On leave again

Thoughts

I’m sitting here on this dreary, overcast Sydney morning, setting my out of office notice! I’ve also redirected my work phone number, and have removed some of my VPNs. We fly out next Wednesday.

It doesn’t seem real… though we’re not going to Brazil. That’s a quality currency joke right there.


Querying TXT records with drill(1)

Software

In today’s installment of things you already know, unless you don’t, this is how you look up a TXT domain record with drill(1) on FreeBSD:

$ drill $DOMAIN txt

You’d think that I’d get that order right one of these days.

On NetBSD, macOS, and Linux, the same applies for dig(1).


Waking up to coffee shop chatter

Thoughts

Photo of a blue painted coffee mug by Pixloom on Wikimedia Commons

I overheard another conversation between the manager of this coffee shop and a customer this morning:

I woke up today without back pain, so it’s a great day.

Beautiful. At my age, I woke up today, so it’s a great day.

I miss when I used to use images on posts, so I went digging around Wikimedia Commons and found this lovely hand-painted specimen by Pixloom. I imagine Sparx from the old WWR days would have posted something like that.


An app to not be run over

Internet

I’m tired, can’t sleep, and remembered something I needed to write about.

A large American automaker published a press release discussing a proposed new mobile app designed to make roads safer. Paragraph six contains the most pertinent details:

The concept smartphone app running on a pedestrian’s phone uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) messaging to communicate their location to a connected Ford vehicle. If the vehicle calculates a potential crash risk, [it] can alert drivers by the in-vehicle screen showing graphics of pedestrians, bicyclists or more with audio alerts sounding.

The popular press have been vague on how this would work, and there are plenty of confused people on threads about the topic. But it’s clear from the PR that the car company intends for this to be a smartphone app that would communicate over Bluetooth Low Energy to vehicle “infotainment” systems.

Infotainment has to be among the most obnoxious new words we use, right up there with zine, sheeple, and utilise.

It sounds dystopian on its surface, and I was tempted to leave it at that grim observation! But the more I peeled back the idea, the more nonsensical it became. Let’s take a drive.

Playing devil’s advocate

Assuming this car company is sincere, it sounds reasonable that we’d want to give people as much situational awareness as possible when driving.

Human minds don’t rationally weigh the safety of one form of transport over another; otherwise nobody would have fears about commercial aviation or Evangelions. But it’s still scary to think about how something as mundane and routine a part of our lives as car traffic kills millions of people a year, and injures scores more. We’d be screaming at aviation manufacturers and throwing their managing directors in gaol if their machines approached even a tenth of this. I’m looking at you, Shinji.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t own a car, to which I’m sure comes as no surprise! But I concede that I see plenty of irresponsible pedestrians walking across roads with their heads buried in their smartphones, or otherwise blissfully unaware of their surroundings. If those devices can signal to a motorist, or an “autopilot”, that they’re in a vehicle’s path, the motorist could take action and save their life; such as a vehicle may determine their life is worth saving when plotted among other variables.

Western society has prioritised cars over people in most urban settings for a century, so this could be a reasonable and more cost-effective mitigation for safety. Addressing root causes takes work, something I inexplicably find myself putting into this rambling post at 4 in the morning because I can’t sleep and am scared of cars.

Well, it’d be a good mitigation for those rich enough for a smartphone… that’s a whole separate kettle of burned rubber and potholes.

Taken in context

You may have noticed I coached the above section with plenty of weasel adverbs. The truth is, there’s not enough evidence presented in the press release to conclude such tech will improve safety. It also drives in plenty of new problems, unloads them, then gets snitty when a pedestrian has to walk around it because its blocking their path.

Sensors to detect pedestrians aren’t new, as this article by Jon Glasco in February demonstrates. Smarter cars also have LiDAR and other tools to monitor their surroundings because, turns out, humans didn’t evolve to process information at the speed presented to them in cars. But while those reported systems rely on sensors embedded in crossings to alert approaching vehicles, or passive scans of their environment, this proposal actively involves smartphones of those who “opt in” to being tracked.

“Opt in” is in scare quotes, because we’re coming back to it! Like a metaphor for something you come back to. Ruben, please remember to replace this with an actual metaphor. Asuka?

Jon’s article provides some important context, emphasis added:

A study based on US road crash data revealed that “vehicle speed when approaching a pedestrian crossing is critical to pedestrian safety.” Although Americans drove less during 2020, “speeding drivers taking advantage of empty streets and the increasing presence of larger, more dangerous vehicles have made it much easier for drivers to kill pedestrians.

And what’s the best selling personal vehicle in the US? A light truck made by the same company proposing this app, which study after study shows raises fatality rates:

Overall, light trucks pose a significant hazard to other users of the highway system but on average provide no additional protection to their own occupants.

Funny how that works! In a macabre, grim way, not in an outwardly haha way. It’s not hard to see why, given the hideous grills of some of these penile compensators are now taller than most people.

Safety can’t be assessed in isolation… Shinji. I can’t take their PR as sincere or in good faith when they’re also actively making cars larger and therefore less safe for pedestrians. I literally saw an ad for this company on the side of a Sydney bus last week that had the proud tagline that it gets bigger. Wow they really invite the overcompensation angle on themselves; that’s why I’m impervious to it.

(Yes, I’m writing this from Sydney, Australia. I thought the tagline at the top of every page would indicate my location, but I’m sure I’ll still get comments from people raging that I’m a hapless Californian or New Yorker who doesn’t know how important these increasingly dangerous vehicles are to the rest of the US. In their defence, is a phrase with three words).

Instead, this PR reads like someone pushing responsibly onto victims for a problem they’re causing, or at least exacerbating. The report makes no mention of any of this.

As one of my professors always cautioned to say, tech must be assessed on its potential for abuse. This is true even if well intentioned, and must include societal impacts if it’s to be deployed in the real world. It’s why the whole ecosystem of web3, NFTs, and crypo-currency get an F out the gate, even if there are technically interesting ideas buried under the weight of nonsense.

Pedestrians have an obligation to look both ways before being a proverbial chicken, to make use of pedestrian crossings, and to obey traffic lights. There’s a whole angle about the history of jaywalking we won’t get into here, but suffice to say I’m tired and should probably get back to sleep.

This proposed system expects pedestrians to don the electronic equivalent of high-viz to make themselves known to larger and more dangerous vehicles. Once introduced, it’s not hard to imagine that those who don’t opt in will be seen as reckless; maybe even irresponsible. Why don’t you want to be safe?

This sets a worrying precedent. I could envisage insurance companies mandating their customers have these apps installed, or they would refuse to pay out injury or death claims (either buried in their terms of service, or spruiked as a feature to reduce premiums like no claim bonuses). If you think that’s a stretch, I envy you having never dealt with an insurance company.

Imagine the tabloid press reporting that someone was maimed or killed not just because of reckless driving, but because the victim didn’t have the app installed. I saw an article a few weeks ago on a rag in a coffee shop that alleged a pedestrian deserved to be hit at a level crossing because they were wearing dark clothes at night. I’m surprised they didn’t excuse a creep because the victim of their leering wore a short skirt out of an anime convention, or that the second hand smoker should have moved because it’s just that simple! We’re already not on equal footing here.

The technical aspects

Despite being an engineer, the technical issues of such a proposed system aren’t half as interesting or worrying to me. But they’re still worth mentioning.

If this car company came out with an app, how many other car companies would follow suit? Would pedestrians or cyclists require a folder full of these apps, which they’d need constantly assess? What potential impact would there be on privacy? Or if it became a standard, would its operation be mandated?

Bluetooth Low Energy isn’t precise, or realtime, and phones aren’t designed to be used (abused?) like this. As one example, assuming one’s BLE-enabled phone had a 100 metre range, that’s not much distance to alert a car and have its driver or “autopilot” take action. The press release mentions the tech would be useful where pedestrians are “hidden behind obstructions”, but that would limit the range even further, and shrink that reaction time to a second or less.

The system assumes phones are people, and therefore its potential for abuse and false positives make it a non-starter. Accidentally drop a phone on the street, or take active measures to stash one under a utility cover or lamp post, and you’ve rendered the entire system pointless, and potentially even more dangerous as people swerve into other traffic to avoid people who don’t exist. The PR leads us to believe that it “calculates a potential risk”, but how useful or trustworthy is that if it’s fed erroneous data?

What about phones in the pockets of other motorists? Would pedestrians be expected to enable walking mode to be granted permission to use a footpath? You could program some smarts into it to only report someone moving at walking speed, but now you have another system making assumptions about its operating environment.

We’re also trusting a car company has our privacy in mind when designing a smartphone app we’d be installing, and presumably leaving active permanently, to protect us from their contraptions, much to the chagrin of our batteries. What data are being transmitted? Given the industry’s track record, I’d consider any of their security claims dubious.

Conclusion

Even without further technical information, I think it’s fair to judge the app’s effectiveness based on our current understanding of the capabilities of current smartphone hardware, what it represents for the industry, and how it conveniently reframes the safety debate away from increasingly dangerous vehicles and onto victims. I’d say it’s convenient, because it is.

I’m willing to be proven wrong; being hit by a large car while walking on a suburban footpath in broad daylight, and again while crossing a street on a green pedestrian light, is enough for me. It’s two more times than I’d want anyone to get. Maybe Putin. Notice though how I even had to defend my own actions as a pedestrian, as though I’d otherwise deserve it or be culpable in my own demise at the hands of a motorist for the audacity of walking. WALKING!? Who does THAT!?

That’s the real takeaway. I resent the idea that we need to actively broadcast don’t run us over. Surely we deserve more than this.


What’s going on

Thoughts

Hi everyone. 👋

I’ve mentioned in a few posts that we’re going through some issues. Many of you have since emailed some kind messages for which I’m hugely grateful. I suspected readers of this blog over the last eighteen years were wonderful people, and now I have proof. You know who you are.

Photo of a mid-afternoon in Chatswood

My dad Rainer had another health scare again recently. He’d had heart trouble a few years ago for which he received a coronary bypass and a strict regime of follow up visits and lifestyle changes. The surgery terrified me for his sake, but it also made me question my own mortality in ways I wasn’t prepared for, given how similar he and I look, and how healthy he’d been until then.

Fast forward to this year, and what was to be a routine test turned up something potentially worrying. Had it turned out to be the doctor’s biggest fear, he would have been struck with the same disease and treatments my mum had for most of my sister Elke’s and my childhood. Reintroducing tests, doctors, surgeries, and hospital visits into our lives surfaced a lot of repressed trauma.

Against his wishes, we also found out via someone who is either clumsy or blasé with this sensitive stuff. She’s also shown no remorse or interest in apologising for repeatedly stepping in it, and exacerbating an already distressing experience. It’s bitterly disappointing and unhelpful.

Needless to say, is a phrase with three words! This hasn’t helped with some existing mental health issues that have accumulated over the last few years. It’s lead to some dark places which I’ve since been pulled out of, but it was scary. I’ve felt that I can tackle a few things at a time, but when a sufficient number accumulates it all becomes a bit much.

I apologise if this all came across a bit self-centred; I promise I’ll be back to my discussions of tech, coffee, anime figures, and travel just as soon as I’m over this mental hump. Thanks for reading. Time to watch an eclipse.


The 86Box PC emulator

Thoughts

For someone who’s been using virtualisation tools since Virtual PC on a 1999 iMac DV, and who makes his living documenting and architecting systems on Linux Xen, I had no idea of the existence of PCem, and of the 86Box fork. ozzmosis sent me a screenshot on Mastodon, and I’ve been hooked on it ever since.

Compared to other virtualisation tools like QEMU and DOSBox, 86Box aims to faithfully reproduce original hardware going back to the first IBM PC. It does this using original ROMs, coupled with period accurate virtual drives, interfaces, sound cards, GPUs, and NICs.

This is an important distinction. It can run on non-PC hardware like Apple Silicon because it isn’t a hypervisor. It also means vintage operating systems receive hardware they expect, and for which they have driver support. If you ever wanted to see how Windows 3.0 or OS/2 looked with 256 colours on a Tseng VGA card, this is how you do it.

A few 86Box VMs showing Encarta 95 running in Windows NT 3.51, the BIOS on my 486, and OS/2 Warp 4.5

This software has been nothing short of amazing for me. I’ve been able to reproduce all my childhood computers down to the BIOS, and with the exact graphics and sound I remember fully supported on the OSs I ran. The team suggests you duplicate the binary if you want multiple machines, but I’ve also been using PowerQuest’s Boot Magic like I used to to divvy up my machines.

The software struggled to emulate more than a 486 SX and Sound Blaster 1.5 board on my sister’s i5 MacBook Air, but even the most kitted out Pentium II machine ran flawlessly on my M1 MacBook Air at a coffee shop, and my home FreeBSD Ryzen box. There’s something that tickles me about an RTX 3070 emulating an S3 ViRGE, and an M1 pretending it has a PnP AWE Sound Blaster daughter card.

There’s also a practical element to it. My childhood Pentium 1 has reached an impasse for storage with its flaky socket 7 VIA chipset, but I’ve been hesitant to throw even more money at it to fix it. This emulator has let me experiment the feasibility of using different SCSI cards before buying one second hand, including OS support and a ballpark idea of performance.

You likely already know about this tool if you’re into retro hardware and emulation, but if you were living under a rock like me, give it a try!


Book buying is aspirational

Media

The imitable Alan Baxter brought me out of my self-imposed blogging break with this great observation:

Book buying is aspirational af. One day I’ll have time to read them all. You can read when you’re dead, right?

Surely I haven’t done the exact same thing… right? I checked my bedside table and Kobo ebook reader for purchased books I’ve yet to read or finish. This is but a tiny fraction:

Books from my Kobo, some (most?) of which I haven't read yet... whoops.

(I’ve gravitated back to light novels and manga over anime of late, not due to a misplaced belief that the proverbial book is always better, but because I can read them at my own pace).

At my current rate of reading, I’ll get through this backlog never. I don’t think I’d want it any other way.


Shoko Miyata’s 2022 qualifier floor routine

Thoughts

Liviefromparis has been doing a great job uploading footage from this year’s World Gymnastics Championships, which have been a most welcome respite from current family issues.

Skoko Miyata’s uneven bar and beam routines showed a lot of promise, but her floor routine was so much fun! There’s something about those who can pull off all some of the most complicated choreography of any sport imaginable, and do it with personality and whimsy.

Recording by Livie from Paris of Shoko Miyata’s floor routine
Shoko Miyata finishing her routine

As my mum always said, you can’t help but smile back when a professional at the top of their game does. Thank you!


End of October 2022 links

Internet

I’ve been reading a lot to keep my mind off things. Here’s a selection:

  • This article by Philippa Perry in the Guardian is one of the best I’ve read about self-care in a long time. I feel the guy’s guilt at feeling selfish.

  • Wouter over on Brain Baking had such a fun trip down memory lane with Visual Studio 6. I had the academic version of the short-lived Visual Basic 5.0, but it looks similar. It makes me want to break out my old Mastering VB and Delphi CDs!

  • Did you know there’s a secret staff cafeteria at Nankai Namba station, and at Osaka Airport? Something tells me a gaijin like me would stick out like a sore thumb, but Clara could probably sneak in undetected.

  • I’ve started watching the videos from EuroBSDCon 2022. This one about memory barriers by Taylor R Campbell was fascinating.

  • ozzmosis shared with me the 86box, a fork of PCem that faithfully emulates classic IBM hardware. Building our childhood 486 down to the CPU and BIOS while I’m in waiting rooms has been a genuine joy.

  • The Komi Can’t Communicate manga is a lovely, good natured look into awkward people trying to find their footing in the world.


Taking a break e312643b

Thoughts

We’ve got a lot going on for the next couple of weeks, so I’ll be spending all my time on that instead of writing.

I couldn’t remember how many breaks I’ve taken here over the years, so I appended the first four octets from a Data::UUID output, like a gentleman, so I’d have a unique identifier and title for this post. I take these things seriously.

Catch you all again soon 👋.