Felix Rambles

Another step to taking back control

Age of Opinions

23 August 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

You know why operating systems suck?

Try to discuss operating systems with anyone, the result is always a flame war.

You know why programming languages suck?

Try to discuss programming languages at all, the only result is a flame war.

You know why text editors suck?

Try to have a serious discussion about them... yep, you've guessed it.

Repead ad nauseam. About file formats. IM protocols. Hardware architectures.

We live in a day and age when trying to discuss the relative merits and failings of anything only results in everyone YELLING at you. Because their favorite [insert noun] is perfect and above any criticism. (Unless they happen to hate it, then it's the devil and can't possibly have any redeeming qualities at all, ever.) This is especially true of proprietary products for some reason. What, haven't you heard? Open source is strictly a matter of abstract morality with no bearing on practical matters like code quality or interoperable standards. Yes, people still believe that in 2019, and it's scary.

Worse, in recent decades we've gradually developed a culture where it's perfectly all right to have an opinion. The less founded, the better. But you just try to bring up facts. Reasonings. Any kind of proper arguments. People will, wait for it, YELL at you. Reason tends to clash with comfortable lies, you see. And people would rather have comfort than a grasp on reality, that would allow them to do something about their problems.

Taking action makes people responsible, you see. Worse, having knowledge to act upon and refusing to act also makes people responsible. And people fear responsibility more than death. Often literally.

But boo-hoo, everything sucks! Why can't anyone seem to make things better?

We tried. And you YELLED at us. Now sleep in the bed you've made.

Tags: technology, culture, philosophy

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Technology will not save us, part 2

13 May 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

This morning, a friend linked me to this article about a carbon sequestering technology being tested right now in Iceland. They can suck CO2 out of the air and capture it in layers of rock deep underground. Hooray! We're saved! We can stop and even reverse climate change!

Not so fast.

For one thing, I wouldn't use the word "forever" if I was them. Permafrost was also supposed to be, you know, permanent. Now it's melting so fast scientists can't keep up. Remember that scene in Ghostbusters where they turn off the ghost prison and all the malicious spirits go free at once? Imagine that at planetary scale.

Second, pay attention to the numbers. As they freely admit:

The CarbFix project reduces the plant's carbon dioxide emissions by a third, which amounts to 12,000 tonnes of CO2 captured and stored at a cost of about $25 a tonne.

By comparison, Iceland's volcanoes spew out between one and two million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

Wake me up when they can do something about the remaining 99.5% of emissions in their country alone. Or at least those of other facilities than the very powerplant generating the electricity needed for this energy-intensive process. Speaking of which.

The main drawback of the method is that it requires large volumes of desalinated water, which, while abundant in Iceland, is rare in many other parts of the planet.

Around 25 tonnes of water are needed for each tonne of carbon dioxide injected.

At least they're smart enough to use desalinated water rather than the precious natural freshwater they need to, you know, grow crops. And that stuff is becoming more valuable than gold in many parts of the world. But you know what the problem is with desalination? It's also energy-intensive. In other words, you need to build even more powerplants to sequester all the CO2 you wouldn't be generating if you just did nothing instead. Congrats, geniuses! And they know it, too.

You think that's just theory? Check out the end of the article:

Under the Paris climate agreement, Iceland has agreed to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030.

Yet its emissions rose by 2.2% from 2016 to 2017, and have risen by 85% since 1990, according to a report by Iceland's Environment Agency.

Yep... just like in countries like the UK or Germany, where decades of massive investments in renewable energy just led to overall demand growing much faster than solar and wind can provide, meaning the difference has to be covered with... coal. In other words, even more CO2 emissions. Good job breaking it, hero.

Is it clear yet that new shiny toys aren't going to help us out of a hole we dug ourselves into by building far more technology than we needed in the first place, then wasting the vast majority of its potential? The only hope for human civilization is to downsize massively. And nobody's willing to even entertain the possibility: corporations because they'd have to give up their obscene profits, people because they've been conditioned to think they all somehow deserve to live like kings. Too bad you can't bribe, sue or intimidate mother nature.

We have 12 years to clean up our act. Tick tock, tick tock.

Tags: climate, technology

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Chrome for Android and privacy

29 March 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

A worrying toot crossed my Mastodon timeline the other day:

I think some people may not know that Google does Man In The Middle shit by default in mobile Chrome? They basically download everything to their servers and then send "optimized" to the client. SSL? HTTPS? Forget it.

There was an opt-out header which website owner could set but they're removing it.

This company doesn't know what privacy is. Or security.

No shit!? Could this be why Chrome takes so damn long to open even the lightest websites, with the phone two feet away from my home router? I went ahead and installed FOSS Browser from F-Droid. Sure enough, every single site I tried in it loads incredibly fast. Incredibly. I can't even see them loading. Not even text-based browsers move like that.

What the hell, Google? I thought you were only doing that with URLs, to provide suggestions, and I had disabled that misfeature. That was a serious privacy breach already. This? This is vile.

Some "helpful" dude in the replies claims that Chrome asks permission to do it on first run. Funny how I never saw that dialog. Oh wait, it's because I got my phone second-hand (in mint condition, mind). And I've seen tech support people tap right through license acceptance and such before handing a device to the buyer. A lot of people will never see the question at all! And most others won't understand it because to them it's just programmer gobbledygook.

Way back in the day, Opera Mobile provided a similar service when phones and networks were a lot less powerful, and actually needed it. Only they explained how the whole thing worked upfront, in plain English, and gave people a big warning: "if you don't trust us, don't use our service". Really, that's what it said.

Funny how I always trusted them. Unlike Google, who just proved themselves even less trustworthy than they already were. And that takes effort nowadays.

Tags: software, technology, website

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Accessibility and the larger issue

10 March 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

As the meme goes, "I don't know how to explain to you that you should care about other people." It's a good way to introduce this article a friend boosted earlier about the catastrophic state of website accessibility. Short version: it's worse than even cynical old me would have expected. And not because web developers haven't heard of WAI-ARIA: it turns out pages with accessibility markup are more likely to have issues.

How is that even possible? Not to speculate, but ARIA attributes are tricky to use right, and can't replace good old semantic HTML. And there was a time last decade when web designers would make every element a div styled from CSS. When called out they'd ask, "what does it matter? looks all the same, doesn't it?" They were so surprised when I pointed out that web crawlers don't apply any stylesheets, and couldn't make sense of the result if they did. That all their "SEO" tricks (scare quotes very much intentional) don't hold a candle to this one thing Wikipedia is doing. What thing? I showed them the front page with styles disabled. Lo and behold, it looked almost unchanged. Still perfectly organized and readable. Some less important links were left for the end. Which is exactly where they logically belong if you're trying to read the content from top to bottom. As the original post says:

Selfishly, I’d love a future where it's commonplace for interview candidates to be selected not only because of their JavaScript prowess, but also because they can offer a sound explanation of why using a button element is important.

But that's just scratching the surface. Because, you see, most people don't actually need a screen reader. They are, however, begging for good contrast, or the ability to enlarge the text without making the page they're reading explode into a mess of broken little boxes scattered everywhere. Or in my case, scrollbars wide enough that a 40-year-old with a $10 mouse can actually hit them reliably.

At least desktop GUIs encourage applications to follow certain common guidelines, so people don't have to mentally switch tracks every time they Alt-Tab. Which is why many stick to software native to their operating system. But there's a snake in that Garden of Eden, too.

Read more...

Tags: software, technology, website

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Not hacker ethics, but human ethics

16 December 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

Say you're a hacker, and you have this roommate who always locks their room when leaving home. One day they leave without returning an item you need. What do you do?

  1. Pick the lock, recover your item and leave, locking the door again behind you.
  2. Also snoop through their things, but without disturbing or breaking anything.
  3. On top of that, leave them a note pointing out that they need a better lock.

Trick question! The only acceptable answer is, you don't go in even if the door is unlocked. Even if there's a genuine emergency, of the building-on-fire variety, you at least try to call and announce that you were forced to do it by immediate physical danger. Even if you suspect your roommate is a thief who stole your item, you call the police on them. Not because it's what the law says, but because you're a part of society, and society can't function unless we can trust each other at least a little bit. As I was tweeting nearly three weeks ago:

Hey, geeks: if you're at a hacker event and someone next to you leaves their laptop unlocked...

...don't touch it! Would you rifle through their bag, too? After all, they could use a padlock if they wanted privacy.

It's called common courtesy and basic trust. You're welcome.

Which is not a theoretical, but something that happened to me in real life (the laptop part, not the bag part), and contributed to my mistrust in the sort of people who frequent Linux user groups. In particular, their maturity level.

The very concept of "hacker ethics" is a red herring at best, and quite possibly dangerous. Hackers operate in the real world, dealing with real people within a social framework. They're not some special caste exempt from certain rules just because the digital (or virtual if you prefer) is less palpable. If anything, they must be more careful than the rest of us because, much like doctors, they can more easily hurt more people. And there's no Hacker's Oath. Maybe there should be. Then we could talk about a meaningful ethical framework for them.

And please don't serve me the tired excuse that "bad guys don't play by the rules". Precisely! That's part of what makes them bad guys. You can't fight them by becoming one of them any more than you can fight fire with fire.

Rules can and should be broken sometimes. The trick is knowing when not to do it. And too many people who call themselves hackers are just overgrown immature boys, playing with sticks bigger than they can safely control. Let's fix that first.

Tags: society, technology, philosophy

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Technology will not save us

14 November 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

Lately I've been thinking a lot about an old science-fiction story. Can't remember the title or author (any help would be appreciated), but it follows a typical suburban house through an ordinary day, as it wakes everyone up, reads them the news while making breakfast, and urges the kids not to be late for school. At noon it plays cheerful music while making lunch. By evening time it's preparing a hot bath, when a minor accident in the kitchen starts a fire, and the house burns down while reading poetry to its absent owners. Only at the very end does the story reveal that (spoiler alert!) said owners are right outside, turned into ash on the wall by the blast from a nuclear strike...

Replace tape recorders in the walls with a virtual assistant, the automated kitchen with a delivery drone from a fast food restaurant, and the nuke with death by overwork at a videogame studio. Now tell me it doesn't sound like an increasingly plausible scenario. And did it blow your mind to learn that the concept of a smart home dates not from this century, not from the mid-1980s, but from over fifty years ago at the height of the Cold War? Then hold on tight, because the earliest instance I'm aware of features in a 1909 story by E.M. Forster called The Machine Stops.

At least the latter has a happy ending. Under the present circumstances, I don't really think we're going to get one.

Tags: society, technology

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