Women… in tech?! (And elsewhere)

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This article was bi-posted to Gemini and the Web; Gemini version is here: gemini://gemini.circumlunar.space/users/kraileth/neunix/2021/women_in_tech.gmi

This is kind of a sensible topic, I know. But being a person used to stand up for his beliefs, I take the risk of being shouted at. I’m well aware that I’m not going to make friends in either of the two “camps” that usually fight each other over the topic. As always, I’m more interested in a balanced view – which of course means to criticize all the various ideologies involved.

Why do I write this article?

In my previous post I wrote about the new campaign to cancel Richard Stallman who has returned to the Free Software Foundation’s board of directors. It involved all the common drama about him being “sexist”, “transphobic” and so on.

Quite some interesting things happened since I wrote said article: The support letter for RMS ended up with more than double the amount of people signing it compared to the original open letter pressing for his removal.

I’ve read a very interesting article written by two women who also chose to support RMS in this case. If you care about the topic, have a look at what Hannah Wolfman-Jones wrote about a year ago (including a statement by Nadine Strossen). Also a more recent support article has been published by Leah Rowe (a transgender person).

And it even seems like the FSF is not going to give in this time! Thus it looks like this campaign failed (let’s hope that will happen more often in the future).

Something less important also happened; I’m only going to mention it here because it’s the direct reason for me to write this article. A reader commented on the RMS article. I’ll cite the part here that made me promise a longer statement than would fit into another comment:

Thirdly I’ll add here it’s insulting as Hell so many of you only pretend to care about Neurodiversity when a man is accused of and or being a creep, support of woman with ASD being harassed by men is never even considered.

I do not “pretend to care” about Neurodiversity. I do care about life and about society. This involves a lot of things including what is sometimes labeled Neurodiversity. But there is a reason why I put it all that general: I don’t support adding so much more value to a single aspect of the great whole. People who only care about particularities often think that I’m hostile towards their concerns. Usually I’m not. I just refuse to neglect other important aspects for the (alleged) benefit of another.

Do I care for women?

This is a very strange question, but nevertheless an interesting one. Not so much because of what my answer tells about me. More so because of what it tells about a person who would seriously ask it. Why? Well, if it’s not a rhetorical question, the person asking at least thinks that some form of “no” could be the answer. Which means that he or she is willing to believe that I might suffer from a severe mental illness.

I have a mother. I have a wife. And in fact I have daughters. How on earth could I not care about women? But let’s say somebody doesn’t have the previous information. What scenarios are there where I could answer “no” as a sane person? I could be a monk in a monastery who maybe would not have contact with women ever again in his life. This is a pretty extreme example already (and some people would doubt the sanity of anyone making such a decision but that’s not the point). I’d still adore mother Mary and it would be my religious duty to pray for other people (where limiting that to other men would not make any sense at all). Or maybe I’m a hermit, sick of it all, going to live in the woods by myself. Another rather extreme example. Perhaps I really wouldn’t care about women. But certainly not specifically! I wouldn’t care about them because I stopped caring for anybody.

Think about less radical examples. If you don’t flee society completely, women are almost guaranteed to be part of your life at least indirectly. The woman at the bank or on the counter in the store? Even if you are a pretty selfish person you won’t care less for them than you do for anybody else around you that you have no closer relation to. I tried to find one but could not come up with a somewhat plausible case where anybody would specifically not care for women and I wouldn’t question this person’s sanity (like with e.g. some ultra-orthodox Jews. It’s simply mind-boggling to find out about their views and forms of life!).

Alright, I do care. But what does that mean? I grew up in a society that was very much hostile to women in many regards – but people didn’t see that (not just men, a lot of women didn’t see or didn’t want to see it either!). As a child I chased the ideas of chivalry that I knew from books because I believed in that. I admired women as they seemed to be free from a lot of typical male… let’s say: defects. I did not understand that they have their own. 😉

Nailing my colors to the mast

As a child and later as a young man I stood up for women e.g. when dirty jokes were told in all male groups. I was called names for that (e.g. “gelding” and such). It was difficult and my protests and actions did not have any actual effect. But I at least tried, eh? The fact that I never dated a girl (until I was a bit older and was finally thinking about starting a family) made some people suspect that I was secretly gay. Which of course made matters worse.

While I cannot deny that I did feel attracted to girls, my beliefs in what partnership should be set me apart from almost all males in my peer group. Not being interested in some cheap quick pleasure does have one very positive side though: It frees you from the requirements of the “hunter and prey” game, like constantly having to think about what lie you should tell a girl next to eventually bed her. So I was able to simply be honest when talking to women. And this allowed for some very interesting discussions that I wouldn’t want to have missed.

My observation is that many woman have a good sense for a certain kind of danger. When they feel safe, they behave differently and they also speak differently. Knowing this I learned to fully accept that there have to be women-only places (and that there’s no need to feel “excluded” for not being admitted). There simply is no male equivalent to this (which is perfectly understandable if you think about it).

When I still was in school, I participated in one compulsory optional subject as the only boy in class for a while (a month or so later another boy switched classes and came into the course). I found it a little strange (mostly in the sense of “unusual” but nothing more) for the first few days, but I soon basically forgot about it. Much later I have been in a reversed situation: For a while there was only one girl in an otherwise all male class. She understood the subjects well, got good marks in written tests – but was admittedly a bit shy in class. She would definitely not participate when fellow students got passionate (and thus a bit louder) about several topics. It probably would have been easier for her in a more balanced class.

Culture

The biggest problem that I saw and still see is popular culture. What picture of women is being conveyed? I mentioned jokes. Let me present one pathetic example that I still remember:

Why do women have legs? – So they don’t leave a slime tail on the floor!

Ha ha, very funny, isn’t it?

Here’s another example, this time from music: A song called “Polonäse Blankenese” was popular in my country when I was a child. The artist, Gottlieb Wendehals, was more of a comedian. You have to take that into account, but still. Here’s the translation of a piece of the chorus:

We’re setting off, taking very big steps
And Erwin from behind touches Heidi’s… shoulder
That lifts the spirits, delight emerges
And that’s for all to see now

What’s the deal? Well, the verses rhyme in German – except for “shoulder”. What would obviously rhyme with the German word for steps however is – tits.

While you can dismiss such things as harmless jokes (and I wouldn’t encourage anyone going hysteric over it), if something like this was very popular both on TV and folk festivals and such, it certainly helps characterize the spirit of that time.

Fast forward a couple of years. In the late 90’s we had the Bloodhound Gang and their album “Hooray for Boobies”. I’m well aware that – again – it’s meant to be funny, but also a little insensitive perhaps? There were songs like their “Three Point One Four” (didn’t get the word play with that title back then) played on parties or even on the radio. This brought us great lyrics like “I need to find a – new vagina; Any kind ‘o – new vagina!”. I’m not saying that toilet humor and the like needs to die, but I do question if it really needs to have a place in the mainstream where it’s hard to evade?

And as we all know, it didn’t get better but in fact much worse. It didn’t stop with (unconscious as I’d claim) “humor”. Today we have certain “Hip Hop” bands for example who completely objectify women and entirely reduce them to their genitals. While Wendehals in the early 1980s wouldn’t actually say “Tits” and it was “perky” enough to hint it, there’s no lack of way more abasing words in popular culture today.

A fellow metal head once played a “fun” song on his phone for all of us to laugh about. The point was that someone took a “Hip Hop” song’s very misogynous lyrics and used them in another song of a genre where such a thing is… not what you’d expect. While I actually think the performance is not such a bad idea at all (because thanks to the grotesque change in genre, people who got used to what “Hip Hop” is like might think again). I didn’t feel well in that situation, though – because there was a girl with us. Obviously my classmate didn’t even think that there might be a problem with lyrics (translated) about “what the cunts really want”. I asked her later what she thought about that. Her reply was: She can laugh about that, you simply have to grow a bit of a thick skin – there’s no point in being offended!

While she was right of course, I don’t think it really has to be that way. In that scene nobody intended to hurt anybody after all. It’s simply mindlessness, not bad will.

There are so many examples from everyday life one could write about. I do not agree with each and every scandal that certain people call “sexist”. But it’s not like there’s no problem at all. There is. Understanding that there is in fact a whole class of problems that many of us don’t even notice is a very good first step. The second would be helping people who don’t want to remain ignorant see them. Then we could start talking about possible ways out of this mess.

Tech

Especially in tech some men seem to think that this is their playground and that women should simply do something else. That’s a somewhat strange position to start with. But does anybody really think “fighting” (in the classical sense) that way of thinking can do any good? Attacking somebody forces that person to go into defense mode. Doing that is a lousy tactic when you want to change someone’s mind!

There are more forms of attacking than just telling somebody very frankly that he’s an idiot. One example is dragging women into tech to fulfill some kind of “quota”. When a woman gets the job not because of her skills but because being a woman that’s a very problematic situation. There are men who will hate her for this and the woman will suffer from it. She might also struggle with the job that she did not get because she was well fit for due to her education. What a great combination!

My wife doesn’t like tech. She’s annoyed by all those “outreach” programs and everything that – according to her – tries to lure more women into IT. A lot of men also loathe these programs because they feel excluded (something they are not used to!). I think that looking at this slightly differently would be helpful.

Most people have at least heard that the female and the male brain work differently. While we’re all individuals and there are always those that think / feel / work differently than their peers, in general there’s a “male approach” and a “female approach” to things. And no, the female approach is not simply the same thing in pink! I’m all for separating boys and girls in certain school subjects and teaching them differently. This will help both unlock their potential as much as possible. There is no “one size fits all”!

Referring to this for example when justifying the existence of women’s courses might meet much less resistance from men: There’s a logical reason for it after all (and not just obscure “feelings” that not too few men have problems taking serious)! Let’s forget about the fact that women often tend to feel uneasy when they are in a mostly male environment – at least for a moment. We can fix the problem without waving the red rag and making the bull mad.

History

This article is becoming too long already. I intended to write the main part of this article about history: The Germanic, Slavic and Celtic culture and the position of women in it. About how Judaism (not monotheism! The first known monotheistic religion of Jatin in Ancient Egypt – thanks to the damnatio memoriae of Amenhotep IV. better known to us today in its Greek form of Aton or Aten – did not devalue women!) planted a seed that fanatical Christian monks who identified women with “sin” helped grow. This led to prosecution of wise women and eradicated the old rights that they once had.

I thought to give the example how even the term “woman” changed in my native language: It used to be “Weib” (still “weiblich” means simply “female”). In Middle High German “wîb” actually meant woman or wife. Today it’s negatively connoted, more like hag. Today the neutral term for woman is “Frau”. This is derived from “frouwe” which originally addressed a noble woman. If you want to translate lady today, you use “Dame” – so we had to resort to French because the Germanic words for women were devalued over time… (As you can imagine, no such thing happened to the word for “man”.)

And I wanted to write about how I (still in school) stopped admiring women as the better humans when I realized that some are perfectly capable of acting in just as malicious ways: On a school trip some girls conspired against another girl, treating her cruelly enough that she had to quit the trip! There are good and bad people of both genders – and there’s a lot of levels of gray with most women just as with most men. Women are special and I appreciate that a lot. They certainly are not inferior to men but neither are they morally superior in general.

If you think that the previous sentence is wrong, I recommend doing a broader research on the topic. At least read a book about Catherine the Great. Study the conflict between Mary Stewart and Elizabeth I. Get familiar with the epoch of the Catholic church called “Saeculum obscurum” during which weak men were popes and it is said that they were controlled by their more clever fancy women. The term “pornocracy” (as in Rule of Harlots) was coined for this. Or take Countess Báthory into consideration… Life is complex and there have been a lot of strange things going on and continue to do so. Never think that a simplistic view of something will carry the whole truth!

Can we change our ways?

There are people – mostly men – who refuse to see a problem. It’s useless to try to force them into abandoning old ways. Let’s concentrate on raising awareness for the problem with people who are open to see it. Then let’s discuss ideas and possible solutions.

I am deeply convinced that any undue force will actually thwart the undertaking. Forget banning words, getting into reverse witch-hunting and so on. I’m not interested in slightly brightening up the face of the building that is today’s society. What I’d rather look for is the cure. And that can most likely only be found in a new attempt of accepting each other. From that mutual acceptance respect can grow (I’m not talking about “respect” here, the contemporary empty phrase worn-down beyond recognition!).

When my grandparents from the mother’s side passed, I came by an old wooden decoration plate. Its translation reads: “It’s better to talk to each other than to keep silent against each other”. There were conflicts within their marriage for sure, but they remained together “in good times and in bad times” and overcame them. This is the way, both in a relationship and in society in general.

Can those of us who at least have some good will please try to get along despite our differences in opinion on particular issues? The struggle between sexes is entirely pointless – what “victory condition” would either “side” define? Let’s try to relax towards both men and women who think that they have to participate in that struggle. If more of us start looking for understanding each other, for kindness and re-unification to advance society as a whole together – then the people who preach hate, hostility and division will lose. In addition to our efforts it will only take time.

Cancelling Richard Stallman?

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This article was bi-posted to Gemini and the Web; Gemini version is here: gemini://gemini.circumlunar.space/users/kraileth/neunix/2021/cancelling_rms.gmi

If you have any interest in FLOSS (Free and Libre Open-Source Software), you know who Richard Matthew Stallman (RMS) is: As the founder of both GNU project and the Free Software Foundation (FSF), he’s quite an icon to many. In 2019, a scandal around deliberate (?) misunderstanding of what he said regarding one detail of the Epstein affair ultimately lead to him stepping down as president of the FSF. Now in March 2021 he returned to the organization’s board of directors. The latter fact was reason enough for quite some people to start a turmoil again, pressing for his second removal with an open letter.

Now personally I don’t like RMS much. I believe in permissive licenses and prefer those over copyleft in general and strongly over the GPL license family that Stallman stands for like no other person. I’m a happy Vi user and think that Emacs (RMS’s editor) is a great example for what software should not be like. I’ve also regularly opposed false claims of Stallman’s many fans and their very pessimistic view on important topics like freedom and life in general. In fact I’ve used neologisms like Stallmanism and Stallmanites to describe the indiscriminate ideology of Stallman and his most pig-headed followers.

Today I’ve signed another Open Letter supporting RMS and I’m even writing this article. How come?

Cancel culture

Let me repeat: I do not particularly like the person RMS nor do I uncritically approve of what he stands for. On the contrary. But as an Open Source enthusiast and advocate who has tried to argue against his positions I do even less approve of how a mob of phony hypocrites is acting against him. Gesture politics is wrong and actually harmful. Let’s talk about real problems in this world and not publicly slay giants of the Free Software movement by basically backstabbing them!

The phenomenon of what is often called “cancel culture” these days is one brutal form of contemporary witch-hunt. It is deeply anti liberal and anti free speech. Real people are “convicted” not by a judge after at least being able to plead innocent and have their case examined duly. No, it’s a gang with a certain political agenda that decides someone is guilty of whatever and will just insist on action to be taken on their judgement. This is much, much more dangerous than most neutral observers think. If such a campaign is successful it means that de facto there is a new power along the actual written law – and it may even take precedence over it!

Let’s think about this for a moment. Maybe you’ve been a lawful citizen all your life. You are an esteemed member of society and maybe even earned honors and awards. But then all of the sudden somebody points at you and shouts: “You did XYZ thirty years ago!” While that was nothing special back in the day and was (and is!) perfectly legal, more and more people join in, screaming at you that this is a “disgrace” and completely “inexcusable”… How do you defend against such a campaign?

  • You could explain that it’s not an illegal thing. Then the mob will eat you raw, yelling that this clearly shows “how you have not even learned a thing”!
  • You could state that you are deeply sorry and honestly wish you had acted differently. But as your actions are by the mob’s definition “inexcusable”, you’re done for anyway.
  • Or you could try a combination of both. Yet you’ll still drown in the public wrath directed at you.

Plead guilty or innocent before the judgement of the campaigners – it doesn’t make too much of a difference. And all of that while you are still very much spotless and respectable by law! This violates a number of fundamental legal principles of constitutional states:

  • Nulla poena sine lege (“No punishment without a law”): If no rule exists that prohibits something, you cannot be punished for it.
  • Nulla poena sine lege certa (“No punishment without precise law”): You cannot be convicted on base of a law that describes “somewhat similar” deeds.
  • Nulla poena sine lege praevia (“No punishment without previous law”): If you did something before it was declared a crime, you cannot be punished. Ex postfacto laws are invalid!
  • And more…

The effects of “cancel culture” that we see today are a true nightmare for any rational thinking person. You can be fried decades from now for something you do today without any bad will at all! Also it means turning away from the Christian principle of forgiveness for repentant offenders and thus shakes the very foundation of Western society as we know it. Welcome, friends, to our Brave New… τυραννίς! (I’m using the Greek word Tyrannis on purpose here, because I refer to an ancient Greek Tyrannos here and not modern notions of “Tyranny” and “Tyrant” which is a judgmental and negatively connoted term.)

Context!

Campaigns like the aforementioned against RMS work according their own twisted logic – and that only really applies if you can make people so upset that they are willing to ignore each and every context.

I’m a sysadmin; if you hear me talking about “killing all children” that does not make me a misanthropist or a violent person! Now I can hear you say: Fine, but there are things that are despicable no matter the context! Beg your pardon, but think again, please. Everything is subject to context.

Even though most people would agree to the statement “killing is wrong”, let me ask you if you really think your local butcher is a criminal (no food debate, please. I’ve been a vegetarian myself for close to a decade, but I am a liberal being accepting other people’s different thinking on such a matter)? It actually makes much of a difference if you think that “Thou shalt not kill” is one of the 10 commandments – or if you take a more precise translation of “Thou shalt not murder“!

Or for another example: Could there really be any context that would make the statement “rape should not be punished” anything but loathsome? Yes, of course! It can for example be a premiss in thinking about the consequences of such a stance. And that would be a perfectly legitimate thing: Unbiased thinking about something. There can be value in thinking over even the seemingly most absurd premisses like that.

There are two very important pieces of general context that the campaigners misappropriate:

  • What was the general public feeling towards XYZ at that point in time? Was it really such a huge deal back then? If not: How can you dare to not only dictate your moral values to others but even demand different behavior when what you dislike today was still very common?
  • RMS is autistic. And not even the very light form of it. People’s feelings are hard (maybe even impossible) for him to really understand.

Stallman is for example convinced that our planet is over-populated. When he learned that a person he had email contact with was going to be a father soon, he seriously expressed his sympathy – obviously not knowing that this is usually a joyful event for people…

Isn’t taking RMS’ autism into account a form of “abelism” by the campaigners? 🤪

Blame game

But let’s take a quick look of what people are accusing him. Here’s the beginning of the open letter with some comments from me:

Richard M. Stallman, frequently known as RMS, has been a dangerous force in the free software community for a long time. He has shown himself to be misogynist, ableist, and transphobic, among other serious accusations of impropriety.

Oh, wow. That’s a fairly “standard” set of charges. There’s nothing concrete here, just pretty weird claims made by people who love to hate opinions different from theirs…

These sorts of beliefs have no place in the free software, digital rights, and tech communities.

Sorry, but no. You presume to define something (in a grotesque way with no room for discussion about your definitions!), incriminate somebody (thus harming his reputation), hand down a verdict (without the need to even hear the defendant, because why should you?) and then press to enforce the judgment (ASAP of course). This is how things go in a dictatorship. We’re getting there, mind you, but are not quite there just yet. Get a life, stop being such ignorant jerks and prepare to have your creed challenged.

There’s more in the letter, but it all boils down to making more accusations and impudent demands. I don’t really want to waste any more time on it. Let’s hope that this is where such a campaign can finally be stopped.

If we could all return to discussing in a civilized manner again, that would be a giant step forward.

Re-learning to type… again! (From Neo to Bone)

Summary

After using an ergonomical keyboard layout for more than half a decade, I felt that I might try something new. My old layout (Neo) works great, but after learning of a newer variant (Bone), I wanted to try it out – and am fascinated by what the human brain is capable of doing.

Article

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gemini://gemini.circumlunar.space/users/kraileth/neunix/2021/relearning_to_type.gmi

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Retreat… and reboot! Is there life outside of the Web?

Dear readers,

the time has come for some fundamental re-organization of my EerieLinux blog. The impact of this year’s pandemic as well as family matters (a new family member that demands quite a bit of care!) have forced me to post-pone many of my posts that I usually published at least monthly. Right when I was getting back on track and stated that I intended to publish the missed articles (I’ve written them after all but didn’t find the time for final editing) something else happened.

No, to be honest, it has been happening for quite a while. I didn’t like it but had to cope with it as there was nothing I could do about that, anyway. What am I talking about? Well, the sad fact that I would call the “degradation of the Web”.

EerieLinux has always been about some experiments that I did and wanted to share in case anybody was interested. Now I’m in for a new experiment, a somewhat radical one (and what could be considered radical after going Linux-only and later FreeBSD-only for all of my machines?). I would appreciate feedback on the path that I choose to give a try. What do you think about it? Are you interested in that, too? Would you continue to read some of my material or does this mean that our ways will part? But let’s detail first what has made the time ripe for what is less of an elitist move then an act of mere desperation.

What’s wrong with the Web?

So, what has happened? And what’s the gripe that I have with the Web? Well… It’s actually not just the Web (read: WWW), it’s more things coming together. There seems to be a general direction that the IT world is heading which I don’t approve of. This blog is powered by WordPress for the simple reason that when I started in 2012 I had some material that I wanted to share with the world and going with a free plan on a blog hosting platform seemed like a nice way to get started quickly. And it was. Mind the past tense here.

WordPress evolved – which is a good thing in general. It evolved in a way that I loathe, however. There have been all these “new” and “easier” modes for XYZ which were admittedly more shiny and more “modern” than before. But they broke my workflow time and time again – and unfortunately not for the better. I actually like to re-evaluate my workflows, like to challenge my habits. When I was still using Ubuntu Linux I didn’t only give Canonical’s Unity DE a chance, I actually tried to use it before putting it aside because in the end it hindered me more than it helped. I forced myself to use the (then) new graphical TrueOS for half a year and suffered through incompleteness and breakage. I have a fairly high tolerance for things that are… sub-optimal. I’m also rather patient, I think, and I’m surely not a rage-quit type of person. But inevitably there’s this point where I have to admit: “Ok, that’s it, that’s simply too much”.

The same thing happened for WordPress, when they came up with various iterations of “new editors” – which is why I opted to go back to the “old editor” for writing and editing my blog posts. As I returned to finish the next old post however, I found out that the old editor was gone. They had “finally” removed it. Alright, so I had to try and get accustomed to the new one again. Perhaps it had matured since I tried it last? It had. But it proved to be even more annoying for me than before! I don’t know what the designers are thinking – certainly not what I do. For me it is a pain to work with the new tool: Things that worked perfectly fine before are gone and the new options are so much inferior to what we had before… And this is not even the worst thing that made me give up when I was more than half through with polishing the next post.

Technically the new editors work well for small posts. I seem to have a bit more to say than the average blogger, though; and here’s a very frustrating issue: When editing longer posts, the editor gets unresponsive and laggy. Yuck! Trading a working one for a “new” one that does less but eats up so much more resources? Are you freaking kidding me? Oh, right, that’s the way things go, I forgot for a second. There’s something within my very self that refuses to accept the lack of sanity around me, sorry. I should know better by now.

And even though WordPress makes up a quite large portion of today’s Web, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. All this JS nonsense, megs and megs of useless graphics, animations, tracking and spying cookies, etc. pp. make the Web such a obnoxious place! And don’t even get me started on the situation with web browsers…

What’s wrong with hardware?

After my little rant I can hear people say: “See, pal… If the WordPress editor makes your system struggle enough that you complain on the net, you reaaally want to get a new PC! There’s machines with more than 4 gigs of memory today, you know.”

The irony here is: I did get a newer laptop – and went back to primarily use the old one! Why? Because the new one is bugging me just too much whereas the older model works well for me. The newer follows that stupid trend of being extremely thin. “Thanks” to that design no DVD drive fits in there. While this is incredibly dumb, I can live with it. Carrying an external drive with me is not so much of a problem, but still the fact that the machine is missing the drive annoys me. The bigger problem: The battery of the old model can easily be removed and I can carry a second one with me e.g. on longer train rides. With the new one I’d need to open the case to access it! WTF HP? And finally: Some idiot decided that the “cool” flat design was so important that it’s thinner than the jack for an Ethernet connector… Yes, really: There’s some kind of… hatch that I need to pull down to make the opening big enough to insert the plug! If I remove the plug the hatch snaps back up. It’s not hard to see that this brain-dead construction is prone to defects. And really, it didn’t take too long until it stopped working reliably and I’m randomly losing connectivity every other day… Sorry, this is garbage. Plain as that.

I have another older laptop – that one has 24 GB of RAM and two hard drives. Nice, eh? Not so much because it also has some of those gross EFI quirks. When one of the drives has a GPT partition scheme applied to it, that drive won’t even be detected by the POST anymore! So on that machine I’m stuck with MBR which is not so much fun if you’re using ZFS and want to encrypt your pool with GELI – it can be done, but the workarounds have the side-effects of not working with Boot Environments! True garbage again.

“Come on, why don’t you simply get a different model then?” Yeah, right. As I said, I type a lot, so I have some demands concerning the keyboard. Unfortunately some manufacturers seem to take pride in coming up with new ways of f*cking up the keyboard layout. There are models that simply dropped the CAPS LOCK key, because nobody uses that, right? Wrong! There are people who remap their keys, and being a NEO² typist (a keymap that allows for 6 layers) I need that key as an additional modifier! Take it away and that keyboard is utterly useless to me. But don’t current models like the X1 Carbon still have CAPS LOCK? They do, but there’s another oddity: They swap the CTRL and FN keys! Having CTRL as the leftmost key on the keyboard that I use as my daily driver and switching around in my head at 3 AM when there’s an alarm during my on-call duty is something I fail to do properly. I used a Thinkpad for about a month for on-call and it drove me completely mad. Sorry Lenovo. Your laptops may be excellent otherwise, but they are not for me.

Oh, and it’s not so much of a secret that the situation with the x86 and x86_64 architectures is abysmal (need I say more than Meltdown / Spectre?). Modern hardware design is fundamentally broken and I cannot say that I completely trust the fixes and what unknown side-effects they might bring with them either. But that’s not even the point. We’re stuck with market-leading technology that has been criticized as crappy right from the start. It has come a long way since then, but it’s not a great technology in any regard. I’ve been playing with my Pinebook and it might have the potential to become something different. Maybe the Open Source PowerPC notebook initiative will succeed. Probably we’ll have something RISC-V-based in the long run. But right now we have to make use of what is available to us.

Can’t the Web be saved?

I’m a somewhat optimistic person, but in this regard not so much. While I have thought about just self-hosting my blog and using a nice static-site generator or something, that would only solve my issues regarding the blog. A huge portion of the Web will still be a terrible place. Browsers and software will still suck hard. Especially in terms of browsers I’ve found even the suckless offering far from being a good one (I like their work and agree with most of the suckless principles, but in my conclusion it’s not enough to really get me out of this whole mess).

Sure, I can install e.g. the Dillo browser. But its development has been extremely slow for years and the subset of HTML that it supports cannot render most of today’s websites properly. And going with just the pages of people who deliberately keep their sites simple? I like the idea, but there’s the problem that no real community (that I know of) exists which agrees on a single standard of which HTML features are ok and which ones should be avoided.

I’m old enough to remember the browser wars well enough. I also confess being guilty of having used “marquee” on my homepage for a while back in the day. Maybe all of the gibberish we’re facing today is a late punishment for sins committed when we were younger? I don’t know.

So – are we doomed? Should we just pull the plug, go to real libraries again, buy books when we need information and spend our free time in the garden? That thought is tempting only for a moment. I love tech. I love the net and the possibilities it brings with it. Plus I’m kind of a liberal today who believes that mankind will eventually make something good from it all. We’re on this planet to play, to learn and to grow. Some insights can only be gained the hard way. It’s ok that commercial interests ruined the Web for people like me. There are other people who have (monetary or idealistic) interests in the Web being like it is. That’s fine. And in fact: Today’s Web “works” for a lot of people who either have no clue why it’s problematic in the first place or who simply don’t care. Which is a legitimate stance. The tragedy is simply that the rest of us has kind of lost home for a while and we haven’t been able to find a new one, yet.

The “Big Internet” vs. the “Small Internet”

While the Web makes up for a very large and definitely the most visible part of the Internet, there are niches, lesser known parts of it which are certainly not less interesting. Some people speak of the Web as the “Big internet” and call the various special parts the “Small Internet”.

One such niche is the so-called Gopherspace. Gopher is a simple communication protocol for documents which predates the Web. Not just by today’s standards it’s primitive – but it works. And while the major browsers either never supported it or removed support long ago (e.g. Firefox dropped Gopher support for release 4.0), it’s still kept alive by enthusiasts. Some sources even suggest that it has seen moderate growth over the last years with more people fed up with the Web trying out something different. If you’re interested, start here with the web proxy or do some research on your own and install a Gopher client.

I’ve dug into various Gopher holes and my experience with it is a mixed bag. On the one hand it’s really cool to see people putting in the effort of creating a place that’s worthwhile to visit. I also liked the experience in general: It’s not bells and whistles everywhere (because that’s in fact impossible due to the protocols limitations) but rather a focus on the actual content. People have found ways to access git repositories over Gopher and there’s a community called Bitreich (via Gopher) that declared “suckless failed” and propose an even more radical approach. While some of it is probably parody, it’s an interesting one.

On the other hand some of the restrictions of the protocol make no sense at all today, like having a hard-coded limit of 80 characters per line. And there are more shortcomings. When Gopher was conceived, nobody thought of internationalization and indicating the charset that a document uses. Also Gopher is all plain-text and does not provide any means to help protect your privacy – which does not exactly make it overly appealing to me.

But there’s something else, an even smaller – but newer – niche, called Project Gemini. It is a newly designed protocol (2019!) that wants to provide kind of a middle ground between Gopher and the Web while clearly leaning towards the former. It remedies the privacy issues by making TLS mandatory and deliberately not supporting “user agents” or other ways to collect data about the user not required to deliver the content. And it wants to simply be an additional option for people to use not to replace either Gopher or the Web.

While I kind of like Gopher, I really admire Gemini. Having the balls to even try to actually do something like this in our time is simply (no pun intended) astonishing. In my opinion it’s high time to re-invent the wheel. Gemini is certainly not a panacea to all the problems that we have today. But it’s a much welcome (for me at last) chance to start fresh without that huge, huge bag of problems that we’re carrying on with the Web but with the experience that we gained from using it for several decades now.

What’s next?

My experiment is to move Eerielinux to Geminispace and post new content there as I find the time. The plan is to keep this WordPress blog and to create new posts here that simply reference the real content, providing a convenient link using a Web proxy. That should help keeping things accessible for people who prefer to stick with their known browsers instead of getting another one for such a tiny little world as Geminispace is right now.

And who knows? Perhaps something nice comes from Gemini in the long run. I’m looking forward to find out. And if you care — see you in Geminispace for some more articles on *BSD, computers and tech in general!

Should you abandon Linux and switch to *BSD?

The popularity of Linux skyrockets these days: More and more companies adapt it and even the just-above-average who doesn’t accept the imposition that is called “Windows 10” is often open to try it out. However at the same time, the popularity of said System seems to be fading among some of the more technical people, operating system enthusiasts and even followers of the FLOSS ideology.

Just recently an article called Why you should migrate everything from Linux to BSD was published and it has caught some attention and even replies like this one (it makes false claims like ZFS not being available on NetBSD and such, though.)

There have always been some posts like this, this is nothing too special. What I think is new, however, is the frequency that you can find discussions like this. Also the general tone has changed. Just a couple of years ago most Linux users wouldn’t even have bothered to comment such a thing. Today they seem to be much more open to learning about alternatives or in fact looking for something better than what they have. So what’s wrong with Linux?

It’s not about Systemd (alone)…

There are a lot of perfectly valid technical reasons to not want to use Systemd on your Linux system. But none of those could ever be an excuse for the hatred that this project has attracted. However there is a pretty simple explanation for that phenomenon: It’s how somebody is acting all high and mighty, simply dismissing valid critics and being a great example for a person with an arrogant attitude.

We have a lot of… let’s say… difficult persons it tech. Sometimes you think they have no manners, are being jerks or greatly overestimate their knowledge in certain fields. That’s ok and in fact they often are somewhat brilliant in a certain area. Most of us have learned to live with that.

And then there are people who think that they can dictate the one way to go. Well, there are project leaders who actually can do that due to being widely respected. But sometimes it’s different. Now when somebody wants to take something away from you (or he really doesn’t but you get the impression), you are likely to stand upon your defense.

Now when all of that unites in one person, you have the perfect boogeyman. Then all the technical aspects lose in weight and the feeling takes over. Which is not to say that feeling is not an important factor: If you don’t feel comfortable with Linux anymore, it might be time to move on.

The GNOME factor

The GNOME desktop is well known among *nix desktop users. It suits the needs some people but not others. That’s fine and there would not be any problem at all. However GNOME has a certain reputation which is not that nice… Why? Not because they didn’t accept some feature requests. Also not because are being ignoramuses when it comes to systems that are not so mainstream. No. They are notorious for cutting features that have already existed! This is what makes a lot of people mad.

I was a GNOME user myself and remember pretty well how I liked the file manager. To my dismay they removed so many features which I needed that the application became useless for me. I didn’t want to go looking for something else, but I was eventually forced to as the situation became unbearable. As I’m more of a calm guy, I didn’t go off at insult anybody, but other people did. And things got worse…

Today I’m a former GNOME user. This is *nix and not Windows. Nobody can force tiles upon us against our will. Yes, some projects think they know better than their users and that leads to the latter becoming upset. But as long as there are alternatives, we can move on.

Clumsy leaders

Recently Linus Torvalds spoke out against ZFS. Being the Linux “inventor” he has earned a lot of respect among the *nix community. I also used to hold him in high esteem despite his often ignoble behavior. However over the course of the last few years, I’ve lost a lot of respect for him.

The ZFS statement was the last coffin nail for me. He says that he always found ZFS more of a “buzzword” than anything else and that “benchmarks” didn’t make it look that good anyway. This is so far off the shot that I’m ashamed to ever have considered him a technical genius. He obviously does have no idea at all what problem ZFS actually solves! Speed benchmarks are all nice and well, but they are not why people want ZFS! And of course it’s far from being a buzzword – if you have valuable data today, you almost certainly want to bet on ZFS.

But not only is he ok with judging what he has not even bothered to take a look at from closer that several hundred meters – he’s also making completely stupid claims that make him look like a terribly ridiculous figure. According to Mr. Torvalds, ZFS had “no real maintenance behind it either any more”.

Ouch! He hasn’t even heard about OpenZFS, I’d guess. If you’re not in a closed-Solaris environment, this is what people are referring to when they say “ZFS”. Nobody outside the small, isolated isle of Oracle has any interest in ClosedZFS. Yes, Oracle laid off most of their Solaris staff and nobody knows if there is any noteworthy future for that OS. But not too long Solaris 11.4 was released – so even if Linus referred to the situation at Oracle, he’s not exactly right. In the case of OpenZFS, however, he could not be more wrong.

The OpenZFS is as alive as it could be. There are regular leadership meetings, many new features are being developed – and just recently a common repository for both Linux and FreeBSD was created, with other operating systems expected to join in! This is a moment of glory for collaboration in Open Source, but Linus didn’t hear a thing – or did he not want to hear anything? The fact that the second-in-command, GKH, has attacked ZFS about a year ago in a pretty questionable way, too, does not bode well.

Why do people leave Linux?

There have always been compelling technical reasons why you would choose *BSD over Linux (e.g. the complete operating system approach, much more consistent design, etc.). But I’d say that lately the the feeling part of it became much more important.

I left Linux because I was so sick and tired of the stupid fights between the hardcore fans of one distro or another and the unbearable arrogance of many. Yes, I also had the feeling that Linux was heading down the wrong way, too. I simply was no longer really happy with it and ready to try something new. There was a learning curve for sure, but the FreeBSD community is extremely friendly and while there are of course also people getting into disputes, I got the feeling that I described as “BSD is for grown-ups”. Not saying that there aren’t any really bright people in the Linux community, but on average I feel that the BSD users are more technical.

Others have stated similar reasons. The primary developer of ClonOS (that strives to be for FreeBSD what Proxmox is for Linux) wrote this:

According to the authors of the project, Linux is no longer a member of the common people, it is fully controlled by big commercial organization. while FreeBSD is developed mostly by enthusiasts. Today, Linux – it is a commercial machine for making money – is that it was Microsoft Windows in 90 years. While many Linux users have struggled against the Windows monopoly (CBSD author of one of them).

Yes, FreeBSD very far behind in their characteristics in comparing to Linux. Just look at the abundance of such powerfull decisions as the OpenVZ, Docker, Rancher, Kubernetis, LXD, Ceph, GlusterFS, OpenNebula, OpenStack, Proxmox, ISPPanel and a dozen others. All this is created by commercial companies for Linux and this is done very well. However, Linux is oversaturated with similar solutions. Therefore, it’s much more interesting to create it on FreeBSD, where nothing like that exists. This is an excellent challenge to improve and fix in FreeBSD.

We all love independence and freedom and FreeBSD today – an independent and free operating system, which is in the hands of ordinary people.

They are not alone. Even convinced followers of the FSF ideas have come to the conclusion that Linux may not be the right platform for them anymore. The people behind Hyperbola GNU/Linux have announced this:

Due to the Linux kernel rapidly proceeding down an unstable path, we are planning on implementing a completely new OS derived from several BSD implementations. This was not an easy decision to make, but we wish to use our time and resources to create a viable alternative to the current operating system trends which are actively seeking to undermine user choice and freedom.

This will not be a “distro”, but a hard fork of the OpenBSD kernel and userspace including new code written under GPLv3 and LGPLv3 to replace GPL-incompatible parts and non-free ones.

Reasons for this include:

Linux kernel forcing adaption of DRM, including HDCP.
Linux kernel proposed usage of Rust (which contains freedom flaws and a centralized code repository that is more prone to cyber attack and generally requires internet access to use.)
Linux kernel being written without security and in mind. (KSPP is basically a dead project and Grsec is no longer free software)
Many GNU userspace and core utils are all forcing adaption of features without build time options to disable them. E.g. (PulseAudio / SystemD / Rust / Java as forced dependencies)

As such, we will continue to support the Milky Way branch until 2022 when our legacy Linux-libre kernel reaches End of Life.

Will *BSD be a better OS for you?

So the big question is: If you are a Linux user, should you make the switch, too? I won’t unconditionally say yes. It really depends.

Are you happy with the overall situation in Linux? In that case there’s no need to migrate anything over. However you might still want to give a BSD of your choice a try. Perhaps you find something that you like even better? If you spend a bit of time exploring a BSD, you will find that several problems can be solved in other ways than those you are familiar with. And that will likely make you a better Linux admin, even if you decide to stick with it. Or maybe you’ll want to use the best tool for the job which could sometimes be Linux and sometimes a BSD. Getting to know a somewhat similar but also at times quite different *nix system will enable you to make an informed choice.

Not happy with Linux anymore in the recent years? Try out a BSD. If you need help to decide which one might be for you, I’ve written an article about that topic, too. Do a bit of reading, then install that BSD in a VM and explore. If you go with FreeBSD, make sure you take a look at the handbook (probably also available in your language) as that is a great source of information and one thing that sets FreeBSD apart from almost all Linux distros.

If you find that you like what you found, make a list of your requirements and find out if your BSD would indeed fulfill your needs. If it doesn’t, consider alternatives. Once the path is clear, I recommend to take a look at the community, too. For example there’s the weekly BSDNow! podcast that’s very informative. A lot of people have already written in, confessing that they are still Linux users only, but the topics of the show got them still hooked.

Do not rush things. Did you start with Linux or have you migrated e.g. from Windows? If you did come from a different OS, remember that there have been frustrating moments when you were all new to Linux and had certain misconceptions. You will be going through that again, but looking at the final outcome it will likely be a pretty rewarding journey.

Also don’t be shy and ask others if you don’t have the time or will to figure out everything yourself. The BSD people are usually pretty approachable and helpful. Feel free to ask me questions here, I might be able to give some answers.

It has been a couple of years now since I replaced the last machine that ran Linux at home. Would I choose to make the switch after all the experience that I gained since then? Oh yes! Anytime.

A glimpse into 2020

When you read this, the old year will be over (well, depending on the time zone you live in). If we’re lucky, this might be the year to get our hands on the first affordable RISC-V hardware that can actually run a Unix-like operating system. It should definitely be the year to get interesting devices like the ARM64-based PinePhone. And it also means that Python 2 is finally dead.

Speaking about that: For me 2019 has been a pretty busy year. On this blog I wrote about quite some different topics, among them my first attempt at writing something programming-related as I tried to teach myself a little bit of Python. If I had to name an overall theme, I’d say that the past year was the year of hardware architectures. I didn’t plan this, but that’s what’s happened. But I don’t actually want to look back in this post. On the contrary! But speaking of dead things also kind of fits into the next topic (more than I like…)!

FreeBSD on SPARC64

The next post that I plan to write will be about FreeBSD on the SPARC64 architecture. What I did not know when I decided on that is that it is more or less a doomed architecture when it comes to FreeBSD. SPARC64 is in grave danger – people expect support for it to be dropped before FreeBSD 13.0 is released!

The reason is that it is one of the architectures that still need the old GCC 4.2 (yes, from 2007!) toolchain – and that old cruft finally has to go. And while everybody agrees that this is a completely sensible thing to do, SPARC64 doesn’t seem to have as many friends among the FreeBSD developers to make the transition to something newer. A few people are trying to get something done (I’m also tinkering and trying to help), but it’s far from a save bet that it’ll succeed.

IMHO it would be a real shame to see FreeBSD on SPARC64 die. If it does survive, I’ll definitely try to help with QA. Can you help? If so: Please do! I’ll give more details on what the current status is and where the problems are in my January post.

FreeBSD on ARM64

I plan on writing another post about the current status on FreeBSD on ARM64. The topic of making it a Tier 1 architecture has recently been brought up again and I’d like to join the discussion about that rather sooner than later. If it wasn’t for the very unpleasant situation with SPARC64, this would actually be my next post.

Progress has been made on the networking issues on the Cavium ThunderX servers and I’ll also take a look again at the PineBook. Most likely I’ll also buy a PinePhone and/or one of their Tablets. If I do, you will find a review here.

Orchestration and Configuration Management with SaltStack

I wanted to write about this topic for a while, but now I’ve at last started to set aside the hardware that I need for the project. Several years ago (gosh…) I wrote a little comparison of Puppet, Chef, Salt and Ansible. After a general introduction I might update and publish this as well.

But that will only be the start of a series of posts introducing Salt. There will be a slight focus on FreeBSD, but in general it will show off how to work with various operating systems and distributions. We’ll start with Salt-SSH using Remote Execution Modules, talk about targeting and get to know grains. Then we’ll progress to the state system, pillar data and so on before switching to the master-minion model.

I’m looking forward to this one. If anybody has any ideas – just tell me, I’m open to suggestions on what to cover.

HardenedBSD

While I ran this derivative of FreeBSD for a couple of weeks on spare hardware (until I needed that for something else), I just didn’t find the time to write about my experience with it, yet. I liked it, though, and plan on re-visiting the OS. And when I do, you’ll read about it here for sure.

The project is currently being re-structured. So I’ll wait with this topic for a while longer. Might happen in the second half of the year (time flies by much too fast, anyway).

E-Mail

For years now I’ve been putting this one off. In fact I’ve started digging a bit into the topic twice. Two times I got distracted with other topics. Maybe third time is the charm?

To help making this more likely, I registered a domain (with a pretty bad pun in German) in December. Maybe now that I pay money, I’ll actually live up to the plan to “do moar with mail”. I’ll be using BSD technology where possible. So expect that the mailing stuff will involve OpenSMTPd.

illumos

This one is really a time issue. I’m still very much interested in the heritage of OpenSolaris and would like to do some more things with it. However I have no idea when I’ll find the time to do a dedicated illumos project. But there will definitely be some illumos involved with one of the other topics. You guess which one! 😉

Ravenports

The Ravenports project is still as fascinating to me as it was when I discovered it. I really wish I could dedicate more time to porting and helping to bring things forward (there’s still quite a lot of ports missing that I’d like to have and use).

While things are going well in general and ports are being updated really, really fast most of the time, big changes are rare right now. But big changes are what it makes sense to write about. And while there are some noteworthy things that I can think of, I’m still waiting for something else to land. Once that happens I will dedicate another post to Raven.

Linux vs. FreeBSD

I recently needed to setup a new Linux machine for a customer. Usually my co-workers do that, since I volunteered to take care of our BSD machines. That installation left me totally puzzled. Has the Debian installer become worse – or does my memory fail me and it has always been so bad (and I didn’t notice when I was into Linux only)?

Since then I thought about a few things. The conclusion is that I really love FreeBSD. It’s not perfect (well, nothing is), but there are so many areas where it’s much, much more comfortable to work with (can you say iptables or mdadm? Yuck!). And there is a lot more beauty and even technical genius if you take a closer look and compare things.

Yes, Linux in much more advanced in many areas. But that’s not much of a surprise given how much more manpower goes into that system. But it is a little miracle how the BSDs with their much lower manpower continue to deliver excellent operating systems on par with or even superior to Linux when it comes to sanity of use. Thank you, *BSD!

Happy new year!

So that’s what I have on my mind right now (I’m not out of ideas, but these are the topics that are on the top of my “would like to write about” list currently). Which of these topics will I be able to deliver and which will I miss? Time will tell. Feel free to comment and tell me what interests you the most.

Happy new year to all of my readers!

Thoughts on being a “power user” (1/3)

Every so often I come across the term “power user”. It’s used to describe people who are more knowledgeable and capable than the casual or regular users are. Now it’s pretty obvious that this definition leaves a lot of room in considering somebody a power user or not. People seem to generally agree you don’t become one by just memorizing a couple of hotkeys. However it doesn’t require anyone to reach perfection if you ask me. Anybody being clearly way above average qualifies.

Oh, and of course you can be a power user in one field while remaining a complete novice in other areas. I’m somewhat familiar with *nix operating systems and have invested quite a bit of time in becoming a better user. If I’m to do graphics manipulation however, it doesn’t make so much of a difference for me whether I use the GIMP or Tux Paint as that simply isn’t my field of expertise at all…

In this three-post article I’ll write about some of the things that might matter to anybody who would like to make more of his or her PC-related skills. A lot of that depends on what you are actually doing, so not everything that I mention might apply to the same degree for you. I’m a sysadmin by profession, but I know a bit of a programmer’s perspective, too. Still I think the interested hobbyist or people who work with computers all day will find some tips on how to increase efficiency in their workflows. Especially the points in this first post are pretty general and should apply to just about anybody since it’s about hardware.

1) Touch typing – and considering your layout

An obvious activity to improve your skills in using a computer is to learn touch typing. I recommend to learn it as early as possible: It’ll help you through most of your life after you start doing it. Also it’s not as hard as it might seem. Decide that you want to do it and practice for a few weeks. That’s all. It’s completely sufficient to learn to type without looking at the keyboard. Even if you stop practicing there, your speed will improve as you keep typing. If you enjoy it, by all means do practice speed at least a little! There’s a lot to be gained here. But basic touch typing is enough to be counted as a valuable skill. You’ll get faster just by doing it anyway.

There is free training software out there (I recommend klavaro). But before you run off to learn it, do a little research on the net first! Learning QWERTY (or whatever the default layout in your country is) certainly works. But it’s not actually a good layout at all. If you already learned QWERTY, well, too bad. You might consider re-learning touch typing with a different layout, but there is less gain to it than a lot of people would say is worth the effort. I was a QWERTZ (German standard keyboard) typist and went through the ordeal of re-learning. It took time. It definitely was hard. And it required quite a bit of resolve. However it means that I can type without pain in my wrists again and that alone was well worth it. In fact it feels a lot better so that it’s more fun to type, too.

Would I recommend getting used to an alternative layout if you already know a standard one? It depends. I’d certainly not recommend it to everybody. If you are typing a lot and you feel that you’re young enough to benefit from the change, then go for it! Otherwise stick to what you already know and do well.

But if you’re just planning to learn touch typing, please look at what ergonomic layouts are available for your language. People whose native language is English might want to take a look at Colemak or Dvorak. For the German-speaking I can really recommend NEO² (and also for people who need a lot of special characters and e.g. the whole Greek alphabet in both upper and lower case). Just learn it properly (i.e. not QWERTY!) right from the start.

If you’re at all interested in why QWERTY is not a good layout for us today and how it came to be, I recommend the DvorakZine. They offer a PDF that explains it all with a very nice and informative comic.

2) Input devices

In case the previous paragraph was not for you (i.e. you don’t touch type and you don’t want to learn it either), you can skip this one, too. It doesn’t make sense to determine which keyboard and mouse is right for you and invest a nice sum of money if all you’re ever going to do is typing with a couple of fingers only anyway. You won’t profit from the ergonomic principles applied to the device design. Get anything that you’re comfortable with and be happy that you saved the expenses.

If you do touch type however, consider your options. A lot of people swear by their mechanical switches. Especially if you’re a fast typist do yourself a favor and think about using ergonomic devices. Yes, they can be expensive. And yes, it takes time to do research, too. But it might be well worth it. Here’s why:

It’s an important investment not so much in further increasing your speed (there may or may not be a small improvement there, too) but in maintaining your health and thus keeping up with the efficiency that you reached. Fast typing puts considerable strain on your fingers and wrists. I knew this for a long time but chose to ignore it with a “surely won’t hit me” attitude. But then it did. So let me assure you that RSI and the like can cause serious pain. I’m not a very thin-skinned guy, but there were days the pain was strong enough to be a real problem, forcing me to wear some kind of splint.

Today with my ergonomic keyboards (one at work and one at home) I can type mostly without problems again. Still I encourage you to be smarter than I was and don’t get there in the first place. It’s not cool to have your small child on your arms and with the constant fear of dropping it because you cannot completely trust your wrists after a busy day…

I do not regret the investment for the Truly ergonomic keyboard (the old one) and I’m looking forward to try out the new split Cleave model as it becomes available. There are cheaper and more expensive devices. If you’re looking a the cheap ones (like those from Microsoft that I used before): It’s probably better than nothing. But I have to add that it didn’t really help me that much.

You probably wouldn’t consider the very expansive ones before you’re having problems with your hands. Just take a look at e.g. the Maltron 3D – it comes at the cost you might even get a very old car for (depending on where in the world you are)! I’d be curious to try one out, but I don’t have that much money to spare and chances are that I’d still like my TEK better anyways.

Are you working a lot with the mouse? You’d probably be shocked by how many kilometers you move the mouse each week (there are programs that record statistics like that). For mice there are so-called vertical mice that are meant to be ergonomic alternatives to the common devices. There are some cheap ones available. One that I tried out had some flaws that cheap mice have (low precision, awkward buttons, etc.) but was ok to try out working with a vertical model.

At work I’ve been using a more expensive model for a few months now. It works pretty well and I’m happy with it. At home I’m having a more common horizontal model and won’t buy a vertical one. Why? Because I’m actually trying to eliminate the mouse from my workflow as much as possible (more on that in the following parts of this article) and thus it doesn’t make that much of a difference.

Whatever you decide on keyboards and mice – it’s important to know that there are ergonomic alternatives.

3) Multi monitor

In most workflows you’ll have multiple applications open and in general it makes sense to keep an overview and avoid unnecessary switching between your programs: Minimizing your IDE to go to the browser so you can look something up works, but it’s not ideal. If you’re working on a somewhat complex problem, it would also certainly help to have both your IDE and your browser visible at the same time.

Of course you can resize both applications so that you’ll have them on the screen at the same time even if you use just one monitor. While that generally works, it’s extra work (which will sum up), you won’t see as much as if you had the applications in a full-screen window (probably not all of the relevant code in your IDE will fit, forcing you to scroll). Let’s be honest: You can work around this situation, but a workaround is not a solution.

You might think that one monitor totally suffices. I thought so, too. Then I got two at work and became used to them in just hours. Now I wouldn’t want to go back for serious work. At home most machines have still just one monitor, but my main workstation totally needs to have two. I suggest that you try out working with two monitors a couple of days. If you find that you can go back to using a single one and don’t miss anything, that’s fine of course. But chances are that you don’t actually want to.

There are people who say you should use three or even more monitors. There certainly are workloads where that makes a lot of sense. Workspace on the screen is precious and more is generally good. But there’s the point when you just have enough and adding more will not be beneficial anymore. In fact adding more is becoming less and less useful the more you are approaching that point. Adding a second monitor to your setup is revolutionary. Adding a third one is not likely to make as much of a difference already. And while some people have special requirements that mean they can make good use of even more screens, that really is not too common.

An example: As a sysadmin I need to keep an eye on our monitoring system so that I can react quickly if something happens. There’s a lot of information in there and even though it’s color coded, making more things fit on the screen is a win. I also frequently need our communication channel, so I usually have the monitoring system and the IRC client open on my second screen. The other is for terminal emulators, a web browser and stuff like that. By making good use of my window manager’s (more on that important topic in a future part) virtual screens I get along pretty well. Still I often have to send something over to the second screen for a while, covering the monitoring system. While that’s not a big problem (I’ll get an on-screen notification about critical events, anyway, but I won’t see things in warning state) it is an example of a situation where a third monitor might make sense.

Try out working with dual-monitors – graphic cards that support two are nothing that uncommon. Before you try out three, think about what your daily tasks are. Chances are that the expenses and the effort required for that kind of setup are higher than what the additional monitor might be worth for you.

What’s next?

The next post will switch gears from hardware to software. But what’s with other hardware? Sure, there’s a lot that could be written about it, too. But this post is definitely long enough already and I wanted to focus on the most important things here.

[ ! -z ${COC} ] && exit 1

There has been some turmoil about FreeBSD’s new Code Of Conduct lately. While it was meant to maintain peace in the community, it actually lead to the opposite: Two fractions are more hostile towards each other than ever – and the new COC allows to simply get rid of unwanted (by one such group) persons.

Disclaimer: I’m just a FreeBSD user and advocate. I work with my OS of choice, write about it and encourage trying it out. However I’m not directly part of the project – and while that has been a mid-term goal for me for some time, that way is probably blocked for me now.

What’s a Code Of Conduct?

Basically a Code Of Conduct is a set of rules for people to follow. If you join any organization that has a COC, reading and understanding it is essential. It will tell you what you are expected to behave like and which behavior is objectionable.

The idea is to write up rules that make sense for the organization and that everybody can accept. It’s often simple things like: Respect your colleagues, shut the door when smoking outside, try to be helpful if somebody asks you for help, etc. In short: Behave decently.

Why all that fuss about it?

So – if that’s all, why write an article about it (let alone make all that noise about that topic)? Well… That’s not all, unfortunately. The main problem is not “a COC” – it’s FreeBSD’s COC. Scroll all the way down to the end of the COC and you’ll see the attribution. It reads: Geek Feminism Wiki. It’s no surprise that this is like a red rag to a bull to for some people: Feminism?! In tech??

People who overreact when reading the term alone should really calm down. Yes, stay cool. Why? Because it’s actually getting worse…

Feminism

Yeah, everybody knows what feminism means, so why talk about it? Because there’s feminism and there’s… well, “feminism”. While the former is a just cause (unless you’re a true women hater), the latter is a crude ideology. “Feminism” is not about women’s right to vote, to live their lives free from oppression or their right to be an esteemed part of society. It’s about destroying society in the name of a just cause.

“Third wave” feminists will happily taunt married women who chose a traditional family life to be “slaves”. While everybody else knows that it’s a token of appreciation to hold a door open for a woman or help her out of a coat, they will aggressively deny this and state that they can do it themselves. Compliment them and you’re toast. And worse still: Dare to use a word that they deem evil and they will assault you (at least verbally). Plus: They are so obsessed with “minorities” that actual concerns of women come second – at best.

I’ve known a girl who went to an elite school. She spoke Latin fluently (as well as Greek mostly) when she was only 14 (she once corrected me before I even finished a Latin sentence that I read from an old exercise book of mine…). She had a very strong spirit, too, and rejected the religious belief that was expected from her. However she had very humble goals for her own life. When they were asked in school what job they would like to do later, she stated: Housewife and mother. After a moment of shocked silence, she was laughed at. As she told me, that had been the most painful moment in her young life. It’s a shame when a woman cannot become an astronaut if that’s what she dreams of doing. But it’s plain wrong to force women to take up paid jobs if they would prefer to live a traditional life.

Feminism is freedom of choice for women and means that each woman gets to decide for herself. “Feminism” is coercion and doctrine and it means that ideologists decide what women in general have to do (and what not). Feminism is sound, honest and all about emancipation. Whereas “feminism” is cruel, phony and enslaving.

Balance

When thinking about freedom, it makes sense to distinguish between what is commonly called “positive” and “negative” freedom. This does not mean that negative freedom is something bad – both freedoms are valuable. To avoid misunderstandings I prefer to speak of active and passive freedom. Active freedom is the freedom to do something while passive freedom is the freedom from something (e.g. paying taxes).

Those freedoms are in a direct and fixed relation to each other: To increase one you have to decrease the other. Want to give people freedom from the fear to be shot in public? There’s no other means but to take away the freedom to carry firearms with them. Other way around: To give women the right to breast-feed babies in public means to take away the freedom of others to never see any bare breasts by accident.

You will always find people who are easily offended by just about anything. And on the other hand you’ll find die-hard folks who demand that they are allowed to do whatever they feel like. Both are rather extreme stances. It’s not terribly hard to see that some kind of balance is necessary between them.

Making an example often simplifies things. So here we go: I like to listen to music. Various forms of Black and Death Metal are my favorite. It’s also quite common that Metal bands use artwork that’s a bit… special. Some of the clothing that I own displays blood, gore and human innards. Nude women are also not so uncommon nor is blasphemic imagery. What I loathe on the other hand is so-called Hip-Hop music. Monotony is a weapon and whenever I’m forced to listen to something like this, my brain twists in agony as I can physically feel getting more and more dull.

What I’m considering beautiful music is terrible noise for most people. I can live with that. I don’t feel the need to complain loudly that somebody just “disrespected” me with such a statement. On the contrary: Taste is entirely subjective. It’s ok that you don’t like my music. I’m also not going to annoy you with it. And yes, the aforementioned kind of clothing is fine when I feel like going to a club or Metal bar. It’s probably not the right thing to wear when going to church. I won’t show it in public – there’s no need to confront people with something that they find is disgusting. At the same time I’d prefer if people would stop annoying me with loud “rap music” and the like in public. I don’t want to have to listen to that! However I’m not going to demand it. I think that people should care for not offending others. But if they think otherwise (or don’t think at all), I value freedom enough to not go all drama about it.

Tyranny vs. democracy

Let’s talk about minorities next. In ancient Greece democracy was not what we use the term for today. Still it makes sense to look at what terms like that come from and how they evolved. Polis is the Greek word for “city”. But don’t think of today’s modern cities – the poleis were effectively city states (you can still recognize “city” in citizen, even if that refers to a state). That Polis is where the word “politics” is derived from; “politics” basically means anything regarding the rules of the city (or state). Tyrannis was what the rule of a single potentate was originally called and democratica the rule of the demos, the citizens. Neither women, slaves nor metoikos (established strangers) were citizens and thus could not vote or otherwise participate in the state affairs.

The very idea of democracy was that by the means of vote, the majority gets to decide. The modern idea of democracy makes one fundamental difference: Even though they are outvoted, minorities can still be citizens after all and thus – to a certain degree – need protection from the majority. This is a very important concept and protecting the weak is commonly agreed to be a noble thing. Therefore this is not where democracy ends as some people may claim.

There is this point however, where the whole thing is getting completely out of control. This is when the noble idea of protecting minorities is turned into a weapon to terrorize the majority. Sounds absurd? Agreed. But just look around you carefully… There’s this idiot making stupid claims and trying to get you into trouble. However you cannot even call him an idiot – because he’s black/gay/jewish/handicapped. That’s right: Attribute xyz doesn’t have anything to do at all with the fact that he’s an idiot, but in today’s society, sometimes that’s all that counts. And that’s where the most important freedom – which is hard-fought and not a gift at all – disappears: Your freedom of speech is gone. You are no longer free to even say the truth just because… Yeah, just because what? Because otherwise your reputation will be destroyed.

That’s pretty bad, yes. But fortunately we’re one step ahead on the path to complete insanity. People are free to arbitrarily declare that they belong to minority xyz – and you better “respect” that! Also they are free to “feel” discriminated by your behavior – and this can put you into real trouble. Don’t want to lose your job? Bite your tongue! Don’t want your neighbors to scorn you? Keep your trap shut! Oh, and welcome to the dictatorship of “political correctness”.

Embracing the absurd

If you want to protect every thinkable minority (and by “protect” mean to ensure that nobody is allowed to act in a way that could hurt their feelings) this is simply an impossible situation. Just one bitter example: Most people would agree that denying the shoah might hurt a lot of jews. But what about the people who… No, stop, you cannot call them holocaust deniers! They prefer to be called “people with an alternative opinion on the so-called holocaust”. And they are certainly a minority.

What about white supremacists? They are a minority, too. Learn to respect their feelings, will you! Or fundamental christians who are absolutely certain that homosexuals burn in hell. This belief is not exactly one that the majority shares.

And when it comes to “feminism”, some people even believe that it is “fair” to penalize others on account of an asserted privileged position in the past. This is when all ideas of equality vanish and certain people demand that discriminating against men/whites/christians/… and preferring women/blacks/$RELIGIOUS_GROUP is a good thing. But let’s not get deeper into this.

FreeBSD

People shouldn’t hurt each other, that’s something (almost) everybody should be able to agree to. But it’s not a good idea at all to drive this to the point where it gets ridiculous. FreeBSD’s COC hits this point a couple of times, e.g. when

simulated physical contact (e.g., textual descriptions like “*hug*” or “*backrub*”) without consent

is declared “harassment”. This lead to the FreeHugsBSD fork because the original is now “hugs-free BSD”…

FreeBSD is not very often in the news and if it is, not too many people care about it. In this case however, the forums of the German tech community were full of posts (most of them making fun of us FreeBSD users – and mostly rightfully so). Others are sharing pictures like this.

My personal favorite however is the ban of “dead names”. Sorry people, but most of the time somebody wants to change his or her name, I’m not convinced. I don’t care if James comes back from Syria and wants to be called “Abu Khaled” or if Frank decides you should call him Charlotte. Don’t get me wrong, I wish them well. However I’m pretty sure that it would be best for both of them to go and see a psychiatrist.

Do we need a Code Of Conduct?

In short: No. We’re talking about tech here. If you cannot use UFS because it was created by McKusick – who married a man -, that’s your problem. If you use UFS because it was created by a gay person, I’d also not vouch for your mental health, but to each his own, eh?

Same thing for all those other minorities: It simply doesn’t play any role. Maybe you’re an atheist while I’m not. I’m pretty sure that we can get along just fine if we’re both passionate about BSD (and even if we meet in person and discuss religion, I’ve never had a problem with a polite person that doesn’t share my faith). If you have a disability, it might make sense to mention that on the net because it really affects how you use a computer. But why should you care that I’m a vegetarian? And why should I care if you were “born in the wrong body”? If you love a goat that’s of course a different thing in this case! 😉

But still: Why don’t we keep all this nonsense out of the community and learn to actually get along? Yes, there has often been a questionable tone e.g. in the mailing lists. There’s a lot of room for improvement. But does dictating strange rules really solve the problem?

So what now? Should you rage-quit FreeBSD? Stop donating? Yelling at core and cursing whoever proposed this? Certainly not. The best defence against all this madness – is keeping calm and taking it seriously. Stay with FreeBSD if you can and express your rejection of this disgrace. Freedom is never gone for good. It can return.

I’m out – for now

For me personally, joining FreeBSD is currently not an option. I’m a “live and let live” kind of person. Thus I can get along with people who I consider to be weirdos (and with those that consider me a weirdo – at least for my part in getting along!). Again: This is tech. There are a lots of rather special people around, often with their very own quirks. A lot of them are quite brilliant, too, and you wouldn’t want to miss them.

But never ever, under no circumstances am I going to pretend what certain people call “respect” (thus washing away the meaning of this grand word) for quirks that I can live with but definitely won’t approve of.

Oh, and I belong to various minorities, too, BTW. One is the minority of people who don’t speak English natively and whose tortured sense for grammar screams in pain when they encounter the abomination of a “singular they”. Won’t you have mercy with me? Please?

Blessed be the blind
For their conscience won’t collide
With the cruelty of sanity
And the prophetic signs
In the book of life
– Suidakra, Signs For The Fallen

“Permissive licensing is wrong?” – No it’s not! (2/2)

The previous post gave a short introduction into the topic of software licenses, focusing on the GPL vs. BSD discussion. This one is basically my response to some typical arguments I’ve seen from people who seem to loathe permissive licensing. I’ll write this in dialog style, hoping that this makes it a little lighter to read.

Users

GPL fan: “BSD license? Really? You shouldn’t be using that!”
BSD advocate: “Why not? I like it a lot.”
Fan: “It’s a dumb decision. Don’t you even care about free and open source software?”
Advocate: “Oh yes, I do!”
Fan: “Then why not just use the license everyone uses? In contrast to BSD, the GPL ensures that code remains free.”
Advocate: “No, not ‘everyone’ uses that license. You wouldn’t claim that e.g. the Apache foundation doesn’t do anything for open source now would you?”
Fan: “Most of the important projects do. Apache and some others don’t, I’ll give you that. They should adapt the GPL, though.”
Advocate: “Version 2 or 3?”
Fan: “GPLv3, of course. It was updated for a reason after all! The current version offers much better protection for your code.”
Advocate: “Well… I don’t feel any need for this kind of ‘protection’. But for now let’s assume that you convinced me. Changing the license would be quite a bit of work!”

Simplicity vs. Complexity

Fan: “How’s that? Re-licensing stuff to GPL is pretty straight-forward.”
Advocate: “Reading – and understanding! – the license alone takes quite some time… Which is one reason I prefer the much simpler BSD licenses, BTW.”
Fan: “Nonsense! The GPL has been constructed carefully and is advocated by the FSF. You can read it, of course, but you could basically trust their judgement.”
Advocate: “I strongly prefer to work with things that I do understand myself.”
Fan: “The aim of the GPL is not hard to understand at all.”
Advocate “It’s a complex monster. Sure, I understand what it’s all about. But in life in general – and even more so in law – the devil is in the details. Finding out what I am allowed to do and what not is not an easy task – and it got more complicated with every new version of the license.”
Fan “It’s only as complex as it has to. You admitted that law is complicated and details are important. Of course it had to become more comprehensive over time! That’s for our own good.”
Advocate “‘Of course’? I’d doubt that. The BSD license has seen updated versions as well – and it has been shortened with every new revision… Anyway, my focus is on the software. For that reason I prefer a license that doesn’t distract me for quite some time from what I actually want to do.”
Fan: “You said that you care about your code? Fine. Then you really should avoid BSD licenses!”
Advocate: “Uhm… What?”
Fan: “Linus Torvalds put it this way: ‘Over the years, I’ve become convinced that the BSD license is great for code you don’t care about’. And he’s right.”
Advocate: “No he isn’t. It completely depends on what you want to achieve!”

Success

Fan: “It’s common knowledge that the Linux kernel is so successful because of it being GPL’d so that every company using it had to give their changes back for the common good. Let’s see… How popular are your valued BSD-based operating systems today? Oh, nobody uses them anymore…”
Advocate: “Wow, Netflix, Whatsapp and others who exclusively use BSD are ‘nobody’? Not to mention other users and supporters of BSD operating systems like Yandex and VeriSign. The BSDs are less visible compared to Linux, that’s true. But by simply doing their job well and without all the community drama people are talking less about the BSDs is not a surprise at all!”
Fan: “Now you’re trying to make it look like Linux and the BSDs were on par! That’s completely wrong. Linux has a share of 100% on the TOP500 supercomputers since November 2017. Try to beat that!”
Advocate: “And with Android… yeah, I know what you’d point to next. True: Linux has reached a monopoly worse than…”
Fan: “Worse? What’s bad about open source software prevailing?”
Advocate: “Monopolies are not a good thing at all. I’m all for open source operating systems – mind the plural there.”
Fan: “Heh, you only say that because you’re betting on the wrong horse. Face it: Linux is the winner here and for a good reason!”
Advocate: “*mumbles* Yeah, and if only it had adopted the GPLv3 then it’d be at 200% share on supercomputers now…”
Fan: “Excuse me, could you repeat that just a little louder?”
Advocate: “I just doubt that it’s only a license thing that decides on success or failure. For the BSDs, historically it has been a state of legal uncertainty that was the big problem and allowed Linux to rise. And if your point was really valid – why do we need GPLv3 at all if v2 used by Linux to this day is all that’s required to conquer the world?”
Fan: “You’re just jealous! But sure, the GPL is just one key to the success of Linux. The BSD licenses are also one major factor in the demise of the BSD operating systems.”
Advocate: “There is no demise; there are at least four healthy BSD communities who continue to provide quality operating system releases. The claim that ‘BSD is dying’ has about as much truth to it as the prediction of the ‘year of the Linux desktop’! Of course you are free to prove otherwise.”

Freedom

Fan: “Freedom is a good point, too! Permissive licenses may grant the user some rights but only copyleft ensures that nobody can take your freedom away. Isn’t that kind of important?”
Advocate: “Yes, freedom is extremely important – which is why I choose permissive licenses over copyleft ones. But we certainly won’t find a definition of freedom that suits both of us.”
Fan: “So that’s something you don’t want to talk about? Then what are you hiding there? Your weak arguments?”
Advocate: “Not really. The problem here is: I know and understand your point of view. Why? Because I’ve been there when I was younger and promoted the GPL. But now that I have a broader understanding of the matter I have a different view on it.”
Fan: “Yeah, just treat me like a young boy. ‘You cannot understand that now, grow a little older and wiser and you’ll be enlightened like me!'”
Advocate: “I didn’t say that. All that I’ve said is that I know your position and that it’s nothing that can be proven wrong easily enough for us to make sense to discuss it without going in-depth on it. If you insist, we should set aside a couple of evenings for a philosophical debate.”
Fan: “Which philosophical debate? I’m still claiming that you’re trying to avoid the topic.”
Advocate: “Yes, I am – for today. It’s a topic for itself and leads too far off for us right now. But here’s the core of the problem: The point of view you have is that ‘enforcing freedom’ is a good thing. From my point of view it is absurd. Force and freedom contradict each other.”
Fan: “Not necessarily.”
Advocate: “So you claim that it’s possible to force somebody to be free?”
Fan: “Hm. Why not?”
Advocate: “Because force takes freedom away. But the problem is in the term ‘freedom’. We use it differently and mean other things. That’s why this specific debate would require a whole lot more time. So can we agree on a draw for that topic for now?”
Fan: “If it really takes so long to discuss, that may make sense. So back to the characters of the licenses, right? But don’t think that I’ll let you get away with such claims on another topic again!”

Better with Copyleft?

Advocate: “So?”
Fan: “Copyleft is also superior to permissive licenses.”
Advocate: “Didn’t we already cover the topic ‘success’? Or do you mean the fact that it’s overriding the terms of permissively licensed code when the two are combined?”
Fan: “I meant something else, but that’s true, too, of course!”
Advocate: “I don’t think that this is a good thing. It’s virulent in nature.”
Fan: “Oh hello, Mr. Ballmer!”
Advocate: “I didn’t say that it’s cancer, even though that’s probably a valid point of view on it.”
Fan: “Anyway, it’s superior because it guarantees that companies using the code contribute their changes back. It’s pure logic to assume that this makes the software better than a competitor where you don’t have to give back.”
Advocate: “Hm… What about the incompatibilities of copyleft licenses?”
Fan: “What do you mean? And how would that impact the quality of an OS or something?”
Advocate: “Well, take ZFS for example. It’s the world’s most advanced filesystem – and it’s licensed under a copyleft license. However that license is incompatible with the GPL and for that reason cannot easily be included into Linux distros! FreeBSD for example doesn’t have this problem. Due to the permissive license of the main operating system components, including ZFS was no problem from a legal point of view…”
Fan: “Ah, we can do without ZFS, we have BTRFS! And if you really want it, you can use DKMS to build it!”
Advocate: “DKMS is quite an inconvenience in this regard and I won’t even comment on that other FS… But that was just one example that copyleft licenses are sometimes not as cool as you’d like to make them look.”
Fan: “Nah, Sun should have open-sourced ZFS under the GPL or at least made their license compatible with it. Then we wouldn’t have that problem.”
Advocate: “The more complicated licenses get, the more edge cases arise that lead to problems. BTW, have you ever heard the comparison ‘GPL is a license. BSD is a gift’?”

Gift vs. license

Fan: “The large corporations will surely applaud your stance on this matter!”
Advocate: “Oh, let’s stay clear of this childish behavior and refrain from insulting each other with poisoned compliments, shall we? Otherwise I’d reply with something like ‘great attitude! Congratulations on it from the national lawyer’s association’. But that wouldn’t be helpful either, would it?”
Fan: “Lawyers are not nearly as bad as the big companies.”
Advocate: “Right. Some of them are supporting your cause. Others are doing the opposite by helping big business to find new loop holes. Both make quite a bit of money without ever improving the code.”
Fan: “Good lawyers are necessary to help protect software. That’s a win for open source.”
Advocate: “If you say so… I still prefer simple things. I like it being a gift.”
Fan: “Others will surely like that, too. It’s a gift to the large companies that only care for open source when they can make profit with it! For that reason making such a gift is stupid.”
Advocate “Not so fast. It’s a gift to everybody. That makes quite a difference!”
Fan: “No it doesn’t. Greedy corporations will end up taking your code.”
Advocate: “Maybe they’ll actually do. But are you really saying: ‘Don’t give a blanket for a refugee – a terrorist might warm himself with it’? Are good deeds wrong if a bad person might benefit from it?”

Exploitation?

Fan: “*Sigh* That’s not the point. When you use permissive licenses you are actively asking to be exploited.”
Advocate: “Sorry, that’s simply wrong. Software has the advantage of not disappearing when you give it away. I can give it to multiple people and don’t lose anything. When it comes to free software, the only thing that can be exploited are bugs.”
Fan: “Ha ha, very funny – not. You know exactly what I mean: You are asking to be exploited because you invested time into a project and somebody else simply takes it and generates revenue from it while you get nothing.”
Advocate: “I have a very different view on that. I open-sourced my code in the hope that it would be useful to people. If I had intended to make money with it, I would have chosen to commercialize it.”
Fan: “But they did commercialize it! And they make money from your work!”
Advocate: “Relax! Yes, that’s entirely possible. However I didn’t expect to make money with it in the first place, anyway.”
Fan: “But if your code is useful, somebody else surely will!”
Advocate: “And is allowed to do so, if he or she finds somebody who’s willing to pay for something that’s freely available. I’m still not losing anything, right? Besides: Anybody else could also try to sell it. It’s the same rules for everybody. I’d say that’s fair.”

Ethical issues

Fan: “That’s really egoistic thinking. Supporting unfree software is entirely unethical!”
Advocate: “You didn’t really say that, did you? I’m giving something away. For free, no strings attached and without trying to achieve any real benefit for myself. And you are accusing me of acting unethical?”
Fan: “Actually yes. By not making sure that your ‘gift’ remains free, you’re supporting unfree software.”
Advocate: “Wrong. It does remain free! Nobody is losing anything.”
Fan: “You know as well as I do that the BSD license allows closing your code and using it in closed-source software!”
Advocate: “Errr… Sure. But while you are trying to make it sound like that would mean a loss for open source this is not the case. The original code doesn’t disappear! It remains available under the BSD license and continues to be of use to anybody who wants to use it.”
Fan: “Bah, what a short-sighted argument! Yeah, your original code may still be available, but they will make modifications to their copy. And that’s when you’re cut off from good things that resulted from your code!”
Advocate: “I can live with that.”
Fan: “That’s ridiculous. Come on, don’t be an idiot! They are making others pay for something that was free software and now isn’t anymore. And you said that you care for free software?!”
Advocate: “You obviously can’t understand it. Why don’t you ask for my reasons instead of calling me an idiot?”
Fan: “Because there cannot be a legit reason for supporting unfree software!”
Advocate: “Excuse me but that’s a little bit arrogant, don’t you think? Let me give you an example. Think about Microsoft…”

Closed source

Fan: “Ha! You’re not going to defend M$, are you? You advocates of ‘permissive licensing’ are all the same! Why didn’t you start our conversation stating that you love Microsoft? That would have saved me quite some time!”
Advocate: “Please let me finish my sentences, will you? I certainly don’t love Microsoft. In fact I haven’t installed any Microsoft OS or program at home in about 10 years. I’ve been there when they used their market power with Windows 3.x to destroy DR-DOS. I haven’t forgotten the Halloween papers, either.”
Fan: “So? Windows is a terrible OS.”
Advocate: “Yes, for the versions that I know and have used in the past, that’s certainly true. What I wanted to say however is this: The web is a pretty bad place today and even though a lot was done over the last years, much of the software today is still a nightmare when it comes to security. Agree?”
Fan: “Sure!”
Advocate: “Fine. Especially Windows has been notorious for very bad security flaws in the past and all those hacked Windows machines are ruining the net for us all. Now imagine Microsoft couldn’t have taken the well-tested TCP/IP stack from BSD Unix because it had a different license. They would have been forced to write their own – would you really want to claim that would have made the world a better place?”
Fan: “Probably not… But nobody should use Windows in the first place then that problem would be hypothetical.”
Advocate: “In an ideal world we wouldn’t have any of those issues, right?”
Fan: “Correct. In that case we wouldn’t even need the GPL because everybody would be acting ethically anyway. But we aren’t living in such a world and for that very reason need GPL to support the FLOSS movement. You’re quite good at making esoteric objections against the GPL to make your lax license look better, BTW.”

Lax vs. pessimistic

Advocate: “Esoteric? I’d claim that the one case that I mentioned alone had quite some impact on the future of the net. But if you insist on calling my preferred family of licenses ‘lax’, I’m going to call yours ‘pessimistic’.”
Fan: “Why that? There’s nothing pessimistic about the GPL!”
Advocate: “Yes, there is. The whole idea is. Didn’t you say yourself that the GPL wouldn’t be needed in a better world?”
Fan: “In an ideal world! That’s different. But that doesn’t make it pessimistic.”
Advocate: “It does. You’re considering man to be bad – or at least sufficiently bad that instruments as the GPL are necessary.”
Fan: “They are necessary! That’s a fact. Just look around you with your eyes open!”
Advocate: “I disagree. And in fact I’m even going to top it: The GPL is not only unnecessary, it’s actively harmful.”
Fan: “Now you’ve completely lost your mind…”
Advocate: “Have I? Let me make another example. I’ve grown up using closed-source software. When I discovered open source, I was very happy that such a thing existed and completely made the switch.”
Fan: “And now you’re seeking to ruin it all…”
Advocate: “Not really. I’m actually happy enough with it that I developed a feeling of great gratitude and that created a desire within me to give something back.”
Fan: “That sounds great and all but I have no idea why the heck you are acting against open source.”
Advocate: “The point here is: I give back now because I want to. With the GPL I’d have to. The freedom of choice makes the difference here.”
Fan: “How nice for you! But a lot of people wouldn’t give back on their own and that’s why they need to be forced to!”
Advocate: “And by doing so you’re actively making it impossible for people to really grow ethically and make the morally superior choice themselves! You know, I hate that ‘four freedoms’ nonsense! It’s just a disguise for dictating rules that seem to make sense but in fact deny your freedom! All that ‘respects your freedoms’ is utterly cynical if any person’s most basic freedom – our free will – is denied!”

Capitalism

Fan: “Wow, impressive rant!”
Advocate: “That’s all you reply to the points that I make?”
Fan: “You’re a dreamer. All that ‘ethical growth’ and ‘personal development’ stuff is utopistic. Big money rules the world.”
Advocate: “It sure does, but in the form that we’re seeing today that will come to an end.”
Fan: “I doubt it, but if it does, that will be a victory we can only achieve with the GPL. It’s a powerful weapon we can use to defeat the big corporations.”
Advocate: “To found a world that people live in who never learned to make ethical decisions in the first place because it was already decided for them. Not a world I’d like to live in either.”
Fan: “Not a surprise that you’re defending capitalism and corporate power!”
Advocate: “I’m not a capitalist but I’m convinced that there’s a better way out of it.”
Fan: “By letting it all continue as it goes today?!”
Advocate: “As strange as that sounds – yes. And here’s why: Take companies like Juniper for example. They took FreeBSD as the base for their OS because… Well, it was free and allowed them to close the source and keep it for themselves.”
Fan: “And you like that…”
Advocate: “Yes, I do! You won’t believe it, but they hurt themselves by doing so: More and more new versions of FreeBSD were released and they were stuck with their old system which required a lot of maintenance and updating it got harder and harder since the system diverged a lot over the time. If they had given back as much as they could, they would even have saved a lot of money… Today there are already companies who understood this and even from purely capitalistic motivations started to embrace permissive open source: They give back as much as they can because it benefits everyone (including them).”
Fan: “That cannot be many. Otherwise BSD would be far more popular.”
Advocate: “It takes time for companies to learn. Give them the chance to hurt themselves and to eventually come to a good conclusion on how to act.”

Final victory

Fan: “Even if that was true, in your world open source would never succeed. You’d always feed your code to the companies who will improve it a bit and start selling a product that’s superior. We can never catch up with them this way!”
Advocate: “I’m going to claim the opposite: We’re catching up quickly and there’s no way that we’re not going to win.”
Fan: “How’s that? They will always be a step ahead! Code needs to be constantly improved and they have an advantage there.”
Advocate: “That’s today’s story, yes. But we’re rapidly approaching the point where open source software is no longer a somewhat limited ‘alternative’ to commercial software but simply good enough for just about any task.”
Fan: “And then?”
Advocate: “That’s the moment we’ve ‘won’.”
Fan: “Strange definition of winning… The companies will still sell improved products!”
Advocate: “Well, just let them if they find someone who really needs those additional features and is willing to pay for them.”
Fan: “What do you mean? Of course people want the best software possible and will pay for it! We live in a capitalist society. Your strange ideas won’t change anything.”
Advocate: “My ideas? Certainly not. But the very rules of capitalism itself will eventually defeat it. If you don’t believe me, just tell me: How to beat good enough and free from a capitalist point of view?”
Fan: “Oh my. You really are a weirdo. Keep your faith in mankind being able to change its ways. I don’t have it and will stick with copyleft!”

(Sorry for the delay in publishing this, but last month has been really, really chaotic for me. Two of my grandparents passed away just a few days apart, I had a deer accident (I’m fine but the deer and my car not so much) and I’m in the middle of moving houses… So if you comment on this and I don’t immediately respond, please bear with me!)

Spam blacklisting: Its dark side

(GPL vs. BSD II will be posted in January)

No, I don’t want to see pictures of your sexy body, “Tanya”. Not interested in transferring a huge amount of money for you from some Arabian country, “Khaled”, sorry. To “Mr. lawyer Smith”: I understand that you’re pressed for time to find somebody who can claim the wealth, but I’m not a remote relative of the late “Mr. Anderson”. Oh, while we’re at it: I don’t buy blue pills, pal. And no Rolex watches at cheap prices on special offer for me, either…

SpamSpamSpam

Everybody who is using email today is familiar with the phenomenon of unsolicited mails commonly called “spam” today. That it originally meant a meat product and how the term evolved is a story on its own – a story that few people care for when they want to read their mails and are frustrated to find their inbox flooded with useless gibberish.

The rise of spam has been a major factor in ending the days of the once so innocent Internet. You want to run an email server at home? Forget it – or get a static IP from your ISP. No sane person configures any mail server or mail relay server to accept mail from an IP known to belong to the dynamic range of any ISP. Why? Because that would be spammer’s heaven. And we certainly don’t want that to happen. Matters are just bad enough the way they are.

Fighting spam

Spam messages are a major annoyance. They can in fact be vexing enough to motivate people to search for means to end the onslaught of hostile messages (or at least limit it somewhat). Smart people have invented and implemented spam filtering. The filter e.g. checks all incoming emails for certain keywords and calculates the likelihood of it being spam. This is not a solution for the problem, of course. It’s more of an ongoing fight: Programmers improve and tune their filters, spammers think of new methods to trick those filters into believing that a spam message is not spam.

Another method is to use blacklists with IPs of known spammers. This is actually a pretty powerful and effective method to counter spam. In fact it is a major step in putting a stop to the spammer’s game! Just about everybody who sets up a mail server today will check against one or several spam blacklists and reject any mail that comes in from a suspicious IP. Great! Well, not so much actually…

Highwaymen

Think about starting your own blacklist business for a moment. You build your infrastructure and happily start providing a list of evil IPs. Once a lot of companies and institutions start using your list, you have tremendous power at your hands! Put some IP on there (for whatever reason) and someone will de-facto be unable to mail to a lot of people. You could press money from that person. And that’s what some of them try to do. Take a look at “UCE protect” for example. They charge about 100 EUR (!!) for immediately removing a single IP from their blacklist and even threat to pillory people who “dare” to try to take legal action against those thugs. No, that site is not a joke unfortunately and they obviously run a profitable business by robbing people…

Sure, these are the black sheep. A lot of the spam blacklist providers out there are reputable and reliable organizations. If you ever need to mail someone who uses blacklists like the one from “UCE protect” (e.g. the city of Munich), resort to paper and snail-mail. They probably prefer email because it’s easier to work with. Be sure to tell them that you would have simply sent an email but you won’t since they work together with more-than-dubious blacklist providers.

I never had anything to do with said blacklist service so far, but they are target to a lot of jokes among IT people in my country. During my vocational training I was asked to take a look at their website and have a good laugh. And it was certainly shocking enough to stick in my memory to this day.

Overacting

But let’s get to the reputable services – and the actual problem. A while ago the company that I work for ran into trouble with a big blacklist provider (that we’ve been using ourselves ironically). While their goal of reducing spam is just and noble, they are unfortunately crossing the line and abusing their power. What has happened?

There’s this customer of ours who hosts a humble web shop with us. Nothing fancy. Probably even on the contrary. Now the big blacklist provider chose to block the IP for that shop. No problem so far. We notified our customer – and nothing happened for a while. Then the blacklist provider blocked all IPs of that server. Annoying but not tragic. Why? Because the server doesn’t even do mails! Again we tried to get in contact with our customer and over the back-and-forth time passed by.

But then the unthinkable happened: The blacklist provider threatened to block the entire /24 subnet (and would without doubt increase the blocked range beyond that, eventually swallowing all of our IP addresses)! Sounds like our problem, right? We should have reacted earlier and kicked the spammer off. Unfortunately… There was no spamming involved in this case! The shop that is hosted on our servers is mentioned in spam mails that originate from around the world, but not from our network. Still the blacklist provider is effectively blackmailing us and holding all of our customers hostage – their businesses depend on being able to send mail and if our whole network was blocked that would in fact mean threatening the existence of several companies!

What to do?

That’s the point where I feel that the “good guys” with all their commendable intentions have turned into criminals themselves. And in fact much worse criminals than the average spammer. While the latter is “only” a nuisance, the spamlist provider has become a real threat to business.

At first glance it’s clear what to do: Throw that customer out and eat humble pie, begging the spamlist provider for forgiveness. Even that isn’t so easy, however. While the spamlist provider may operate from a country where such cowboy means are acceptable, we aren’t. You cannot just throw out a customer. We are bound by a valid service agreement and since he insists on being innocent, we cannot just terminate the contract at will since we have no proof of illegal actions. If we did terminate the contract, we’d be in legal trouble and the former customer would definitely win the court case (which would mean the loss of a lot of money for us). If we didn’t, we would put the whole company at risk.

But that’s only the business part of it. Honestly: What if the customer is right and in fact is innocent? It could very well be a competitor trying to ruin his business (and obviously successfully so). And what annoys me the most: This only happens because our customer is a small fish. What would happen if somebody started a spam campaign promoting whitehouse.gov? The same thing? You decide for yourself.

No solution?

I would imagine that this is a problem that others have been facing, too. While I wasn’t directly involved in this case (and I’m certainly happy that I’m just a simple admin who doesn’t have to make any such decisions) the whole incident totally violated my sense of justice. I wrote most of this post a few months ago and decided to wait some time to calm down before publishing it. However that hasn’t happened. I’m still upset when thinking about it.

What could be done about things like this? I don’t know. Probably the only way would be setting up a site like “blacklist watchers” where people can share that they have been held at gunpoint by some service provider. Then people who use blacklists could decide if a service is operating decently or resorting to wild-west means (“I’ll keep thrashing your grandma till you give in!”). That could be abused, too, though. But what other means of self-defence are possible? Comments are of course very welcome.

The actual problem is hard to solve: There’s too much power in the wrong hands. And even more gross: The blacklist people actually want to achieve something good. There’s a German saying that fits very well in this case. It roughly translates to “The opposite of well done is not done badly. It’s well-intentioned“.