in total control with documentation that falls readily to hand and modular tools at the ready. Instead what’s there is that creeping feeling (so common amongst Windows users) that it’s not entirely clear how the system is making decisions, what subsystems are at work in them, where failures might be occurring, how to fix such failures, or whether it’s even possible to do so without having to re-engineer or re-code significant parts of the system.

The Mac OS X and OpenSolaris experiences, for all the applause these have received in their own ways, are roughly similar. In the “golden age” of UNIX one always knew that reading the manpages and/or taking the time to fix a problem was an investment in systemic knowledge that would pay off doubly as (1) a solution to the problem, since this could always be achieved, and (2) practical skill and understanding that would facilitate the solution of future problems and foster sound practices going forward to head off the recurrence of the problem at hand. Now, one has that old familiar Windows-world sense that it’s not a good investment of time to try to solve most problems; either install or buy some new monolithic tool, re-install, or switch systems.

UNIX/Linux/Mac OS have become Windows.

Before deciding to be dubious about this, take a moment to imagine the good old-fashioned UNIX culture. Things like:

(1) root (user) and wheel (group) accounts

(2) /etc files and /dev nodes controlling nearly everything

(3) BSD or System V style init scripting

(4) man, apropos, whatis, which, STDIN, STDOUT, sockets, pipes, IPC, etc.

Now compare these to:

(1) policykit, selinux, packagekit, other opaque and non-modular tools

(2) Nothing in /etc, the birth of multiplying XML “registries” across filesystem

(3) Ramdisk-based graphical, uninterruptable, message-free init processes

(4a) Nothing added in man(N) for any/all new major system components

(4b) No point to apropos, whatis, which since none of these are “hand”-callable

(4c) No modularity, ability to leverage these using any form of pipes or IPC

Basically, the old UNIX philosophy of “we are a bunch of well documented tools over which the user is forever in total control” has been replaced with the Windows philosophy of “I am The System and you do not need to and cannot possibly know me in my complexity; nor should you, for I have been programmed to fill your every need, and if I don’t, your needs are likely illegitimate.”

This rant has been brought to you by the combined insanities of HAL, DBus, Plymouth, SELinux, PolicyKit, and GNOME.

Most frustrating invention ever  §

is the set of “forward page” and “backward page” keys on the Thinkpad T60 keyboard. Whose fucking idea was this? Let’s make two keys, and put them right next to the left and right arrow keys, that take you forward and backward in a browser.

Then, in every one of the operating systems in your multi-boot setup, you have to remap your keyboard, and often do it after various software updates that reset your nondefault settings as well.

Or, if you’re too lazy to keep up with this, when you try to move your cursor forward or backward on a web form, you’ll often slip and move a page forward or backward, losing all of the data you’ve already input—say, things like bank account information, or blog posts, or database forms that are many pages long.

Superb!

Fucking ergonomics disasters. And while we’re at it, can we also complain about:

– The totalitarian crapfest that is GNOME these days

– The fact that KDE3 is now largely obsolete despite its greatness

– The fact that KDE4 is buggy, ugly, and slow and has nothing at kde-look yet

– The fact that OSx86 is fragile and unstable on a T60 hackintosh

– The fact that OS X is thin and lacking in depth and flexibility anyway

– The fact that Windows XP, Vista, and 7 are non-starters

Let’s see… Anything else?

Can anyone just make nice hardware and software any longer? More than twenty years later, early Sun Sparc pizza boxes and SunOS + CDE still hold up well and can even run Mozilla convincingly. Granted, these workstations were $30k in their day… but still. You’d think someone could come up with a platform that doesn’t suck.

I’m beyond frustrated these days.

Linux: SUCK.

BSD: SUCK.

Apple: SUCK.

Microsoft: DOUBLESUCK.

What else is there for small machines? BeOS/Zeta/Haiku?!

Fucking.

And I just don’t have my OSS evangelism joy any longer. I had it way back around the time of my first book in the late ’90s. FSF! GNU! GPL! Revolution!

These days I feel like I’d just like something to work, or for someone to be willing to take bug reports and/or patches just for the sake of it, like they used to do in the olden days, without being so busy trying to have strategies and capture marketshares.

So evangelical christians  §

have once again hit cities and college campuses and are again handing out hundreds of thousands of copies of books like Darwin’s The Origin of Species that have been butchered (text rewritten to make it nonsensical, chapters or important sections of argument and evidence removed to make them seem frivolous and unbelievable, and so on).

No doubt the followers involved actually believe that these books are the actual texts, the genuine articles. They have thus made up their mind about topics like evolution or cosmology based on lies from their own leaders, without having understood or even seen the actual argument and research, and without realizing this fact, and are now out there doing their best on behalf of “God” to spread this misinformation as truth.

I suspect it is high time to start taking the “best” from the bible (you know, the violent bits, the anti-semitic bits, the bits about stoning and raping and so on) and printing only those parts, distributing these as “The Holy Bible” without comment around the world for free. We’d be one step nicer than these asshats and not add questionable chapters or including pamphlets that claim: “This pile of violent, sexist, racist, genocidal filth is the entire text of The Holy Bible, which religious people would have you believe. Never read it? Try to find one peaceful, nonviolent thing in it! There isn’t one!”

Sorry, religious family and friends but by weakening public faith in and willingness to support science, lots of your comrades may be condemning the human race to an early end. By holding tea parties and making bumper stickers with biblical or Nazi references, your comrades are contributing to the general milieu that makes interfaith terrorism possible. Yes, you, Christians, are the terrorists as well; your thought is analogically identical to that of Osama bin Laden.

But of course, for the tremendously religious, the early end of the human race and national warfare between ethnically different groups is actually somehow doctrinally comforting.

I don’t know what to do about people vis-a-vis religion. I am tired of hearing through email, SMS, and phone about the evils of Obama, the hoax-ness of global warming, the dangers of government social programs, the fakeness of evolution, the illegalness of immigrants and the wrong-directedness of “this country” and its purported descent “into communism” or “into Nazism” or other laughably stupid suggestions.

More and more, I feel guilty just having these conversations, trying to make rational arguments or have judiciously moderate exchanges. It’s exhausting. It’s offensive. And more to the point, it indicates that we occupy two different, completely fundamentally incompatible realities and goals.

I want my society to be: socialist, with nice, fat government (of, by, and for the people) programs to feed, clothe, provide health care and housing and regulation for and on behalf of the public; possessing a nice, fat environmental consciousness that does indeed forbid crazy religious and capitalist lunatics from trashing the entire planet, entire communities, or individual people in order to make points, make money, or make war against those that are not colored or cultured in the same way; heavily rational and instrumental and science-based with a general value-orientation toward human species survival and bodily quality of life so that the nonbodily quality of life issues can be pursued in independent ways by independent individuals.

This idea of a world scares some of you shitless. But so does your idea of a world scare me shitless. So I don’t know what to do.

Just, everybody, stop talking politics and religion with me at all. It’s not helping, and it’s going to push us all apart.

Absolutely hating email  §

has become one of my favorite pastimes. This is ironic because just a few short years ago I absolutely loved email. In fact, I wanted to live my life essentially through email. Of course back then, email was the place where my friends and family were, and that in nice, manageable doses.

These days email is simply where the fires are. Not little fires, but giant all-consuming, raging wildfires that cannot be put out no matter how much you work on them. Email is the suffocating mountain of future labor beneath which I will be buried and with which it always feels vaguely as if I am digging my own grave.

I am directly responsible for nearly a hundred students this semester. They email me, on average, twice a week each. I get 3-5 emails on average from each of the dozen or so faculty members with whom I have words. Then there’s all of the professional mail and mail related to prospective jobs, publishing, and of course family and friends. I average about 150 replies a week (more than 20 a day for every day of the week), it takes tons of time, and it’s not nearly enough; I fall ever farther and farther behind my email queue, and it gets ever more complex and difficult simply to sort through the thing.

Also, I have to take more walks in the park.

How to fix the Evernote u11 bug  §

There are a bunch of people around the ‘net posting about the “u11” sync error in Evernote on iPhone (perhaps elsewhere). If you are experiencing this problem, you have HTML embedded in your most recent change/note that is trying to synchronize (perhaps through a copy/paste, etc). Evernote doesn’t support syncing embedded HTML. You can identify this by the blue highlight that such text will have when you view the note.

To solve the problem, either

(1) Delete the note from both your phone and/or your account

or

(1) Use the Evernote app on the phone to log into Evernote

(2) Turn off Wi-Fi and 3G and go to a no signal area so that Evernote won’t try to synchronize

(3) Open Evernote and open the affected note for editing

(4) Remove the portion of the note containing embedded HTML and/or links

(5) Turn networking back on and synchronize

Basically, don’t post anything with HTML into Evernote. It’s a plaintext-only application/solution.

There’s a certain combination of  §

erudition and fearlessness amongst top academics that is both tremendously appealing and at the same time incredibly deceptive. Deceptive because when both appear to dominate at the same time. To presume that erudition must dominate is to miss the incredible amount of risk-taking and freeness of thought that is necessary for top scholarship, yet to presume that risk an freedom dominate is to miss the fact that risk and freedom not fully tamed by erudition are, simply, idiocy.

Science literacy in the United States  §

is not what it could be.

I decided to see if I could find a weather app for the iPhone that would give me a little more information than the built-in app. Reading user reviews revealed that lots of people are dissatisfied with those currently on offer. Apparently they only show radar and satellite views from the last hour or two, when the app would be so much more useful (people say) if they showed radar and satellite views of an hour or two hours from now.

Gosh, that would be totally useful. Also, it would be great if E*Trade would give me the stock reports from tomorrow rather than today. I don’t know why the idiotic application designers don’t think of these things.

Work and digital technology are so  §

inseparable anymore that over the course of my entire lifetime as a thirty-something, I have only held a single job—my very first—that didn’t amount to sitting in front of a computer using software and networks.

I’ve been an administrative assistant, a salesperson, a designer, a consultant, a coder, a research analyst, an author, a managing editor, a fraud investigations officer, and now I’m working to become an academic. I’ve just spent seven hours working on various “tasks” and checking them off of my “to do list.”

Everything, all of it, the roles, the tasks, the task list, despite the different functions and titles and requirements and instances, was using software and networks and little, if anything at all, else.

I think I decided to become an academic simply because it grants me the luxury, rare in today’s world, of standing up for a while every now and then, away from the screen. It’s either that or go back to my first job on an appliance delivery crew if I want a little freedom from the screen.

In any sufficiently complex system,  §

all definitions need to be a matter of relative thresholds rather than of discursive exhaustions. Or, to put it another way, perfectionism is unavoidably paralysis in any typical urban, informational, or postindustrial context.

There is a difference between the meaningful Zen-completeness of spending a lifetime trying to write the perfect haiku when one aspires to be a haiku master utter wastefulness that inheres in spending entire days on single mundane to-do list tasks trying to make each one a work of normatively-measured perfection.

“If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” they say.

“The good is the enemy of the great,” they say.

“If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself,” they also say.

But who gives a shit about the right or the great any longer? Do it wrong! Delegate it to random associates! It doesn’t matter! This is a dense world of essentially infinite connections. We have moved from the model of the doubly linked list to arbitrarily complex recursion and distribution structures. All critical effects are a matter of quantity because quantity effects are no longer logarithmic or linear (subjective) as a matter of operational orders of magnitude, but exponential (external).

There is no “right” any longer in the unitary sense. There is only quantity, multiplication, iteration. If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly a million times over. The good is more productive than the great. If you want something done right, toss its minima into the system and then iterate the delegation—connect, connect, connect.

In other words: if I want to get anywhere relevant in the world in which I actually live, I have to stop being such a perfectionist and start tossing as much garbage as possible that points back to myself into the system.

“Quality” is of no relevance, or rather, quality now inheres in visibility, not in objectivity.

Also: I have wasted far too much time on this blog post. Case in point.

A certain amount of discipline is required today to achieve just the right tenor of undisciplinedness. It is hard work to let go of a certain conception of hard work.

Therefore, the watchwords of the evening are:

Discpline*

Perspective*

* The use of these terms in this instance is meant to specifically undermine and at the same time to iterate their practical operational identities.

Best thing about the New School?  §

The endless list of idiosyncrasies, oddities, internationalisms, organizational foibles, and architectural quirks that make it a space of tremendous opportunity and creativity.

Worst thing about the New School?

An entire campus of buildings and vast expanses of empty floorspace with no desks or chairs to work at. The nomadic classroom-to-classroom lifestyle that results from trying to compensate for this by ducking into empty classrooms only to be ejected by an instructor with fledgling students in tow mere minutes later in each case.

Most characteristic thing about the New School?

The absolutist mix of entirely-right and entirely-wrong that forever seems to characterize everything here.

Trying to “get organized”  §

is like trying to “develop super powers.” It certainly doesn’t come naturally and it has the whiff about it of not wanting to come at all. Still, I have the GTD book and have been reading and making notes. I also have an app with web sync that’s meant to help. Ania says this is all a part of my not-so-latent technophilia, but I honestly have felt swampedand bewildered this semester and would love to achieve some form of mastry.

I’ve always been a very “intuitive” organizer, but I upon further reflection I think what this has always meant was that any task not currently in the top two or three priorities in my mind was simply oven the finger and allowed to die. I’m not a natural multi-tasker, but that’s definitely what the moment calls for.

In other news, the semester is almost over. Where in hell’s name did it go? This moning I opned up the reading lists and found that there are really only three weeks of readings left. I know there’s a Thanksgiving holiday in here somewhere, but it’s absolutely shocking nonetheless. Given how intense the summer was, it’s shocking to realize that not only is the summer over, but the season that followed it is drawing to a closeas well.

Entire lost seasons: good sign that someone needs to increase organizational proclivities.