The Australian government’s NBN backflip

This news was necessary, but so predictable it was as though we all predicted it was necessary.

Australia’s crumbling telecommunications infrastructure—privatised for pennies and run into the ground—was in dire need of replacement by the 2000s, let alone the 2010s. Okay the copper was already in the ground, but that’s not my point. The Labor government a decade ago proposed a Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) National Broadband Network to replace the aging copper. Fibre is durable against water, future proof, and faster than copper, dontchaknow?

Something for the public good shouldn’t need a terse economic justification, like not wanting strychnine in your drinking water, or relying on a cost-benefit analysis for not stabbing yourself in the eye with an Ethernet crimper. But even the single system would become cost-effective with economies of scale, and profitable, high-density urban areas would offset the construction and maintenance of rural installations.

I drew the comparisons with Gough Whitlam’s original 1970s vision of decentralising Australia. Rural Australians have held the short end of the stick for a long time, and the NBN could have given a significant economic opportunity, to say nothing of remote education and healthcare. I also compared it to the power grid in 2011, after a tutor I had at university at the time dismissed it because wireless would work just as well. He was saved by the bell when I asked what the antennas would be plugged into.

(Fun fact, antenna spelled backwards is annetna, which almost looks the same but isn’t. Just like the new FTTP upgrades the coalition are proposing. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves… which the NBN under their stewardship had no risk of).

Then, as any wary Australian IT worker will tell you, things went belly-up. The Labor government was voted out for Tony Abbott and his populist coalition, cheered on with some of the most one-sided, embarrasing Murdoch press I’ve ever seen. The instructions from the top were literally to “destroy” the NBN, which Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull successfully achieved with his flawed multi-technology mix; bizarrely to the delight of a small but vocal slice of the Australian technical press.

Once again, city dwellers like me would get superior service than rural Australians; though even we would be short changed. Construction of the future-proof fibre optics—already in thousands of homes—was halted, and new installations were replaced with a basketcase of fixed-point wireless, expensive greenfields copper, unfit-for-purpose HFC, tin cans with string, and outdated Fibre to the Node boxes that would cost more to install and upgrade than simply building FTTP from the start. Meanwhile, the shambles and uncertainty left a gap in the market for private companies to snap up the profitable areas and lock people to a single provider while leaving rural Australians—you guessed it—with rubbish. Just like we all warned. I hate it when I’m right.

The only good thing that came from FTTN boxes was being able to warm myself from the waste heat generated from one of them while waiting for a cab in North Sydney. Turns out copper needs tons of power in addition to being slower, but fibre optics use these things called internal refraction and photons which…

(Yes Mr Abbott, you had a question? Pardon, what was that? …no Tony, a photon is not a phone).

Well wouldn’t you know, it took a pandemic and half the country working from home for people who short-sightedly dismissed the NBN as a pointless white elephant useful only for gaming and streaming video to realise… hey, maybe we should be deploying fibre everywhere and upgrading these ridiculous FTTN boxes so the network actually works. Kishor Napier-Raman’s writeup in Crikey had the best summary; it’s jaw-dropping what those politicians said and did.

So now, finally, Australia is a step closer to getting the network it was supposed to have in 2010. It won’t be for everyone, of course. It will also take a long time, and surprise surprise, cost more than if we’d just done it properly the first time. Malcolm Turnbull’s promise of “faster, cheaper, sooner” broadband failed on all three counts and, best of all, we taxpayers will once again be footing the bill.

I hold out hope we’ll get a Royal Commission out of this. I’ll bet there’s even more context and back story we don’t know about.

OpenSSH 8.4 released

OpenSSH 8.4 was released yesterday. It includes several signifigant changes for FIDO/U2F authentication, some of which are listed as potentially-incompatible, but are still great to see. Other things that caught my eye:

scp(1), sftp(1): allow the -A flag to explicitly enable agent forwarding in scp and sftp. The default remains to not forward an agent, even when ssh_config enables it.

sshd(8): allow sshd_config longer than 256k

And I’m always pleased to see NetBSD portability notes:

sshd(8): support NetBSD’s utmpx.ut_ss address field. bz#960

This exquisitely-maintained software powers so much of the Internet. It got me thinking that for all my talk about donations, I should put my money where my mouth is and donate to the OpenBSD Foundation. Even if you’ve never heard of OpenSSH, you’ve also benefited from it.

Rodriguez and Sailor Moon

My Hacker News post from earlier today was written on Friday, but I held back posting it for fear of RSS spammage. Then Saturday rolled by and I had such a migraine I didn’t get around to posting it; go figure.

To make me feel better, Clara bought me a re-release of Rodriguez’s legendary Cold Fact LP, and a delightfully bright Sailor Moon shirt. Along with feeling lucky that I have a girlfriend who knows me so well, it reminded me of that Hacker News thread in another specific way; namely whether it’s appropriate to include aspects of our personality and hobbies on technical blogs.

My answer is: of course! I love reading what other interests people have besides the initial reason I came to their site. Everyone’s lived experiences and interests are deeply unique, and it’s fun when your Venn diagrams intersect more than you expected. You like Ansible and craft beer? You’re a developer with a ham radio licence? You’re in infosec and a photographer? These are all fantastic!

More than all the other bad blogopshere advice back in the day, I vehemently disagreed with the premise that that you should limit yourself to one topic. Sure, have an overarching theme or a primary area of expertise, but don’t feel afraid to dip your toes elsewhere from time to time. We all benefit when you do.

Hacker News: Why aren’t we all more serious?

Another post of mine appeared on Hacker News last week, this time thanks to luu. It was one I wrote back in July responding to the charge that my blog isn’t serious enough, a touchy-feely topic I didn’t expect given HN tends to appeal to hard computer science and engineering types. I was also surprised at the number of positive comments.

The biggest takeaway I took were an affirmation that not everything needs to be a hussle, or justified in the context of money. tayo42 had my favourite comment:

I really wish we didn’t put so much pressure to be professional and serious all the time. Working takes up 1/3 of my life currently and I can’t actually be my self. Another third is sleeping. So for only 1/3 of my time I can actually act like my self. I hate that there is a pressure to talk a certain, act a certain way, express my self a certain way. I think we really need more of a emphasis on being human, less “circle back” and “work streams”, more jokes, more smiling and experimenting.

KaiserPro also raised a point I hadn’t considered: being too serious could also limit the reach of your work in unexpected ways:

They couldn’t seem to grasp that if I’d have written [his sweary post in] a dry, clean style, not only would they have not read it, but they wouldn’t have understood my point. [..] Humour, irreverence and swearing are all tools to convey a meaning, point or story. Used well (I am fully willing to admit that I have not been masterful in my use) they can create a mental image far stronger than any other metaphor.

There’s also the angle that simply fewer people are writing online these days, or are confining themselves to social networks. There are so many reasons why this is sad, not least because they’re surrendering control, propping up invasive business models, and relegating their important ideas to ephemeral social posts. But just as important is the lack of personality: I miss seeing people’s personal sites in the 1990s, and how people presented their blogs in the 2000s.

Curiously, the few negative comments had to do with my site mascot Rubi, which I’ll admit didn’t surprise me. Once people on mobile found her—she only appears in the desktop theme—a few proceeded to discuss her appropriateness. One specifically called out her “hiked-up skirt” (since deleted) which amused Clara who drew her, and who often cosplays in similar getup. It was a good thing they didn’t see Rubi in her summer swimsuit and shorts for that brief month a few years ago!

I’ve always had a small anime badge somewhere on my sites since at least 2006, back when it was SOS-Dan to demonstrate my allegiance to Haruhi. Before then it was Star Trek insignia. I love stumbling on another personal site and seeing a different aspect of someone’s personality shine through. That’s what makes the web fun. If I lose a few readers from doing that, they probably weren’t the kind of people I wanted to spend mental energy on in the first place.

My September 2020 iOS application picks

  • The Equinix Customer Portal is much handier than futzing around in your email or using their mobile site to get data centre access.

  • Ghost doesn’t have an official blog posting app for iOS, but Publisher for Ghost is as good as one for the people I host other blogs for.

  • HE.NET Network Tools has ARP, Bonjour, DNS, iperf, ping, portscans, traceroute, whois, TLS, and more in a polished interface. I’d expect nothing less from the engineers behind Looking Glass.

  • I never thought I’d never see NetNewsWire for iOS, but it’s great to have my favourite Mac RSS reader from back in the day on my portable telephonic device. I just need to figure out if/how I can sync it with TinyTinyRSS on my FreeBSD cloud server.

  • The replacement Nikkei Asian Review application is infinitely better than the old one. Just log in with your subscriber details.

SortedFood oranges

From their latest Pass It On challenge.

I'm going to segment an orange whilst I talk.
It's not an orange... I know it's not an orange! But you know, it's orange.

A talk show host apology

I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve posted about celebrity news here in sixteen years, including this post. But I saw people twittering about an American talk show host’s apology and had to see it for myself. Yahoo News and Business Insider had the details.

I fundamentally believe people are capable of redeeming themselves. Those who are sincere, act with contrition, and are compelled to right what’s wrong—ideally of their own volition—can and do become better people. Our legal systems are designed with this in mind; people make mistakes, and motives do matter. Incidently this is why I’m against the dealth penalty, and other eye-for-an-eye punishments that leave the world blind.

Being able to forgive is also powerful, and liberating. I’ll be the first to admit I struggle with it. You wilfully wrong me or the people I care about, and I’ll hold that grudge for a long time. To be clear, I fully admit this is a personality failure on my part.

Someone abusing their position of power is also nothing new; one could reasonably argue that we’re not cognitively programmed or capable of dealing with the level of notoriety and attention fame brings. I get a few dozen comments on Hacker News, and I have trouble sleeping from just a few negative ones, let alone someone who cops it from millions. I’m not excusing or justifying bad behavior, nor am I saying I can relate at all, but between the sensationalist headlines and online outrage machine, the actual truth and circumstances of an event are so often a casualty.

Now having said all that, is a phrase with five words. The reason I write about these things is because I see it play out so often, and it always follows the same predictable storybook. It doesn’t matter if it’s an open source software leader, or a talk show host. You treat your subordinates poorly, get called out for it, and eventually the pressure leads to an apology and/or resignation. Why is this always the case? Is it really such ingrained human nature? What does it say about our work environments and culture? Someone smarter than me could probably explain.

The reason why this host’s public apology wrings a little hollow comes down to her public “be kind to people” mantra. It’s not the hypocricy, so much as it is the rules for thee but not for me attitude that so many working for her had to cop. Imagine being a backstage hand hearing her say that before your own tongue lashing, all the while gritting your teeth because your family needs to eat.

I also don’t at all buy the line that “I learned that things happened here that never should have happened”. The issue was her treatment of her staff. I’ve heard and given enough apologies to know that when you coach it like this, you’re entering “I’m sorry you were offended” territory.

My mum watched a lot of her original sitcom and her talk show, and I even read her My Point… And I Do Have One book in the early 2000s. It was hilarious. But I’m exercising my own freedom to direct my attention elsewhere from now on.

Linux Journal is back!

Just over a year ago we said goodbye to one of the magazines that informed so much of my childhood and early career. Their coverage of the BSDs and other *nix OSs were also hugely useful, and helped get Beastie on magazine shelves in bookstores.

They’ve been rebooted by Slashdot Media, and are soliciting feedback and past writers to get involved. I already read Doc Searls’ blog daily, but would love to see his name appear in articles again.

Give us a subscription link, and I’ll damn well pay for it too!

Consolidating running software

How do you deal with running software on your desktop? I had to be careful with the phrasing: I would have said open software, but then it would sound like I’m asking about open source software, or software that works with open standards. Terminology is hard.

I’ve always treated running software the same way I do with services and daemons on servers. Each open application has to have a specific purpose for what I want to do at that point in time, and if not, it gets closed. This habit was ingrained from 1990s experience where too many open programs pushed resources to swap, and before protected memory meant one crashed program could bring down dozens! It also potentially helps with security. But I’d be lying today if I didn’t admit the real reason is cognitive overhead.

I don’t like my FreeBSD Xfce panel or macOS dock showing more than, ideally, eight running applications. It’s too much to track, and results in visual clutter which impacts my anxiety. Eight sounds like it should be plenty, but once you get a browser, PIM client, all the chat apps you’re expected to run, a couple of text editors, a terminal, office software, and a PDF viewer with your LaTeX output, you run out fast.

I’m thinking now what I can do to minimise these further. The time for open chat standards and programs like Trillian and Pidgin are sadly long gone, so I’m trialling Ferdi to consolidate them. PIM for work unfortunately needs to all be in Outlook, but Thunderbird still works for all the other stuff for personal projects. And do I really need three different browsers, especially for someone who doesn’t do frontend web dev?

Which leaves editors, superficially the simplest software in the bunch, but they’re anything but. That was some great alliteration.

I was a huge fan of the original TextMate on Mac, and still consider it the gold standard of editors. But I forced myself to make the switch to MacVim/gvim, in part so I could also use it on FreeBSD, but also becuase I knew vi anyway and felt like I could use it more broadly. Every blog post written since my move to static site generators has gone through it.

… And then an evil colleague introduced me to emacs and Org mode, and it happily reminded me enough of TextMate—and a touch of Lotus Agenda—that I use it concurrently with Vim. Software hasn’t gelled with me this quickly since nvALT which, perchance, I also still run as my text-based wiki.

At some point I should bite the bullet and move over to one editor for everything, and based on my use case it seems emacs fits the bill. I learn things the best jumping in the deep end; and might find it useful as a general text editor too. But then, I’m so fast with Vim, and nvALT’s search is still the most elegant I’ve used. Then I think life is too full of damned compromises already, and I end up sticking with three.

So there we are, I’ve narrowed down my open application list, and only half are editors! At least I’ve cut down a bunch of Electron.

It also has numbers in it

Last January I wrote about numbers that don’t contain seven in them. This list also contains numbers that don’t have seven in them:

  • Seven
  • Capillaries

Wait, damn it.

Hacker News on my audio kill switch post

Stargrave shared my audio kill switch post on Hacker News yesterday. In short I discussed the latency between hitting the mute button and some overly-loud audio being cut. I argued that regardless of technical considerations in defence of it, this was still poor ergonomics.

There were a lot of great discussions, the biggest of which involved analogue dials and physical buttons in general. I agree; fly-by-wire audio control we do now feels less precise, but also just isn’t as much fun. There’s a reason people are moving back to mechanical keyboards; in part we want to feel more connected with the tech we’re using.

JD557 had a point I hadn’t considered:

Since the user is complaining about the way Mac OS handles the audio buttons, I’m surprised that he doesn’t mention the problems with HDMI.

Absolutely; this is equally frustrating. I rarely use HDMI on my Macs anymore, but audio controls going dead after plugging in an HDMI display was highly frustrating. mrkwse claims this is in line with the HDMI specification; perhaps because they intended the cable to be used for televisions and amplifiers. Regardless, it’s still not great for computer ergonomics.

Several of the other comments indicated the post hadn’t been read, such as making excuses for the hardware that I already addressed in the original post. But overall, for someone dealing with anxiety and social awkwardness, the majority of it was civil and interesting. Thanks :)

Life lessons from Hololive’s Amelia

This post is dedicated to @grass_desu, who I’m sure is delighted.

I have a guilty—though perhaps not unexpected—confession: Clara and I have started watching Hololive English vtubers Watson Amelia and Mori Calliope. I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle the Uncanny Valley, but it’s fun when you see it more as performace art or a live-dubbed anime put on by a team of talented writers, actors, and artists.

They’re especially great for some lighthearted banter and fun after heavier days, until they also blow your mind with something profound as well!

Hello Amelia, how do you tackle doing anything when you feel too demotivated?
When it comes to stuff like this, it's okay to have bad days. You know you're not gonna be perfect.
You're not gonna be in tip-top shape every single day!
You're not gonna accomplish great things overnight. You gotta work a little bit at a time... and then a little bit more.

So much this I want to jump up and down! It doesn’t just apply to demotivation, it’s also helped a lot with anxiety.

It reminded me of Merlin Mann’s dependency discussion back in 2013. It sounds painfully obvious, but I can’t count the number of times a work, family, or personal task has seemed insurmountable before I step back, atomise it into discrete sub-tasks, and make a deliberate effort to only focus on the first one.

It never feels like it could or should when you start with that first task, but each subsequent one gets progressively easier.

When scp’s misleading warnings attack

scp(1) can still surprise me. I got the following error when uploading a file to a specific directory on a remote server:

local$ scp file.ext remote:/directory/
==> scp: /directory/: Is a directory

Yes, and I’m Ruben Schade! How are you? Do you like crumpets? Sometimes I like to walk around with mismatching socks while drinking tea out of a hat! I know it’s a directory, that’s why I’m telling you to put the file there!

Then I checked:

local$ ssh remote
remote$ ls /directory/
==> ls: /directory/: No such file or directory

So the issue was the target directory didn’t exist. Which makes sense, but contradicts what scp(1) said, at least to any reasonable person.

Compare and contrast the warning when you specify a full file path:

local$ scp file.ext remote:/directory/file.ext
scp: /directory/file.ext: No such file or directory

Today I learned.

A turkey, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Clara and I went for a wander around Neutral Bay and North Sydney again yesterday, and found the Forsyth Park. It’s a beautiful little urban forest which opens out to a cricket pitch and children’s playground on the south side.

I liked that we were able to see a brush turkey, and the city in the distance :).

Ethernet papercuts

You know those class of problems that are just irritating enough to be noticed, but not enough for you to warrant spending time fixing? Canonical classed them papercut problems, which I liked.

Exhibit A: I’ve been using the same USB-A to Ethernet dongle on MacBook Pros for a number of years. I say number, because any year would technically be a number, and I can’t remember. But it’s been a while.

The problems started earlier this year when network shares and SSH connections would drop, but Mosh consoles and VPNs wouldn’t. The longer timeouts on the latter, and Mosh’s very design, were sufficient to maintain their connections even when something failed, but other network-dependent services couldn’t handle these phantom dropouts. I just laughed it off as another flaky macOS Catalina issue, and didn’t look into it further.

Keen-eyed readers may have spotted what my problem was right in the second paragraph. I realised last month the USB-A to USB-C cable I was using to connect the Ethernet dongle to the Mac wasn’t especially tight. It never looked like it was being unplugged, but it was electrically disconnecting just enough to leak Ethernet packets all over the table. The issue I’d been living with since February was a flaky USB connection.

So I checked the budget, allocated a couple of coffees away from the drinks envelope, and bought a new USB-C to Ethernet dongle. And who’d have thunk it, no more disconnections! It’s glorious!

The Kobo Forma as a manga reader?

I’ve read so much manga on my Kindle Paperwhite, most recently the Astra Lost in Space series again by the legendary Kenta Shinohara, and more Fairy Tail than I care to admit. But the screen was always slightly too small to read a manga comfortably, and the contrast was sometimes crisp, sometimes not.

Manga fundamentally can’t be reflowed on electronic paper displays, like regular text can. E-ink displays can’t redraw fast enough to implement pinch-to-zoom or scrolling without jarring screen flashes. The Kindle lets you tap individual comic panels to zoom in, but like my jokes it gets old fast. It’s a shame, because unlike Western comics, manga is tantalisingly close to being the same size as a regular paperback novel.

The only solution then is to scale the page down to fit the screen. And it wasn’t until Clara and explored Kinokuniya again that I realised just how much detail I was missing with all that electronic smooshing. Which is a shame, because at least half the reason one reads manga is to enjoy the art.

Which is why I’m so intrigued by the Kobo Forma I just learned about. It gets much closer to a standard manga page than my Kindle:

  • Some pretty shojo manga I stole from Clara ≈ 225 mm
  • Kindle Paperwhite ≈ 153 mm, 68% the size
  • Kobo Forma ≈ 203 mm, 90% the size

It also has a couple of other important advantages, like having a pronounced chin to hold with forward and back buttons that are always positioned under your thumb; just my first Kindle in 2011. It also natively reads epubs that other online stores publish. Converting to Kindle’s mobi was always a pain, and it never quite preserved the formatting. I’ve also decided to transition to buying through the Kobo store for $reasons, and their iOS app has come a long way since I tried it years ago.

Ebooks come with their own shortcomings, but they’ve been wonderful for me for so many reasons that I’ve talked about here over the years. I’d also cough up the huge price tag even over something like a multi-functional iPad, precisely because the outside world couldn’t interrupt me with notifications and the Internets.

I might do some more research, but price aside this looks like it could be the one. Reading does wonders for my anxiety, and I could see getting so many hours of downtime and joy out of one.

The 2020 Ig Nobel Prize for Medical Education

These awards are always great, but this year had something a little more serious:

Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, Narendra Modi of India, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Donald Trump of the USA, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan, for using the Covid-19 viral pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can.

But my favourite goes to the Acoustics Prize winners, who discovered that helium affects the croaking of an alligator, just as it does the voice of a human:

Stephan Reber, Takeshi Nishimura, Judith Janisch, Mark Robertson, and Tecumseh Fitch, for inducing a female Chinese alligator to bellow in an airtight chamber filled with helium-enriched air.

REFERENCE: “A Chinese Alligator in Heliox: Formant Frequencies in a Crocodilian,” Stephan A. Reber, Takeshi Nishimura, Judith Janisch, Mark Robertson, and W. Tecumseh Fitch, Journal of Experimental Biology, vol. 218, 2015, pp. 2442-2447.

Twenty posts per page

I’ve updated my RSS feeds and blog to show the last twenty posts, instead of ten. I’ve used ten since I started this blog in 2004, for bandwidth reasons as much as inertia. But then I realised plain text doesn’t amount to all that much more, and I don’t use as many inline images thesedays given I’m usually strapped for time.

I’m not sure if I’ll keep this, but I’ll see. Ten is still a more satisfying number, not least because I can express it on my hands. Twenty involves my toes, which are less photogenic.

Apologies for the backdated spam if you just subscribed.

Holstein Switzerland

Every now and then I press Wikipedia’s Random Article link, and came across an article about this northern area of Germany:

Holstein Switzerland (German: Holsteinische Schweiz) is a hilly area with a patchwork of lakes and forest in Schleswig Holstein, Germany, reminiscent of Swiss landscape. Its highest point is the Bungsberg (168 metres above sea level). It is a designated nature park as well as an important tourist destination in Northern Germany situated between the cities of Kiel and Lübeck.

Regarding the name:

[…] goes back to the 19th century when holidaying in Switzerland was particularly popular amongst the well-to-do. As a consequence, other regions strove to add the name “Switzerland” to their description.

There are some gorgeous landscape photos on the article, but I especially liked the composition of the one below by Oliver Raupach in 2007. I wonder what the woman on the right is looking at?

Photo of park benches overlooking a lake scene. A couple sits on the right bench, and a single woman on the left gazing into the distance.

If we could demand the same security answers

I do a lot of technical writing and compliance documentation for clients that use our platform at work. The industry dismisses this as boilerplate busywork and merely a necessary evil for doing business, but I think they invariably ask exactly the questions we should all be asking.

Here’s an obfuscated example:

s12.7: Does your company Privacy Policy limit the amount of data and information that can be collected from customers, business partners, third parties, and others that use your products or services to only that which is required to provide those products and services, and does it limit the time such information can be retained?

And another:

s14.1: Do your third parties have access to unencrypted user data?

Or this one:

s18.12: Does your company employ ZFS for data integrity, Vocaloids for musical ingenuity, and antacids for structural indigestibility?

Imagine if we, the general public, had the power to compel websites to submit to this line of inquiry. We all know certain social networks would fall afoul of every single metric.

The fact companies deem it necessary to ask these as part of due diligence says it all. If companies can’t trust another with confidential business data and have to rely on legal documentation, why do sites targeting consumers get a free pass on personal data that could be used for all manner of involuntary and nefarious porpoises?

(My dad always deliberately substituted purpose for porpoise. I’m bringing this family folklore out for the world to enjoy).

I’m starting to think we need to codify these questions as legislative requirements. Our industry has had plenty of time to demonstrate good faith, which thus far it broadly hasn’t.