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futures of distributions

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Seems Debian is talking about why they are unable to package whole categories of modern software, such as anything using npm. It's good they're having a conversation about that, and I want to give a broader perspective.

Lars Wirzenius's blog post about it explains the problem well from the Debian perspective. In short: The granularity at which software is built has fundamentally changed. It's now typical for hundreds of small libraries to be used by any application, often pegged to specific versions. Language-specific tools manage all the resulting complexity automatically, but distributions can't muster the manpower to package a fraction of this stuff.

Lars lists some ideas for incremental improvements, but the space within which a Linux distribution exists has changed, and that calls not for incremental changes, but for a fundamental rethink from the ground up. Whether Debian is capable of making such fundamental changes at this point in its lifecycle is up to its developers to decide.

Perhaps other distributions are dealing with the problem better? One way to evaluate this is to look at how a given programming language community feels about a distribution's handling of their libraries. Do they generally see the distribution as a road block that must be worked around, or is the distribution a useful part of their workflow? Do they want their stuff included in the distribution, or does that seem like a lot of pointless bother?

I can only speak about the Haskell community. While there are some exceptions, it generally is not interested in Debian containing Haskell packages, and indeed system-wide installations of Haskell packages can be an active problem for development. This is despite Debian having done a much better job at packaging a lot of Haskell libraries than it has at say, npm libraries. Debian still only packages one version of anything, and there is lag and complex process involved, and so friction with the Haskell community.

On the other hand, there is a distribution that the Haskell community broadly does like, and that's Nix. A subset of the Haskell community uses Nix to manage and deploy Haskell software, and there's generally a good impression of it. Nix seems to be doing something right, that Debian is not doing.

It seems that Nix also has pretty good support for working with npm packages, including ingesting a whole dependency chain into the package manager with a single command, and thousands of npm libraries included in the distribution I don't know how the npm community feels about Nix, but my guess is they like it better than Debian.

Nix is a radical rethink of the distribution model. And it's jettisoned a lot of things that Debian does, like manually packaging software, or extreme license vetting. It's interesting that Guix, which uses the same technologies as Nix, but seems in many ways more Debian-like with its care about licensing etc, has also been unable to manage npm packaging. This suggests to me that at least some of the things that Nix has jettisoned need to be jettisoned in order to succeed in the new distribution space.

But. Nix is not really exploding in popularity from what I can see. It seems to have settled into a niche of its own, and is perhaps expanding here and there, but not rapidly. It's insignificant compared with things like Docker, that also radically rethink the distribution model.

We could easily end up with some nightmare of lithification, as described by Robert "r0ml" Lefkowitz in his Linux.conf.au talk. Endlessly copied and compacted layers of code, contained or in the cloud. Programmer-archeologists right out of a Vinge SF novel.

r0ml suggests that we assume that's where things are going (or indeed where they already are outside little hermetic worlds like Debian), and focus on solving technical problems, like deployment of modifications of cloud apps, that prevent users from exercising software freedoms.

In a way, r0ml's ideas are what led me to thinking about extending Scuttlebutt with Annah, and indeed if you squint at that right, it's an idea for a radically different kind of distribution.

Well, that's all I have. No answers of course.

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brennen
7 hours ago
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I do not like where this is headed.
Boulder, CO
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2018 CVE List

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CVE-2018-?????: It turns out Bruce Schneier is just two mischevious kids in a trenchcoat.
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brennen
7 hours ago
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Boulder, CO
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RT the not-liberal Fabian

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Dan Lyke:

RT the not-liberal Fabian:

*whispers in your ear* white nationalists murdering people will never be called terrorism in America because terrorism implies its a threat to the state apparatus but white nationalist violence only reenforces the state apparatus in America

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brennen
2 days ago
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Boulder, CO
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Utility poles

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I am almost always interested in utility infrastructure. I see it every day, and often don't think about it. The electric power distribution grid is a gigantic machine, one of the biggest devices ever built, and people spend their whole lives becoming experts on just one part of it. What is it all for, how does it work? What goes wrong, and how do you fix it? Who makes the parts, and how much do they cost? Every day I go outside and see things like these big cylinders:

A wooden power utility pole,
including cobra-head street light,
with three large gray cylinders mounted on it under the main
wires

and I wonder what they are. In this case from clues in the environment I was able to guess they were electrical power transformers. Power is distributed on these poles at about seven thousand volts, which is called “medium voltage”. But you do not want 7000-volt power in your house because it would come squirting out of the electric outlets in awesome lightnings and burn everything up. Also most household uses do not want three-phase power, they want single-phase power. So between the pole and the house there is a transformer to change the shape of the electricity to 120V, and that's what these things are. They turn out to be called “distribution transformers” and they are manufactured by — guess who? — General Electric, and they cost a few thousand bucks each. And because of the Wonders of the Internet, I can find out quite a lot about them. The cans are full of mineral oil, or sometimes vegetable oil! (Why are they full of oil? I don't know; I guess for insulation. But I could probably find out.) There are three because that is one way to change the three-phase power to single-phase, something I wish I understood better. Truly, we live in an age of marvels.

Anyway, I was having dinner with a friend recently and for some reason we got to talking about the ID plates on utility poles. The poles around here all carry ID numbers, and I imagine that back at the electric company there are giant books listing, for each pole ID number, where the pole is. Probably they computerized this back in the seventies, and the books are moldering in a closet somewhere.

As I discussed recently, some of those poles are a hundred years old, and the style of the ID tags has changed over that time:

An old, stamped-metal identification plate nailed to a wooden
utility pole.  The plate is elliptical, and says 'PHILA ELEC. Cº 79558 B' This wooden pole has the following letters burned into it: 'BWR
CPT 51017 SPSK6 250 PECO'

It looks to me like the original style was those oval plates that you see on the left, and that at some point some of the plates started to wear out and were replaced by the yellow digit tags in the middle picture. The most recent poles don't have tags: the identifier is burnt into the pole.

Poles in my neighborhood tend to have consecutive numbers. I don't think this was carefully planned. I guess how this happened is: when they sent the poles out on the truck to be installed, they also sent out a bunch of ID plates, perhaps already attached to the poles, or perhaps to be attached onsite. The plates would already have the numbers on them, and when you grab a bunch of them out of the stack they will naturally tend to have consecutive numbers, as in the pictures above, because that's how they were manufactured. So the poles in a vicinity will tend to have numbers that are close together, until they don't, because at that point the truck had to go back for more poles. So although you might find poles 79518–79604 in my neighborhood, poles 79605–79923 might be in a completely different part of the city.

Later on someone was inspecting pole 79557 (middle picture) and noticed that the number plate was wearing out. So they pried it off and replaced it with the yellow digit tag, which is much newer than the pole itself. The inspector will have a bunch of empty frames and a box full of digits, so they put up a new tag with the old ID number.

But sometime more recently they switched to these new-style poles with numbers burnt into them at the factory, in a different format than before. I have tried to imagine what the number-burning device looks like, but I'm not at all sure. Is it like a heated printing press, or perhaps a sort of configurable branding iron? Or is it more like a big soldering iron that is on a computer-controlled axis and writes the numbers on like a pen?

I wonder what the old plates are made of. They have to last a long time. For a while I was puzzled. Steel would rust; and I thought even stainless steel wouldn't last as long as these tags need to. Aluminum is expensive. Tin degrades at low temperatures. But thanks to the Wonders of the Internet, I have learned that, properly made, stainless steel tags can indeed last long enough; the web site of the British Stainless Steel Association advises me that even in rough conditions, stainless steel with the right composition can last 85 years outdoors. I will do what I should have done in the first place, and go test the tags with a magnet to see if they are ferrous.

Here's where some knucklehead in the Streets Department decided to nail a No Parking sign right over the ID tag:

A close-up of an old oval tag just peeking out from behind the
corner of the metal regulation sign that was nailed to the same pole

Another thing you can see on these poles is inspection tags:

A very old pole. Three groups of tags are nailed to it.  The
bottom two groups contains an oval tag stamped with OSMOSE and an
inspection year (2001 or 2013),
and a quarter-circle tag stamped with MITC-FUME.  The top group is
missing its oval tag, and has only a rather rusty quarter-circle that
says WOODFUME

Without the Internet I would just have to wonder what these were and what OSMOSE meant. It is the name of the company that PECO has hired to inspect and maintain the poles. They specialize in this kind of work. This old pole was inspected in 2001 and again in 2013. The dated inspection tag from the previous inspection is lost but we can see a pie-shaped tag that says WOODFUME. You may recall from my previous article that the main killer of wood poles is fungal infection. Woodfume is an inexpensive fumigant that retards pole decay. It propagates into the pole and decomposes into MITC (methyl isothiocyanate). By 2001 PECO had switched to using MITC-FUME, which impregnates the pole directly with MITC. Osmose will be glad to tell you all about it.

(Warning: Probably at least 30% of the surmise in this article is wrong.)

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brennen
4 days ago
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Boulder, CO
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Tom Waits

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So I did Google image search for Tom Waits, and the results are striking:

Screenshot of the first page of Google image search for 'Tom Waits'.  Almost all the pictures are black and white photographs; very few are in color.

General opinion is overwhelmingly against the idea of color photographs of Tom Waits.

I tried to think who else might be like this. The only person I thought of was William Kennedy, but the effect wasn't nearly as pronounced. I'll sleep on it.

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brennen
6 days ago
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Boulder, CO
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Philadelphia sports fans behaving badly

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Philadelphia sports fans have a bad reputation. For example, we are famous for booing Santa Claus and hitting him with snowballs. I wasn't around for that; it happened in 1968. When the Santa died in 2015, he got an obituary in the Phildelphia Inquirer:

Frank Olivo, the Santa Claus who got pelted with snowballs at the Eagles game that winter day in 1968, died Thursday, April 30…

The most famous story of this type is about Ed Rendell (after he was Philadelphia District Attorney, but before he was Mayor) betting a Eagles fan that they could not throw snowballs all the way from their upper-deck seat onto the field. This was originally reported in 1989 by Steve Lopez in the Inquirer.

(Lopez's story is a blast. He called up Rendell, who denied the claim, and referred Lopez to a friend who had been there with him. Lopez left a message for the friend. Then Rendell called back to confess. Later Rendell's friend called back to deny the story. Lopez wrote:

Was former D.A. Ed Rendell's worst mistake to (A) bet a drunken hooligan he couldn't reach the field, (B) lie about it, (C) confess, or (D) take his friend down with him?

My vote is C. Too honest. Why do you think he can't win an election?

A few years later Rendell was elected Mayor of Philadelphia, and later, Governor of Pennsylvania. Anyway, I digress.)

I don't attend football games, and baseball games are not held in snowy weather, so we have to find other things to throw on the field. I am too young to remember Bat Day, where each attending ticket-holder was presented with a miniature souvenir baseball bat; that was eliminated long ago because too many bats were thrown at the visiting players. (I do remember when those bats stopped being sold at the concession stands, for the same reason.) Over the years, all the larger and harder premiums were eliminated, one by one, but we are an adaptable people and once, to protest a bad call by the umpire, we delayed the game by wadding up our free promotional sport socks and throwing them onto the field. That was the end of Sock Day.

On one memorable occasion, two very fat gentlemen down by the third-base line ran out of patience during an excessively long rain delay and climbed over the fence, ran out and belly-flopped onto the infield, sliding on the wet tarpaulin all the way to the first-base side. Confronted there by security, they evaded capture by turning around and sliding back. These heroes were eventually run dowb, but only after livening up what had been a very trying evening.

The main point of this note is to shore up a less well-known story of this type. I have seen it reported that Phillies fans once booed Miss Pennsylvania, and I have also seen people suggest that this never really happened. On my honor, it did happen. We not only booed Miss Pennsylvania, we booed her for singing the national anthem. I was at that game, in 1993. The Star-Spangled Banner has a lot of problems that the singer must solve one way or another, and there are a lot of ways to interpret it. But it has a melody, and the singer's interpretation is not permitted to stray so far from the standard that they are singing a different song that happens to have the same words. I booed too, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

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brennen
6 days ago
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Boulder, CO
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