Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2014-10-26: California general election

Probably only of interest to California residents.

Time again for the general election voting. This is probably too late to be helpful for a lot of people voting permanent absentee, but may as well write this down anyway. (Hm, I apparently didn't do this in 2012.)

Propositions:

Proposition 1: YES. Now is one of the best times in history to borrow money for infrastructure improvements, and our water infrastructure in the state can certainly use it.

Proposition 2: YES. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this, since I hate passing complex legislation like this via proposition, but this already went through the legislature. It would be dumb for the federal government, which can more easily borrow money, but given how the finances of state governments work in the US, this sort of rainy day fund is probably prudent. This one seems reasonably well-designed, and the opposition is panic about a secondary effect on how school reserves are managed that can be changed with later legislative action and which is rather unconvincing.

Proposition 45: YES. I can't get very enthused about yet more bandaids on top of our completely broken health care system, but forcing insurance companies to justify rate increases results in some public pressure against profit-taking by insurance companies. Single payer is what we actually need, but this might be mildly helpful. Plus, the argument against is more incoherent nonsense. So, I'm voting yes, but I don't think it's important and I won't mind if it loses.

Proposition 46: NO. There are a lot of things that we should do about preventable medical errors, starting with funding our health care system properly, testing drugs properly, and investing in proper inspections and medical licensing investigations. Drug testing doctors is not among those things. This is a well-meaning but horrible idea pushed by a victim's advocacy group that won't do anything to improve our health care system. The fear-mongering of the opponents about malpractice lawsuits is a bit much, but there are essentially no positive benefits here.

Proposition 47: YES. Requires that misdemeanor crimes actually be misdemeanors, rather than giving prosecutors discretion to charge them as felonies if the person charged happens to be black-- er, I mean, if the prosecutor doesn't like them for some reason. Obviously a good idea on all fronts: stop over-charging crimes, stop giving prosecutors discretion to choose the impact of laws on particular people (since they rarely use it appropriately), and further try to decriminalize our completely worthless "war on drugs."

Proposition 48: YES. I'm opposed to the Indian gaming system in general, but this proposition appears to be a rather cynical attempt to block new casino development by tribes that already have casinos. My general feeling is that if we're going to have casinos, they should generally be legal; the bizarre system where each casino is subject to public approval seems designed to create political cronyism.

State offices:

I'm not going to comment on the partisan offices, since no one interesting survived the primaries. Across the board, it's basically the Democratic incumbants against various Republicans. The state Republican party in California is dominated by science denialists, Randian objectivists, and people who think the solution to all problems is ensuring rich people don't pay taxes, so it takes rather a lot to get me to vote for any of them. At the moment, the Democrats are doing a reasonably good job running the state, so while I'd vote for challengers from the left against several of them, given the boring candidate slate, I'm just voting Democrat down the line.

California has a system that requires voter approval for various state judicial offices. In general, I don't agree with voter approval for judges, since voters are rarely in a position to make reasonable choices about justices. Since there's a Democratic administration in power at the moment, these are probably the best judges that we're going to get (the few I've heard of are good choices), and I don't think the yes/no approval voting is useful anyway. So I'm voting to approve across the board.

Superintendent of Public Instruction: Tom Torlakson. I'm not a huge fan of Torlakson, but Tuck is a Harvard MBA who ran charter schools and then a school privatization initiative. Everyone always claims that they want to reduce bureaucracy and empower teachers, but Tuck has a past track record of trying to do so by taking public education private, something that I am passionately opposed to. So Torlakson it is.

Local measures:

Measure B: YES. Increases the local hotel tax and uses it for local infrastructure. I'm generally in favor of raising taxes, and the amount certainly won't be significant in the ridiculous Palo Alto hotel market. The arguments against feature one of my favorite stupid right-wing talking points: the tax is unfair because it isn't earmarked to benefit the people paying it.

Measure C: YES. Reasonable, small reform of the local utility tax, opposed by the Libertarian Party and "taxpayer associations" using an "all taxation is theft" argument. What's not to like?

Measure D: NO. Reduces the size of the city council for no clear reason. The stated reasons are saving money (not credible given how little money is involved) and making city meetings not take as long. I'm going to need something better than that to vote for this.

Local offices:

Judge of the Superior Court, Office #24: Matthew S. Harris. I'm making one exception for my normal rule against voting for former prosecutors for judges because the incumbant, Diane Ritchie, is apparently a train wreck. All it takes is a quick Google search to reveal multiple news stories about strange behavior, clear conflicts of interest, and other serious problems, including a rebuke by the local bar association. Even if not all of that information is true, judges should be above reproach, or at least farther above reproach than this.

Palo Alto City Council: I have an agenda here: I think housing density is about the best thing that the local community could support. Housing density enables better mass transit options, makes housing more affordable and brings more housing under possible rent control, and simply makes more sense given the cost of housing in the area. A lot of the city council members run on low-density or anti-growth platforms; I vote against those and for people who support development. And, of course, I'll filter out candidates who believe stupid things, like claiming a minimum wage is un-American (Seelam-Sea Reddy). The best seem to be Greg Scharff, A.C. Johnston, Nancy Shepherd, Cory Wolbach, and Wayne Douglass.

Palo Alto Unified School District: The Democratic party has endorsed four out of the five candidates, so it probably doesn't matter too much. Gina Dalma and Ken Dauber sound like the best of the candidates to me, so I will probably vote for them.

Santa Clara Valley Water District #7: I voted for Brian Schmidt last time, and I don't see a reason to change my mind. His opponent is a Silicon Valley millionaire who is spending a surprisingly large amount of money on this race and is involved with a business that sells software to water boards, which raises some eyebrows.

2014-10-21: Another haul post

I know I've been very quiet here lately. That's due to a variety of reasons, but mostly because settling in to a new job is taking nearly all of my attention and time. When that's combined with getting obsessed with watching the League of Legends world championships, it means no real time for writing things.

I've had lots of time for reading things, though, and have a lot of book reviews that I need to write. So, of course, I felt like buying more books.

Elizabeth Bear — One-Eyed Jack (sff)
Steven Brust — Hawk (sff)
Kenneth T. Jackson — Crabgrass Frontier (non-fiction)
Ann Leckie — Ancillary Sword (sff)
Scott Lynch — Republic of Thieves (sff)
Randall Munroe — What If? (non-fiction)
Sarah Tolmie — The Stone Boatmen (sff)
Jeffrey Toobin — The Oath (non-fiction)

I'm pretty excited about everything in this shipment, but particularly the new Vlad Taltos novel from Brust and the sequel to Ancillary Justice (probably the best novel that I've read so far this year). And of course there's What If?.

2014-09-24: Review: Turn the Ship Around!

Review: Turn the Ship Around!, by L. David Marquet

Publisher Portfolio
Copyright 2012
ISBN 1-101-62369-1
Format Kindle
Pages 272

Turn the Ship Around! (yes, complete with the irritating exclamation point in the title) is marketed to the business and management non-fiction market, which is clogged with books claiming to provide simple techniques to be a great manager or fix an organization. If you're like me, this is a huge turn-off. The presentation of the books is usually just shy of the click-bait pablum of self-help books. Many of the books are written by famous managers best known for doing horrible things to their staff (*cough* Jack Welch). It's hard to get away from the feeling that this entire class of books is an ocean of bromides covering a small core of outright evil.

This book is not like that, and Marquet is not one of those managers. It can seem that way at times: it is presented in the format that caters to short attention span, with summaries of primary points at the end of every short chapter and occasionally annoying questions sprinkled throughout. I'm capable of generalizing information to my own life without being prompted by study questions, thanks. But that's just form. The core of this book is a surprisingly compelling story of Marquet's attempt to introduce a novel management approach into one of the most conservative and top-down of organizations: a US Navy nuclear submarine.

I read this book as an individual employee, and someone who has no desire to ever be a manager. But I recently changed jobs and significantly disrupted my life because of a sequence of really horrible management decisions, so I have strong opinions about, at least, the type of management that's bad for employees. A colleague at my former employer recommended this book to me while talking about the management errors that were going on around us. It did such a good job of reinforcing my personal biases that I feel like I should mention that as a disclaimer. When one agrees with a book this thoroughly, one may not have sufficient distance from it to see the places where its arguments are flawed.

At the start of the book, Marquet is assigned to take over as captain of a nuclear submarine that's struggling. It had a below-par performance rating, poor morale, and the worst re-enlistment rate in the fleet, and was not advancing officers and crew to higher ranks at anywhere near the level of other submarines. Marquet brought to this assignment some long-standing discomfort with the normal top-down decision-making processes in the Navy, and decided to try something entirely different: a program of radical empowerment, bottom-up decision-making, and pushing responsibility as far down the chain of command as possible. The result (as you might expect given that you can read a book about it) was one of the best-performing submarines in the fleet, with retention and promotion rates well above average.

There's a lot in here about delegated decision-making and individual empowerment, but Turn the Ship Around! isn't only about that. Those are old (if often ignored) rules of thumb about how to manage properly. I think the most valuable part of this book is where Marquet talks frankly about his own thought patterns, his own mistakes, and the places where he had to change his behavior and attitude in order to make his strategy successful. It's one thing to say that individuals should be empowered; it's quite another to stop empowering them (which is still a top-down strategy) and start allowing them to be responsible. To extend trust and relinquish control, even though you're the one who will ultimately be held responsible for the performance of the people reporting to you. One of the problems with books like this is that they focus on how easy the techniques presented in the book are. Marquet does a more honest job in showing how difficult they are. His approach was not complex, but it was emotionally quite difficult, even though he was already biased in favor of it.

The control, hierarchy, and authority parts of the book are the most memorable, but Marquet also talks about, and shows through specific examples from his command, some accompanying principles that are equally important. If everyone in an organization can make decisions, everyone has to understand the basis for making those decisions and understand the shared goals, which requires considerable communication and open discussion (particularly compared to a Navy ideal of an expert and taciturn captain). It requires giving people the space to be wrong, and requires empowering people to correct each other without blame. (There's a nice bit in here about the power of deliberate action, and while Marquet's presentation is more directly applicable to the sorts of physical actions taken in a submarine, I was immediately reminded of code review.) Marquet also has some interesting things to say about the power of, for lack of a better term, esprit de corps, how to create it, and the surprising power of acting like you have it until you actually develop it.

As mentioned, this book is very closely in alignment with my own biases, so I'm not exactly an impartial reviewer. But I found it fascinating the degree to which the management situation I left was the exact opposite of the techniques presented in this book in nearly every respect. I found it quite inspiring during my transition period, and there are bits of it that I want to read again to keep some of the techniques and approaches fresh in my mind.

There is a fair bit of self-help-style packaging and layout here, some of which I found irritating. If, like me, you don't like that style of book, you'll have to wade through a bit of it. I would have much preferred a more traditional narrative story from which I could draw my own conclusions. But it's more of a narrative than most books of this sort, and Marquet is humble enough to show his own thought processes, tensions, and mistakes, which adds a great deal to the presentation. I'm not sure how directly helpful this would be for a manager, since I've never been in that role, but it gave me a lot to think about when analyzing successful and unsuccessful work environments.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2014-09-23: Review: 2014 Hugos: Short Story Nominees

Review: 2014 Hugos: Short Story Nominees, by Loncon 3 (ed.)

Publisher Loncon 3
Copyright 2014
Format Kindle

This is a bit of a weird "book review," since this is not a book. Rather, it's the collection of Hugo-nominated short stories for the 2014 Hugos (given for works published in 2013) at Loncon 3, the 2014 Worldcon. As such, the "editor" is the pool of attendees and supporting members who chose to nominate works, all of which had been previously edited by other editors in their original publication.

This is also not something that someone else can acquire; if you were not a supporting or attending member, you didn't get the voting packet. But I believe all of the stories here are available on-line for free in some form, a short search away.

"If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" by Rachel Swirsky: The most common complaint about this story is that it's not really a story, and I have to agree. It's a word image of an alternate world in which the narrator's love is a human-sized dinosaur, starting with some surreal humor and then slowly shifting tone as it reveals the horrible event that's happened to the narrator's actual love, and that's sparked the wish for her love to have claws and teeth. It's reasonably good at what it's trying to do, but I wanted more of a story. The narrator's imagination didn't do much for me. (5)

"The Ink Readers of Doi Saket" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt: At least for me, this story suffered from being put in the context of a Hugo nominee. It's an okay enough story about a Thai village downstream from a ritual that involves floating wishes down the river, often with offerings in the improvised small boats. The background of the story is somewhat cynical: the villagers make some of the wishes come true, sort of, while happily collecting the offerings and trying to spread the idea that the wishes with better offerings are more likely to come true. The protagonist follows a familiar twist: he actually can make wishes come true, maybe, but is very innocent about his role in the world.

This is not a bad story, although stories written by people with western-sounding names about non-western customs worry me, and there were a few descriptions and approaches here (such as the nickname translations in footnotes and the villager archetypes) that made my teeth itch. But it is not a story that belongs on the Hugo nomination slate, at least in my opinion. It's either cute or mildly irritating, depending on one's mood when one meets it, not horribly original, and very forgettable. (5)

"Selkie Stories Are for Losers" by Sofia Samatar: I really liked this story for much of its length. It features a couple of young, blunt, and bitter women, and focuses on the players in the typical selkie story that don't get much attention. The selkie's story is one of captivity or freedom; her lover's story is the inverse, the captor or the lover. But I don't recall a story about the children before, and I think Samatar got the tone right. It has the bitterness of divorce and abandonment mixed with the disillusionment of fantasy turned into pain.

My problem with this story is the ending, or rather, the conclusion, since the story doesn't so much end as stop. There's a closing paragraph that gives some hint of the shape to come, but it gave me almost no closure, and it didn't answer any of the emotional questions that the rest of the story raised for me. I wanted something more, some sort of epiphany or clearer determination. (7)

"The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" by John Chu: This was by far my favorite of the nominees, which is convenient since it won. I thought it was the only nominee that felt in the class of stories I would expect to win a Hugo.

I think this story needs one important caveat up front. The key conceit of the story is that, in this world, water falls on you out of nowhere if you tell any sort of lie. It does not explore the practical impact on that concept for the broader world. That didn't bother me; for some reason, I wasn't really expecting it to do so. But it did bother several other people I've seen comment on this story. They were quite frustrated that the idea was used primarily to shape a personal and family emotional dilemma, not to explore the impact on the world. So, go into this with the right expectations: if you want world-building or deep exploration of a change in physical laws, you will want a different story.

This story, instead, is a beautiful gem about honesty in relationships, about communication about very hard things and very emotional things, about coming out, about trusting people, and about understanding people. I thought it was beautiful. If you read Captain Awkward, or other discussion of how to deal with difficult families and the damage they cause to relationships, seek this one out. It surprised me, and delighted me, and made me cry in places, and I loved the ending. It's more fantasy than science fiction, and it uses the conceit as a trigger for a story about people instead of a story about worlds and technology, but I'm still very happy to see it win. (9)

Rating: 7 out of 10

2014-09-05: Accumulated hauls

I haven't made one of these in a long time, so I have some catching from random purchases to do, which includes a (repurposed) nice parting gift from my previous employer and a trip to Powell's since I was in the area for DebConf14. This also includes the contents of the Hugo voter's packet, which contained a wide variety of random stuff even if some of the novels were represented only by excerpts.

John Joseph Adams (ed.) — The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination (sff anthology)
Roger McBride Allen — The Ring of Charon (sff)
Roger McBride Allen — The Shattered Sphere (sff)
Iain M. Banks — The Hydrogen Sonata (sff)
Julian Barnes — The Sense of an Ending (mainstream)
M. David Blake (ed.) — 2014 Campbellian Anthology (sff anthology)
Algis Budrys — Benchmarks Continued (non-fiction)
Algis Budrys — Benchmarks Revisited (non-fiction)
Algis Budrys — Benchmarks Concluded (non-fiction)
Edgar Rice Burroughs — Carson of Venus (sff)
Wesley Chu — The Lives of Tao (sff)
Ernest Cline — Ready Player One (sff)
Larry Correia — Hard Magic (sff)
Larry Correia — Spellbound (sff)
Larry Correia — Warbound (sff)
Sigrid Ellis & Michael Damien Thomas (ed.) — Queer Chicks Dig Time Lords (non-fiction)
Neil Gaiman — The Ocean at the End of the Lane (sff)
Max Gladstone — Three Parts Dead (sff)
Max Gladstone — Two Serpents Rise (sff)
S.L. Huang — Zero Sum Game (sff)
Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson — The Wheel of Time (sff)
Drew Karpyshyn — Mass Effect: Revelation (sff)
Justin Landon & Jared Shurin (ed.) — Speculative Fiction 2012 (non-fiction)
John J. Lumpkin — Through Struggle, the Stars (sff)
L. David Marquet — Turn the Ship Around! (non-fiction)
George R.R. Martin & Raya Golden — Meathouse Man (graphic novel)
Ramez Naam — Nexus (sff)
Eiichiro Oda — One Piece Volume 1 (manga)
Eiichiro Oda — One Piece Volume 2 (manga)
Eiichiro Oda — One Piece Volume 3 (manga)
Eiichiro Oda — One Piece Volume 4 (manga)
Alexei Panshin — New Celebrations (sff)
K.J. Parker — Devices and Desires (sff)
K.J. Parker — Evil for Evil (sff)
Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria (sff)
John Scalzi — The Human Division (sff)
Jonathan Straham (ed.) — Fearsome Journeys (sff anthology)
Vernor Vinge — The Children of the Sky (sff)
Brian Wood & Becky Cloonan — Demo (graphic novel)
Charles Yu — How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (sff)

A whole bunch of this is from the Hugo voter's packet, and since the Hugos are over, much of that probably won't get prioritized. (I was very happy with the results of the voting, though.)

Other than that, it's a very random collection of stuff, including a few things that I picked up based on James Nicoll's reviews. Now that I have a daily train commute, I should pick up the pace of reading, and as long as I can find enough time in my schedule to also write reviews, hopefully there will be more content in this blog shortly.

2014-08-28: git-pbuilder 1.33

git-pbuilder is a script to integrate git-buildpackage with pbuilder or cowbuilder. My long-term hope is to rewrite it in Python and just incorporate it into git-buildpackage's source base directly, but in the meantime I've been maintaining it as a separate script.

This new release is a relatively minor bug fix. git-pbuilder has always removed the *_source.changes file built as part of the pbuilder process, since this file is normally useless. It's used to generate the source package to move into the chroot, but then the build in the chroot normally regenerates the Debian source package. The *_source.changes file hangs around with invalid checksums and just confuses matters, so git-pbuilder has always deleted it.

However, Debian is now increasing support for source-only uploads, which means that source-only builds might now be interesting. One can do a source-only build with gbp buildpackage -S. But that also generates a *_source.changes file, one that's actually useful, and git-pbuilder was deleting that as well. This release, thanks to work by Guido Günther, refrains from deleting this file when doing a source-only build.

You can get the latest release of git-pbuilder from my scripts distribution page.

2014-08-09: Orphaning some software packages

As mentioned in my previous message, I'm orphaning various software packages that I was maintaining as part of my job at Stanford, or that for some other reason I'm no longer using directly. My goal is to free up some time and space for new work projects at my new employer, for other hobbies, and to take better care of other projects that I'm not orphaning.

The following software packages are now orphaned, and marked as such on their web pages:

I'm also stepping down from Debian package maintenance for the OpenAFS and Shibboleth packages, and have already notified the relevant communities. For the Debian packages, and for the above software packages, I will continue to provide security support until someone else can take them over.

WebAuth is going to be in a state of transition as noted on its page:

My successor at Stanford will be continuing maintenance and development, but that person hasn't been hired yet, and it will take some time for them to ramp up and start making new releases (although there may be at least one interim release with work that I'm finishing now). It's therefore not strictly orphaned, but it's noted that way on my software pages until someone else at Stanford picks it up.

Development of the other packages that I maintain should continue as normal, with a small handful of exceptions. The following packages are currently in limbo, since I'm not sure if I'll have continued use for them:

I'm not very happy with the current design of either kadmin-remctl or wallet, so if I do continue to maintain them (and have time to work on them), I am likely to redesign them considerably.

For all of my packages, I've been adding clones of the repository to GitHub as an additional option besides my personal Git repository server. I'm of two minds about using (and locking myself into) more of the GitHub infrastructure, but repository copies on GitHub felt like it might be useful for anyone who wanted to fork or take over maintenance. I will be adding links to the GitHub repositories to the software packages for things that are in Git.

If you want to take over any of the orphaned software packages, feel free. When you're ready for the current software pages to redirect to its new home, let me know.

2014-08-08: A new challenge

Those reading this journal may have noticed that my rate of posting has dropped a bit in the past few years, and quite a lot in the past year. One of the major reasons for this was work, which had been getting more bureaucratic, more stressful, less trusting, and more fearful. After this got drastically worse in the past six months, I finally decided enough was enough and took advantage of a good opportunity to do something different.

I will be joining Dropbox's site reliability engineering team in a week and a half (which means that I'll be working on their servers, not on the product itself). It will take a few months to settle in, but hopefully this will mean a significant improvement to my stress levels and a lot of interesting projects to work on.

I'm taking advantage of this change to inventory the various things I'm currently committed to and let go of some projects to make more space in my life. There are also a variety of software projects that I was maintaining as part of my job at Stanford, and I will be orphaning many of those packages. I'll make another journal post about that a bit later.

For Debian folks, I am going to be at Debconf, and hope to meet many of you there. (It's going to sort of be my break between jobs.) In the long run, I'm hoping this move will let me increase my Debian involvement.

In the long run, I expect most of my free software work, my reviews, and the various services I run to continue as before, or even improve as my stress drops. But I've been at Stanford for a very long time, so this is quite the leap into the unknown, and it's going to take a while before I'm sure what new pattern my life will fall into.

2014-08-03: Review: Parasite

Review: Parasite, by Mira Grant

Series Parasitology #1
Publisher Orbit
Copyright October 2013
ISBN 0-316-21893-6
Format Kindle
Pages 504

It's 2027, and a company named Symbogen has revolutionized medicine and health. They manufacture a genetically-engineered parasite based on a tapeworm that can stabilize and protect the health of just about anyone. It can synthesize medication, fix chronic medical problems, and be adapted to different conditions. (Yes, I know biological systems don't work this way. That's not going to be the only suspension of disbelief problem.) This has made Symbogen one of the most powerful corporations in the country, aided by the skill at marketing and self-promotion shown by one of the founders.

Sal, the protagonist of the novel, is one of Symbogen's most famous success stories. Sally was the victim of a horrible car crash that put her into an apparently irreversible coma. But as her family was debating whether to turn off life support, she woke up. She had no memory of her previous life at all, and had to relearn fine motor control, reading, and many other skills. She was essentially a new person. But she was alive; her symbiont had saved her.

When the story proper starts, Sal is still a ward of her parents. She has generally adult skills despite still struggling with reading, but she still has occasional attacks and is under intensive monitoring by Symbogen. That means periodic mandatory appointments with Symbogen, which she hates, but she's otherwise started building a life for herself: a job in an animal shelter, an interest in exotic predatory plants, and, most notably, a boyfriend. There are things about her life she doesn't like, and she wants to be free of Symbogen, but she doesn't have a bad life. But then a mysterious illness begins sweeping through the population, causing people to go blank, apparently lose their minds, and then start attacking those near them.

Some of you have doubtless already figured out the key plot revelation. It's not hard; even if you didn't from the summary, you will probably figure it out shortly into the book. And therein lies a large problem with this novel: it's hopelessly predictable. Creepy evil corporation that supposedly has your best interests at heart, check. Plucky mad scientist opposition who understands exactly what's going on, check. Well-meaning but heavy-handed government agents who try to get involved but mostly make everything worse, check. (Although it's unusual to have those agents as part of the protagonist's family, and I thought that added some additional depth.) Mostly clueless protagonist sucked into the plot and becoming critical to its resolution, check. Very few readers are going to be surprised by this story.

This is not, by itself, a fatal flaw. Predictable story structures can carry satisfying variations, or introduce the reader to enjoyable characters. And I think Grant manages both here.

Seanan McGuire, both as herself and under her Mira Grant pseudonym, tends to write damaged and struggling characters. Both her Newsflesh and October Daye series feature protagonists that have been hurt badly, but are coping and muddling through in their own ways. In Parasite, I think she takes a more daring and intriguing approach: a protagonist that other people in the story perceive as damaged and struggling, but who actually isn't. Sal is not a badly injured Sally, and she's quite a bit healthier than those around her think she is. Her thought processes don't work quite the same as those around her, but that's not because she's hurt. That's because she's a different person. This makes Parasite partly a novel about identity, about Sal claiming ownership of her own life. Grant drags this out longer than I wish she had, but I liked the idea. In Sal, she strikes a good balance between gratitude and genuine affection for her family and the need to become her own person unconstrained by other people's expectations.

As with the Newsflesh series, Grant uses quotes and excerpts from interviews to fill in the world background: a few at the start of each chapter, and more around each part boundary. I like this technique, and Grant uses it well. By the end of the book, the Rolling Stone interview with the head of Symbogen has added a lot of insight into how Symbogen manages its public relations.

Grant also throws in a few of her trademark dangerously off-beat characters: hyper-competent, wise-cracking, but eerily skewed. I loved those in Blackout and I loved Tansy and Dr. Cale here. (Adam was much less successful.) A whole book from Tansy's perspective wouldn't work, since she needs Sal as a straight woman, but I thought she stole every scene she was in.

However, I agree wholeheartedly with Tansy on another point: Sal is remarkably, irritatingly dim about what is apparently intended to be the critical revelation of the book. I won't state it outright; given its significant presence in the final scene, apparently it is intended to be a spoiler. But I figured it out about 50 pages into the book. Grant telegraphs this revelation heavily, and Tansy considers it painfully obvious (with quite a bit of justification). But Sal doesn't figure it out for the entire book, ignores all the signs, and is apparently willfully blind. In a book written from the first-person perspective by an otherwise-reliable narrator, this is highly annoying. It significantly undermined my enjoyment of the book. I spent much of the novel ahead of the narrator in my understanding of the plot and waiting, in vain, for her to get on with it already.

That unfortunately makes Parasite a mixed bag. I really liked many of the characters, and I think Grant did some interesting things with family dynamics and with claiming one's own identity. But this is undermined by a very predictable plot, the protagonist deciding to be dumber than a sack of hammers about a critical plot point, and some rather dubious world logic. (For example, why is Sal terrified of bad driving? It makes sense as a post-traumatic stress reaction... except it's a critical point to her characterization that she never went through that stress.) Sometimes I wanted to like this book and sometimes I wanted to shake it, and sometimes I felt both reactions at the same time.

I like Grant's writing and characterization well enough that I will probably read the sequel, but this is more like the later books in the Newsflesh series than it is like the spectacular Feed. Worth reading, at least for me, but it could have been better.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2014-07-27: AFS::PAG 1.02

This is primarily a testing exercise. I moved my software release process and web page generation to a different host, and wanted to run through a release of a package to make sure that I got all the details right.

It's still a bit clunky, and I need to tweak the process, but it's close enough.

That said, there are a few minor changes in this module (which provides the minimum C glue required to do AFS operations from Perl — only the pieces that can't be duplicated by calling command-line programs). I'm improving the standardization of my Perl distributions, so I've moved NEWS to Changes and switched to the Lancaster Consensus environment variables for controlling testing. I also added some more pieces to the package metadata.

You can get the latest version from the AFS::PAG distribution page.

2014-07-23: WebAuth 4.6.1

This is a bug-fix release of the WebAuth site-wide web authentication system. As is typical, I accumulated a variety of minor bug fixes and improvements that I wanted to get into a release before starting larger work (in this case, adding JSON support for the user information service protocol).

The most severe bug fix is something that only folks at Stanford would notice: support for AuthType StanfordAuth was broken in the 4.6.0 release. This is for legacy compatibility with WebAuth 2.5. It has been fixed in this release.

In other, more minor bug fixes, build issues when remctl support is disabled have been fixed, expiring password warnings are shown in WebLogin after any POST-based authentication, the confirmation page is forced if authorization identity switching is available, the username field is verified before multifactor authentication to avoid subsequent warnings, newlines and tabs are allowed in the XML sent from the WebKDC for user messages, empty RT and ST parameters are correctly diagnosed, and there are some documentation improvements.

The main new feature in this release is support for using FAST armor during password authentication in mod_webkdc. A new WebKdcFastArmorCache directive can be set to point at a Kerberos ticket cache to use for FAST armor. If set, FAST is required, so the KDC must support it as well. This provides better wire security for the initial password authentication to protect against brute-force dictionary attacks against the password by a passive eavesdropper.

This release also adds a couple of new factor types, mp (mobile push) and v (voice), that Stanford will use as part of its Duo Security integration.

Note that, for the FAST armor feature, there is also an SONAME bump in the shared library in this release. Normally, I wouldn't bump the SONAME in a minor release, but in this case the feature was fairly minor and most people will not notice the change, so it didn't feel like it warranted a major release. I'm still of two minds about that, but oh well, it's done and built now. (At least I noticed that the SONAME bump was required prior to the release.)

You can get the latest release from the official WebAuth distribution site or from my WebAuth distribution pages.

2014-07-16: wallet 1.1

Wallet is the secure credential management infrastructure that we use at Stanford, primarily for keytabs but increasingly for any sort of security keys that have to be stored somewhere and retrieved by specific systems or people.

The primary goal of this release is to add Duo support. This is currently somewhat preliminary, with only a single Duo integration object type that creates a UNIX integration. (Well, technically it can create any type of integration, but the integration information is returned in the format expected by the UNIX integration.) I expect a later release to rename all existing "duo" object types to "duo-unix" and add additional object types for the various other types of integrations that one wants to support, but that work will have to wait for another day.

Since it's been over a year since the previous release, there are also other accumulated bug fixes and improvements. I also tried to merge or address as many issues or patches that had been sent to me over the past year as I could, although many larger patches or improvements had to be deferred. Highlights:

There are also multiple other bug fixes and general improvements, such as using DateTime objects uniformly for all database access that involves date fields, and recording ACL renames in the ACL history table. Both the API and the database layer are still kind of a mess, and I'd love to rewrite them with the benefit of experience and more knowledge, but that's a project for another day.

You can get the latest release from the wallet distribution page.

2014-07-12: Review: Neptune's Brood

Review: Neptune's Brood, by Charles Stross

Series Freyaverse #2
Publisher Ace
Copyright July 2013
ISBN 1-101-62453-1
Format Kindle
Pages 325

Neptune's Brood is set in the same universe as Saturn's Children, but I wouldn't call it a sequel. It takes place considerably later, after substantial expansion of the robot civilization to the stars, and features entirely different characters (or, if there was overlap, I didn't notice). It also represents a significant shift in tone: while Saturn's Children is clearly a Heinlein pastiche and parody, Neptune's Brood takes its space opera more seriously. There is some situational humor — assault auditors, for example — but this book is played mostly straight, and I detected little or no Heinlein. This is Stross fleshing out his own space opera concept.

This being Stross, that concept is not exactly conventional. This is a space opera about economics. Specifically, it's a space opera about interstellar economics, a debt pyramid, and a very interesting remapping of the continual growth requirements of capitalism to the outward expansion of colonization. The first-person protagonist comes from a "family" (as in Saturn's Children, the concept exists but involves rather more aggressive control of the instantiated "children") of bankers, but she is a forensic accountant and historian who specializes in analysis of financial scams. As you might expect, this is a significant clue about the plot.

Neptune's Brood opens with Krina in search of her sister. She is supposed to be an itinerant scholar, moving throughout colonized space to spend some time with various scattered sisters, spreading knowledge and expanding her own. But it's clear from the start of the book that something else is going on, even before an assassin with Krina's face appears on her trail. Unfortunately, it takes roughly a third of the book to learn just what is happening beneath the surface, and most of that time is spent in a pointless interlude on a flying cathedral run by religious fanatics.

The religion is a callback to Saturn's Children: robots who are trying to spread original humanity (the Fragiles) to the stars. This mostly doesn't go well, and is going particularly poorly for the ship that Krina works for passage on. But this is a brief gag that I thought went on much too long. The plot happens to Krina for this first section of the book rather than the other way around, little of lasting significance other than some character introductions occurs, and the Church itself, while playing a minor role in the later plot, is not worth the amount of attention that it gets. The best parts of the early book are the interludes in which Krina explains major world concepts to the reader. These are absolutely blatant infodumping, and I'm not sure how Stross gets away with them, but somehow he does, at least for me. They remind me of some of his blog posts, except tighter and fit into an interesting larger structure.

Thankfully, once Krina finally arrives on Shin-Tethys, the plot improves considerably. There was a specific moment for me when the book became interesting: when Krina finds her sib's quarters in Shin-Tethys and analyzes what she finds there. It's the first significant thing in the book that she does rather than have done to her or thrust upon her, and she's a much better character when she's making decisions. This is also about the point where Stross starts fully explaining slow money, which is key to both the economics and the plot, and the plot starts to unwind its various mysteries and identify the motives of the players.

Even then, Krina suffers from a lack of agency. Only at rare intervals does she get a chance to affect the story. Most of what she did of relevance to this book she did in the past, and while those descriptions of the backstory are interesting, they don't entirely make up for a passive protagonist. Thankfully, the other characters are varied and interesting enough, and the political machinations and cascading revelations captivating enough, that the last part of the book was very satisfying even with Krina on for the ride.

This is a Stross novel, so it's full of two-dollar technical words mixed with technobabble. However, it shares with Saturn's Children the recasting of robots as the norm and fleshy humans as the exception, which means much of the technobabble is a straight substitution for our normal babble about meaty bodies and often works as an alienation technique. That makes it a bit more tolerable for me, although I still wished Stross would turn down the manic vocabulary in places. This bothers some people more than others; if you had no trouble with Accelerando, Neptune's Brood will pose no problems.

I don't think the first section of this book was successful, but I liked the rest well enough to recommend it. If you like your space opera with a heavy dose of economics, a realistic attitude towards deep space exploration without faster-than-light technology, and a realistic perspective on the hostility of alien planets to Earth life, Neptune's Brood is a good choice. And any book that quotes David Graeber's Debt, and whose author has clearly paid attention to its contents, wins bonus points from me.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2014-07-11: Net::Duo 1.00

This is the first release of Net::Duo, which provides an object-oriented Perl interface for the Duo Security REST APIs. It attempts to abstract some of the API details and provide an object-oriented view of the returned objects in order to make use of the API in Perl code more natural than dealing with JSON data structures directly. Currently, some parts of the Auth and Admin APIs are implemented alongside with generic methods to call any of the JSON-based APIs.

The approach I took with this module was a bit of a science experiment, and I'm still not entirely sure what I think about the results. Duo Security offers sample Perl code that provides the equivalent of the call and call_json Net::Duo methods but stops there. One sends in data structures and gets back data structures from JSON and manipulates everything in that format.

I prefer a more object-oriented style, and want the module to do a bit more of the work for me, so this implementation wraps some of the APIs in objects with method calls. For updates, there are setters for the object itself and then a commit method to push the changes to Duo. This requires more implementation effort, and each API that should get richer treatment has to be modelled, but the resulting code looks like more natural object-oriented code.

I wasn't completely sure going in if the effort to reward tradeoff made sense, and having finished the module sufficiently for Stanford's immediate needs, I'm still not sure. It was certainly more effort to write the base module this way, but on the other hand it also meant that I could map Perl notions of true and false to Duo's and provide much simpler methods for common operations. I still think this will make the code more maintainable in the long run, but I think it's within the margin of difference of opinion.

Regardless, you can get the latest version from the Net::Duo distribution page and shortly from CPAN as well.

2014-07-02: remctl 3.9

This release fixes an embarassing bug that caused the server to often abort sending information back to the client if the server-side program exited while the server was still sending data. It also fixes a more minor bug in which children of the server were spawned with SIGPIPE ignored instead of set to the default handling behavior.

The major new feature in this release is a new ACL type, localgroup, contributed by Remi Ferrand. When this ACL type is used, the remote principal is converted to a local username using the normal Kerberos krb5_aname_to_localname call, and then the server checks whether that local username is a member of a local (nsswitch) group.

This release also prefers calloc and reallocarray to malloc and realloc with calculated sizes across all code, and adds version and compatibility information to all manual pages.

You can get the latest release from the remctl distribution page.

Last modified and spun 2014-10-27