FreeBSD 12.1 available

FreeBSD 12.1-RELEASE is out now! Read the release notes and errata.

Screenshot showing a Terminal prompt with uname in FreeBSD 12.1

Vanilla Xfce on this release is nice!

clang/llvm, several archival tools, KDE, Gnome, OpenSSL, and plenty more userland tools and drivers have been updated. trim(8) and BearSSL have been added. And, perhaps weirdly, I’m most excited for the fact sh(1) now has pipefail which is awesome for someone who admittedly spends more time writing shell code than anything else thesedays.

Thanks to the release team, the Foundation, and everyone involved. And also a shoutout to John-Mark Gurney for making BitTorrent magnet links available. Let’s save the project some bandwidth and share the love.

I’ll be updating OrionVM’s FreeBSD 12.x template this week, otherwise you can use the standard freebsd-update mechanism in your existing VMs to jump to 12.1. Note that your disk will still show as FreeBSD 12.0, because that was the original template.

Union Pacfic’s steam turbine locos

What does one do when bedridden, can’t eat, and are barely able to think? You substitute comfort food for nostalgia. In my case I was a rail nut as a kid, so I watched a bunch of classic locomotive documentaries on YouTube, like a gentleman.

Last week I learned that not only were steam turbine locomotives a thing, but that UP in the US ran them in revenue service. Union Pacific’s website describes the locos:

Union Pacific was the only railroad in the United States to own and operate gas turbine locomotives. The turbine, rather than an internal combustion diesel engine, drove an alternator/generator to supply electricity to electric motors mounted on the axles. Union Pacific’s gas turbine fleet totalled 55 locomotives.

The turbine fleet pulled freight trains between Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Ogden, Utah. Although tested on the Salt Lake City to Los Angeles run, their tremendous noise quickly made them unpopular in California. The locomotives were nicknamed “Big Blows” for their deafening jet engine exhaust noise. The huge locomotives, with their big appetite for fuel oil, eventually fell victim to the more efficient diesels, and in 1970 the turbines ran their last miles.

This below video on Union Pacific Turbines of the Wasatch was amazing for its VHS-era graphics as it was for the content and pacing. Modern engineering documentaries always have to have RACE AGAINST TIME with rapid-fire editing and metal music, but this was happy just to take you on a journey.

Watch Union Pacific Turbines of the Wasatch

UP operated several generations of these turbines from the 1960s to early 70s on mainline freight services where they ran most efficiently. They were paired with auxiliary diesel-electrics for low speed and shunting, and ironically enough repurposed steam locomotive tenders for carrying their cheap bunker fuel. I love that they were painted in that classic yellow-and-red livery.

At the time they were the most powerful prime movers in the world, but they suffered several drawbacks. Along with the ones listed on the UP site above, the turbines couldn’t be double headed, because in tunnels the leading turbine would starve the other of air and it would flame out. Their exhaust was also so fast and hot it could melt bitumen road surfaces they passed under! And the bunker fuel had to be pre-heated and was difficult to refuel; though using tenders instead of internal fuel tanks later helped.

By the early 1970s the economic advantage of bunker fuel over diesel had also burned up, so UP retired their last turbines to the scrapheap or museums. One day I’ll make it to Illinois to check one out.

In the meantime, I realised they have the units for Dovetail’s delightful Train Simulator. Here I am driving my recently purcahsed UP Turbine through my beloved Marias Pass map in Montana. These locos never went anywhere near this part of the US, but the steep grades and long distances suit it surprisingly well. If anything, I need to check I’m not breaking the speed limit as I power up the hills with such commanding force.

Thanking Medicare and RNS staff

Where have I been this week? Hospital! But aside from some splitting headaches and a strictly controlled diet of dry toast and electrolyte juice that’s wearing thinner than some of my jokes, I’m doing well.

Earlier this week I came home and felt pangs in my stomach. Within an hour I was throwing up and dry retching continuously, and couldn’t even keep water down. I thought I could sleep it out, but Clara wasn’t having any of it and insisted I go to hospital.

I went to A&E at the Royal North Shore, got checked out by a nurse, was taken into a room with a bed and given a couple of IV drips, then bundled into another room and observed for the night. I was rocking a 38.8 degree fever and my chest was tight, but by the morning I was able to take small sips of water, and could gingerly eat a elecrolyte icy pole.

All this to say I went to hospital, they got my Australian Medicare details, and immediately treated me. No paperwork, no payment, they saw someone in need and helped me. Thank you :‘)

Pet Shop Boys, Only the Wind

Play Only the Wind (2018 Remaster)

I haven’t done a Pet Shop Boys edition of Music Monday for a while. This is one of my favourite songs from the Pet Shop Boys album Behaviour. I mean, it’s one of my favourite songs in general, and it’s one of my favourite songs from Behaviour.

When life is calmer, I have no doubt
No angry drama, a storm blows itself out

Android biometrics in October 2019

Ron Amaddeo reported on the new Google Pixel 4 phone for Ars Technica, emphasis added:

When the Pixel 4 ships this week, it will be releasing to consumers with a face-unlock security issue that will apparently stick around for some time. Unlike the iPhone’s FaceID (and Google’s earlier face-unlock system on Android 4.1), the Pixel 4’s face unlock doesn’t look for the user’s eyes, so the phone could be pointed at a sleeping or unconscious owner and unlocked without their consent. This weekend, Google said in a statement that a fix “will be delivered in a software update in the coming months.”

And then Samsung reported issues with the touch sensors on their phones, as Tim reported for Droid Life from Samsung’s statement:

This issue involved ultrasonic fingerprint sensors unlocking devices after recognizing 3-dimensional patterns appearing on certain silicone screen protecting cases as users’ fingerprints. … To prevent any further issues, we advise that Galaxy Note10/10+ and S10/S10+/S10 5G users who use such covers to remove the cover, delete all previous fingerprints and newly register their fingerprints.

This has lead banks to take reasonable precautions, as reported in

“We’ve removed the app from the Play Store with customers with Samsung S10 devices,” Natwest said in a message sent to affected users. “This is due to reports that there are security concerns regarding these devices. We hope to have our app available again once the issue has been resolved.

These things happen, and demonstrate how difficult all this stuff is. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how the pundits would have reacted if this were the iPhone X’s launch. #SiliconFaceGate? Okay clearly more imagination than I can muster late this evening!

Condescending responses to tech questions

Ivan Kwan summarised why most of Reddit is awful:

I’ve spent nearly a year on r/singapore (Singapore subreddit), and I feel like it’s just not worth my attention anymore. The conversations there make it seem like it’s filled with edgy teenagers, trolls, and people trying too hard to be intellectual.

Twitter is arguably worse, but at least I’ve culled my following lists over the years, and instablock predictable trolls. But I am subscribed to r/sysadmin and a few others on Reddit, and both these said more than I could have regarding soliciting help online. CuddlePirate420:

… not as bad or as condescending as StackOverflow’s philosophy which questions your very reason for even existing. “You want to know how to do X? Why on earth would you want to do X? Knowing nothing about you or your needs, I guarantee what you need is Y.”

Empathy is hard. Dr_Midnight in response:

Experience has taught me that this mindset is extremely pervasive among programmers, and that it is not solely present on StackOverflow. Programming-language related IRC channels on freenode are among some of the most toxic places on that entire network when it comes to the sheer level of condescension and echo-chamber-like behavior.

My favourites were from Linux people saying using $distro would solve my FreeBSD problem, or that the solution to DOS or NetBSD on my vintage 486 or Pentium 1 tower was… to not use them. I counted sixteen references to actually on a thread before I turned off comments in 2012, with a subset naturally calling me an idiot contrarian. Because naturally if you use something others don’t, you’re just doing it for the sake of it. Or soju, or whiskey, or whatever.

I’m on board with Merlin Mann’s why am I not a potted fern? response. At some point it’s the only rational thing to do.

Rubenerd Show 398: The KLCC again episode

Rubenerd Show 398

Podcast: Play in new window | Download

24:32 – The Rubenerd Show returns to Kuala Lumpur after thirteen years! Playing a retrospective clip from episode 103 in June 2006, then back to October 2019 with Clara wandering around the Petronas Twin Towers and Jalan Ampang. I never thought I’d be doing this again!

Recorded in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Licence for this track: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0. Attribution: Ruben Schade.

Released October 2019 on The Overnightscape Underground, an Internet talk radio channel focusing on a freeform monologue style, with diverse and fascinating hosts; this one notwithstanding.

Subscribe with iTunes, Pocket Casts, Overcast or add this feed to your podcast client.

1977 kept coming up

Yesterday I was reading about the Glasgow Subway, then watched a video about the retiring of the first cable-powered carriages in 1977. Then John mentioned on an episode of Roderick on the Line that he had an adventure near the Lake Otis Parkway in Alaska in 1977.

What else happened during this time?

  • The Commodore PET was demonstrated at CES in Chicago and first sold, Apple Computer was founded, the Tandy TRS-80 was announced, and Atari releases the Video Computer System.

  • Jimmy Carter became US president, and Malcolm Fraser remained Prime Minister in Australia despite a 5 seat swing.

  • First use of optical fibre to carry network traffic, and the first TCP/IP test connecting 3 ARPANET nodes succeeds.

  • First test flight of a US space shuttle, on the 747 Shuttle Carrier. The wow signal is also detected by the Big Ear SETI radio telescope. And Voyager 1 is launched.

  • The original Star Wars opened in theaters, setting the stage for the far superior Star Trek films to come after.

  • In music, Toto is founded, Fleetwood Mac released Rumours, Steely Dan released Aja, Queen released News of the World, and both Elvis and The Supremes perform for the last time.

Thanks to Springsgrace on Wikimedia Commons for that great photo.

Remember the Mac PowerPC to Intel shift?

Henry T. Casey wrote an article about why he’s not moving to macOS Catalina, for similar reasons that Shaun King and I aren’t. He ended with this observation:

The last time Apple had such a system-changing update, it turned Mac OS into OS X in 2001, 18 years into that platform (the same amount of time Apple spent supporting 32-bit apps). I hope it’s at least another 18 years until we learn of the death of 64-bit apps.

Henry’s not the first person to say that was the last major system update, but it misses the PowerPC to Intel transition that started with 10.4 Tiger in 2006. We had Universal Binaries back then that supported both platforms, before the legacy code was removed in 10.6 Snow Leopard, and the Rosetta system to run PowerPC on Intel was removed entirely in 10.7 Lion.

This transition is a longer time coming, but similar in that it’s a wholesale removal of an architecture in lieu of a different one. There are a few theories as to why Apple are doing this, from making the transition to arm easier, to simplifying their code base. Given Apple’s well-publicised QA issues of late, I’d hope the latter would help.

Apple were only on i386 for less than a year with the first generation Intel iMac and MacBook Pro. Part of me wonders had they been able to hold out on moving from PowerPC for another nine months or so, they’d have been able to launch with the Core 2 Duo and avoided all this.

Fate/Grand Order Babylonia key visuals

I haven’t had the change to check out the latest Fate/Grand Order Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia anime adaptation episodes with Clara yet, but the key visuals look pretty great. I love that they asked the fans which story from the mobile game they wanted animated… and that it was Babylonia!

I say this each time, but FGO is still the only mobile game I’ve ever been able to play and absorb myself in; equal parts visual novel and strategy card game with admittedly some grindy gatcha. It was based on a long-established franchise that I loved. And now its spawned TV shows and movies. Type-Moon have come a long way.