Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2018-05-19: California state election

Hm, I haven't done one of these in a while. Well, time to alienate future employers and make awkward mistakes in public that I have to explain if I ever run for office! (Spoiler: I'm highly unlikely to ever run for office.)

This is only of direct interest to California residents. To everyone else, RIP your feed reader, and I'm sorry for the length. (My hand-rolled blog software doesn't do cut tags.) I'll spare you all the drill-down into the Bay Area regional offices. (Apparently we elect our coroner, which makes no sense to me.)

Propositions

I'm not explaining these because this is already much too long; those who aren't in California and want to follow along can see the voter guide.

Proposition 68: YES. Still a good time to borrow money, and what we're borrowing money for here seems pretty reasonable. State finances are in reasonable shape; we have the largest debt of any state for the obvious reason that we have the most people and the most money.

Proposition 69: YES. My instinct is to vote no because I have a general objection to putting restrictions on how the state manages its budget. I don't like dividing tax money into locked pools for the same reason that I stopped partitioning hard drives. That said, this includes public transit in the spending pool from gasoline taxes (good), the opposition is incoherent, and there are wide-ranging endorsements. That pushed me to yes on the grounds that maybe all these people understand something about budget allocations that I don't.

Proposition 70: NO. This is some sort of compromise with Republicans because they don't like what cap-and-trade money is being spent on (like high-speed rail) and want a say. If I wanted them to have a say, I'd vote for them. There's a reason why they have to resort to backroom tricks to try to get leverage over laws in this state, and it's not because they have good ideas.

Proposition 71: YES. Entirely reasonable change to say that propositions only go into effect after the election results are final. (There was a real proposition where this almost caused a ton of confusion, and prompted this amendment.)

Proposition 72: YES. I'm grumbling about this because I think we should get rid of all this special-case bullshit in property taxes and just readjust them regularly. Unfortunately, in our current property tax regime, you have to add more exemptions like this because otherwise the property tax hit (that would otherwise not be incurred) is so large that it kills the market for these improvements. Rainwater capture is to the public benefit in multiple ways, so I'll hold my nose and vote for another special exception.

Federal Offices

US Senator: Kevin de León. I'll vote for Feinstein in the general, and she's way up on de León in the polls, but there's no risk in voting for the more progressive candidate here since there's no chance Feinstein won't get the most votes in the primary. De León is a more solidly progressive candidate than Feinstein. I'd love to see a general election between the two of them.

State Offices

I'm omitting all the unopposed ones, and all the ones where there's only one Democrat running in the primary. (I'm not going to vote for any Republican except for one exception noted below, and third parties in the US are unbelievably dysfunctional and not ready to govern.) For those outside the state, California has a jungle primary where the top two vote-getters regardless of party go to the general election, so this is more partisan and more important than other state primaries.

Governor: Delaine Eastin. One always has to ask, in our bullshit voting system, whether one has to vote tactically instead of for the best candidate. But, looking at polling, I think there's no chance Gavin Newsom (the second-best candidate and the front-runner) won't advance to the general election, so I get to vote for the candidate I actually want to win, even though she's probably not going to. Eastin is by far the most progressive candidate running who actually has the experience required to be governor. (Spoiler: Newsom is going to win, and I'll definitely vote for him in the general against Villaraigosa.)

Lieutenant Governor: Eleni Kounalakis. She and Bleich are the strongest candidates. I don't see a ton of separation between them, but Kounalakis's endorsements are a bit stronger for me. She's also the one candidate who has a specific statement about what she plans to do with the lieutenant governor role of oversight over the university system, which is almost it's only actual power. (This political office is stupid and we should abolish it.)

Secretary of State: Alex Padilla. I agree more with Ruben Major's platform (100% paper ballots is the correct security position), but he's an oddball outsider and I don't think he can accomplish as much. Padilla has an excellent track record as the incumbant and is doing basically the right things, just less dramatically.

Treasurer: Fiona Ma. I like Vivek Viswanathan and support his platform, but Fiona Ma has a lot more political expertise and I think will be more effective. I look forward to voting for Viswanathan for something else someday.

Attorney General: Dave Jones. Xavier Becerra hasn't been doing a bad job fighting off bad federal policy, but that seems to be all that he's interested in, and he's playing partisan games with the office. He has an air of amateurishness and political hackery. Dave Jones holds the same positions in a more effective way, is more professional, and has done a good job as Insurance Commissioner.

Insurance Commissioner: Steve Poizner. I'm going to vote for the (former) Republican here. Poizner expressed some really bullshit views on immigration when he ran for governor (which he's apologized for). I wouldn't support him for a more political office. But he was an excellent insurance commissioner (see, for instance, the response to Blue Cross's rate increase request). I'm closer to Ricardo Lara politically, but in his statements to the press he comes across as a clown: self-driving car insurance problems, cannabis insurance, climate change insurance, and a bunch of other nonsense that makes me think he doesn't understand the job. The other democrat, Mahmood, seems like less of a partisan hack, but he's a virtual unknown. If this were an important partisan office, I'd hold my nose and vote for Lara, but the job of insurance commissioner is more to be an auditor and negotiator, and Poizner was really good at it.

Superintendent of Public Instruction: Tony Thurmond. The other front-runner is Marshall Tuck, who is a charter school advocate. I hate charter schools with the passion of a burning sun.

Local Measures

Regional Measure 3: YES. Even more hyper-local than the rest of this post, but mentioning it because it was a narrow call. Bridge tolls are regressive, and I'm not a big fan of raising them as opposed to, say, increasing property taxes (yes please) or income taxes. That said, taxing cars to pay for (largely) public transit is the direction the money should flow. It was thinly balanced for me, but the thrust of the projects won out over the distaste at the regressive tax.

2018-05-19: Free software log (April 2018)

This is rather late since I got distracted by various other things including, ironically, releasing a bunch of software. This is for April, so doesn't include the releases from this month.

The main release I worked on was remctl 3.14, which fixed a security bug introduced in 3.12 with the sudo configuration option. This has since been replaced by 3.15, which has more thorough maintainer testing infrastructure to hopefully prevent this from happening again.

I also did the final steps of the release process for INN 2.6.2, although as usual Julien ÉLIE did all of the hard work.

On the Debian side, I uploaded a new rssh package for the migration to GitLab (salsa.debian.org). I have more work to do on that front, but haven't yet had the time. I've been prioritizing some of my own packages over doing more general Debian work.

Finally, I looked at my Perl modules on CPANTS (the CPAN testing service) and made note of a few things I need to fix, plus filed a couple of bugs for display issues (one of which turned out to be my fault and fixed in Git). I also did a bit of research on the badges that people in the Rust community use in their documentation and started adding support to DocKnot, some of which made it into the subsequent release I did this month.

2018-05-14: Review: Thanks for the Feedback

Review: Thanks for the Feedback, by Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen

Publisher Penguin
Copyright 2014
Printing 2015
ISBN 1-101-61427-7
Format Kindle
Pages 322

Another book read for the work book club.

I was disappointed when this book was picked. I already read two excellent advice columns (Captain Awkward and Ask a Manager) and have read a lot on this general topic. Many workplace-oriented self-help books also seem to be full a style of pop psychology that irritates me rather than informs. But the point of a book club is that you read the book anyway, so I dove in. And was quite pleasantly surprised.

This book is about receiving feedback, not about giving feedback. There are tons of great books out there about how to give feedback, but, as the authors say in the introduction, almost no one giving you feedback is going to read any of them. It would be nice if we all got better at giving feedback, but it's not going to happen, and you can't control other people's feedback styles. You can control how you receive feedback, though, and there's quite a lot one can do on the receiving end. The footnoted subtitle summarizes the tone of the book: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and, frankly, you're not in the mood).

The measure of a book like this for me is what I remember from it several weeks after reading it. Here, it was the separation of feedback into three distinct types: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. Appreciation is gratitude and recognition for what one has accomplished, independent of any comparison against other people or an ideal for that person. Coaching is feedback aimed at improving one's performance. And evaluation, of course, is feedback that measures one against a standard, and usually comes with consequences (a raise, a positive review, a relationship break-up). We all need all three but different people need different mixes, sometimes quite dramatically so. And one of the major obstacles in the way of receiving feedback well is that they tend to come mixed or confused.

That framework makes it easier to see where one's reaction to feedback often goes off the rails. If you come into a conversation needing appreciation ("I've been working long hours to get this finished on time, and a little thanks would be nice"), but the other person is focused on an opportunity for coaching ("I can point out a few tricks and improvements that will let you not work as hard next time"), the resulting conversation rarely goes well. The person giving the coaching is baffled at the resistance to some simple advice on how to improve, and may even form a negative opinion of the other person's willingness to learn. And the person receiving the feedback comes away feeling unappreciated and used, and possibly fearful that their hard work is merely a sign of inadequate skills. There are numerous examples of similar mismatches.

I found this framing immediately useful, particularly in the confusion between coaching and evaluation. It's very easy to read any constructive advice as negative evaluation, particularly if one is already emotionally low. Having words to put to these types of feedback makes it easier to evaluate the situation intellectually rather than emotionally, and to explicitly ask for clarifying evaluation if coaching is raising those sorts of worries.

The other memorable concept I took away from this book is switchtracking. This is when the two people in a conversation are having separate arguments simultaneously, usually because each person has a different understanding of what the conversation is "really" about. Often this happens when the initial feedback sets off a trigger, particularly a relationship or identity trigger (other concepts from this book), in the person receiving it. The feedback giver may be trying to give constructive feedback on how to lay out a board presentation, but the receiver is hearing that they can't be trusted to talk to the board on their own. The receiver will tend to switch the conversation away to whether or not they can be trusted, quite likely confusing the initial feedback giver, or possibly even prompting another switchtrack into a third topic of whether they can receive criticism well.

Once you become aware of this tendency, you start to see it all over the place. It's sadly common. The advice in the book, which is accompanied with a lot of concrete examples, is to call this out explicitly, clearly separate and describe the topics, and then pick one to talk about first based on how urgent the topics are to both parties. Some of those conversations may still be difficult, but at least both parties are having the same conversation, rather than talking past each other.

Thanks for the Feedback fleshes out these ideas and a few others (such as individual emotional reaction patterns to criticism and triggers that interfere with one's ability to accept feedback) with a lot of specific scenarios. The examples are refreshingly short and to the point, avoiding a common trap of books like this to get bogged down into extended artificial dialogue. There's a bit of a work focus, since we get a lot of feedback at work, but there's nothing exclusively work-related about the advice here. Many of the examples are from personal relationships of other kinds. (I found an example of a father teaching his daughters to play baseball particularly memorable. One daughter takes this as coaching and the other as evaluation, resulting in drastically different reactions.) The authors combine matter-of-fact structured information with a gentle sense of humor and great pacing, making this surprisingly enjoyable to read.

I was feeling oversaturated with information on conversation styles and approaches and still came away from this book with some useful additional structure. If you're struggling with absorbing feedback or finding the right structure to use it constructively instead of getting angry, scared, or depressed, give this a try. It's much better than I had expected.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2018-05-13: Review: Twitter and Tear Gas

Review: Twitter and Tear Gas, by Zeynep Tufekci

Publisher Yale University Press
Copyright 2017
ISBN 0-300-21512-6
Format Kindle
Pages 312

Subtitled The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Twitter and Tear Gas is a close look at the effect of social media (particularly, but not exclusively, Twitter and Facebook) on protest movements around the world. Tufekci pays significant attention to the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party in the United States, Black Lives Matter also in the United States, and the Zapatista uprising in Mexico early in the Internet era, as well as more glancing attention to multiple other protest movements since the advent of the Internet. She avoids both extremes of dismissal of largely on-line movements and the hailing of social media as a new era of mass power, instead taking a detailed political and sociological look at how protest movements organized and fueled via social media differ in both strengths and weaknesses from the movements that came before.

This is the kind of book that could be dense and technical but isn't. Tufekci's approach is analytical but not dry or disengaged. She wants to know why some protests work and others fail, what the governance and communication mechanisms of protest movements say about their robustness and capabilities, and how social media has changed the tools and landscape used by protest movements. She's also been directly involved: she's visited the Zapatistas, grew up in Istanbul and is directly familiar with the politics of the Gezi Park protests, and includes in this book a memorable story of being caught in the Antalya airport in Turkey during the 2016 attempted coup. There are some drier and more technical chapters where she's laying the foundations of terminology and analysis, but they just add rigor to an engaging, thoughtful examination of what a protest is and why it works or doesn't work.

My favorite part of this book, by far, was the intellectual structure it gave me for understanding the effectiveness of a protest. That's something about which media coverage tends to be murky, at least in situations short of a full-blown revolutionary uprising (which are incredibly rare). The goal of a protest is to force a change, and clearly sometimes this works. (The US Civil Rights movement and the Indian independence movement are obvious examples. The Arab Spring is a more recent if more mixed example.) However, sometimes it doesn't; Tufekci's example is the protests against the Iraq War. Why?

A key concept of this book is that protests signal capacity, particularly in democracies. That can be capacity to shape a social narrative and spread a point of view, capacity to disrupt the regular operations of a system of authority, or capacity to force institutional change through the ballot box or other political process. Often, protests succeed to the degree that they signal capacity sufficient to scare those currently in power into compromising or acquiescing to the demands of the protest movement. Large numbers of people in the streets matter, but not usually as a show of force. Violent uprisings are rare and generally undesirable for everyone. Rather, they matter because they demand and hold media attention (allowing them to spread a point of view), can shut down normal business and force an institutional response, and because they represent people who can exert political power or be tapped by political rivals.

This highlights one of the key differences between protest in the modern age and protest in a pre-Internet age. The March on Washington at the height of the Civil Rights movement was an impressive demonstration of capacity largely because of the underlying organization required to pull off a large and successful protest in that era. Behind the scenes were impressive logistical and governance capabilities. The same organizational structure that created the March could register people to vote, hold politicians accountable, demand media attention, and take significant and effective economic action. And the government knew it.

One thing that social media does is make organizing large protests far easier. It allows self-organizing, with viral scale, which can create numerically large movements far easier than the dedicated organizational work required prior to the Internet. This makes protest movements more dynamic and more responsive to events, but it also calls into question how much sustained capacity the movement has. The government non-reaction to the anti-war protests in the run-up to the Iraq War was an arguably correct estimation of the signaled capacity: a bet that the anti-war sentiment would not turn into sustained institutional pressure because large-scale street protests no longer indicated the same underlying strength.

Signaling capacity is not, of course, the only purpose of protests. Tufekci also spends a good deal of time discussing the sense of empowerment that protests can create. There is a real sense in which protests are for the protesters, entirely apart from whether the protest itself forces changes to government policies. One of the strongest tools of institutional powers is to make each individual dissenter feel isolated and unimportant, to feel powerless. Meeting, particularly in person, with hundreds of other people who share the same views can break that illusion of isolation and give people the enthusiasm and sense of power to do something about their beliefs. This, however, only becomes successful if the protesters then take further actions, and successful movements have to provide some mechanism to guide and unify that action and retain that momentum.

Tufekci also provides a fascinating analysis of the evolution of government responses to mass protests. The first reaction was media blackouts and repression, often by violence. Although we still see some of that, particularly against out groups, it's a risky and ham-handed strategy that dramatically backfired for both the US Civil Rights movement (due to an independent press that became willing to publish pictures of the violence) and the Arab Spring (due to social media providing easy bypass of government censorship attempts). Governments do learn, however, and have become increasingly adept at taking advantage of the structural flaws of social media. Censorship doesn't work; there are too many ways to get a message out. But social media has very little natural defense against information glut, and the people who benefit from the status quo have caught on.

Flooding social media forums with government propaganda or even just random conspiratorial nonsense is startlingly effective. The same lack of institutional gatekeepers that destroys the effectiveness of central censorship also means there are few trusted ways to determine what is true and what is fake on social media. Governments and other institutional powers don't need to convince people of their point of view. All they need to do is create enough chaos and disinformation that people give up on the concept of objective truth, until they become too demoralized to try to weed through the nonsense and find verifiable and actionable information. Existing power structures by definition benefit from apathy, disengagement, delay, and confusion, since they continue to rule by default.

Tufekci's approach throughout is to look at social media as a change and a new tool, which is neither inherently good or bad but which significantly changes the landscape of political discourse. In her presentation (and she largely convinced me in this book), the social media companies, despite controlling the algorithms and platform, don't particularly understand or control the effects of their creation except in some very narrow and profit-focused ways. The battlegrounds of "fake news," political censorship, abuse, and terrorist content are murky swamps less out of deliberate intent and more because companies have built a platform they have no idea how to manage. They've largely supplanted more traditional political spheres and locally-run social media with huge international platforms, are now faced with policing the use of those platforms, and are way out of their depth.

One specific example vividly illustrates this and will stick with me. Facebook is now one of the centers of political conversation in Turkey, as it is in many parts of the world. Turkey has a long history of sharp political divisions, occasional coups, and a long-standing, simmering conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurds, a political and ethnic minority in southeastern Turkey. The Turkish government classifies various Kurdish groups as terrorist organizations. Those groups unsurprisingly disagree. The arguments over this inside Turkey are vast and multifaceted.

Facebook has gotten deeply involved in this conflict by providing a platform for political arguments, and is now in the position of having to enforce their terms of service against alleged terrorist content (or even simple abuse), in a language that Facebook engineers largely don't speak and in a political context that they largely know nothing about. They of course hire Turkish speakers to try to understand that content to process abuse reports. But, as Tufekci (a Turkish native) argues, a Turkish speaker who has the money, education, and family background to be working in an EU Facebook office in a location like Dublin is not randomly chosen from the spectrum of Turkish politics. They are more likely to have connections to or at least sympathies for the Turkish government or business elites than to be related to a family of poor and politically ostracized Kurds. It's therefore inevitable that bias will be seen in Facebook's abuse report handling, even if Facebook management intends to stay neutral.

For Turkey, you can substitute just about any other country about which US engineers tend to know little. (Speaking as a US native, that's a very long list.) You may even be able to substitute the US for Turkey in some situations, given that social media companies tend to outsource the bulk of the work to countries that can provide low-paid workers willing to do the awful job of wading through the worst of humanity and attempting to apply confusing and vague terms of service. Much of Facebook's content moderation is done in the Philippines, by people who may or may not understand the cultural nuances of US political fights (and, regardless, are rarely given enough time to do more than cursorily glance at each report).

Despite the length of this review, there are yet more topics in this book I haven't mentioned, such as movement governance. (As both an advocate for and critic of consensus-based decision-making, Tufekci's example of governance in Occupy Wall Street had me both fascinated and cringing.) This is excellent stuff, full of personal anecdotes and entertaining story-telling backed by thoughtful and structured analysis. If you have felt mystified by the role that protests play in modern politics, I highly recommend reading this.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2018-05-12: Review: Deep Work

Review: Deep Work, by Cal Newport

Publisher Grand Central
Copyright January 2016
ISBN 1-4555-8666-8
Format Kindle
Pages 287

If you follow popular psychology at all, you are probably aware of the ongoing debate over multitasking, social media, smartphones, and distraction. Usually, and unfortunately, this comes tainted by generational stereotyping: the kids these days who spend too much time with their phones and not enough time getting off their elders' lawns, thus explaining their inability to get steady, high-paying jobs in an economy designed to avoid steady, high-paying jobs. However, there is some real science under the endless anti-millennial think-pieces. Human brains are remarkably bad at multitasking, and it causes significant degredation of performance. Worse, that performance degredation goes unnoticed by the people affected, who continue to think they're performing tasks at their normal proficiency. This comes into harsh conflict with modern workplaces heavy on email and chat systems, and even harsher conflict with open plan offices.

Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University with a long-standing side profession of writing self-help books, initially focused on study habits. In this book, he argues that the ability to do deep work — focused, concentrated work that pushes the boundaries of what one understands and is capable of — is a valuable but diminishing skill. If one can develop both the habit and the capability for it (more on that in a moment), it can be extremely rewarding and a way of differentiating oneself from others in the same field.

Deep Work is divided into two halves. The first half is Newport's argument that deep work is something you should consider trying. The second, somewhat longer half is his techniques for getting into and sustaining the focus required.

In making his case for this approach, Newport puts a lot of effort into avoiding broader societal prescriptions, political stances, or even general recommendations and tries to keep his point narrow and focused: the ability to do deep, focused work is valuable and becoming rarer. If you develop that ability, you will have an edge. There's nothing exactly wrong with this, but much of it is obvious and he belabors it longer than he needed to. (That said, I'm probably more familiar with research on concentration and multitasking than some.)

That said, I did like his analysis of busyness as a proxy for productivity in many workplaces. The metrics and communication methods most commonly used in office jobs are great at measuring responsiveness and regular work on shallow tasks in the moment, and bad at measuring progress towards deeper, long-term goals, particularly ones requiring research or innovation. The latter is recognized and rewarded once it finally pays off, but often treated as a mysterious capability some people have and others don't. Meanwhile, the day-to-day working environment is set up to make it nearly impossible, in Newport's analysis, to develop and sustain the habits required to achieve those long-term goals. It's hard to read this passage and not be painfully aware of how much time one spends shallowly processing email, and how that's rewarded in the workplace even though it rarely leads to significant accomplishments.

The heart of this book is the second half, which is where Deep Work starts looking more like a traditional time management book. Newport lays out four large areas of focus to increase one's capacity for deep work: create space to work deeply on a regular basis, embrace boredom, quit social media, and cut shallow work out of your life. Inside those areas, he provides a rich array of techniques, some rather counter-intuitive, that have worked for him. This is in line with traditional time management guidance: focus on a few important things at a time, get better at saying no, put some effort into planning your day and reviewing that plan, and measure what you're trying to improve. But Newport has less of a focus on any specific system and more of a focus on what one should try to cut out of one's life as much as possible to create space for thinking deeply about problems.

Newport's guidance is constructed around the premise (which seems to have some grounding in psychological research) that focused, concentrated work is less a habit that one needs to maintain than a muscle that one needs to develop. His contention is that multitasking and interrupt-driven work isn't just a distraction that can be independently indulged or avoided each day, but instead degrades one's ability to concentrate over time. People who regularly jump between tasks lose the ability to not jump between tasks. If they want to shift to more focused work, they have to regain that ability with regular, mindful practice. So, when Newport says to embrace boredom, it's not just due to the value of quiet and unstructured moments. He argues that reaching for one's phone to scroll through social media in each moment of threatened boredom undermines one's ability to focus in other areas of life.

I'm not sure I'm as convinced as Newport is, but I've been watching my own behavior closely since I read this book and I think there's some truth here. I picked this book up because I've been feeling vaguely dissatisfied with my ability to apply concentrated attention to larger projects, and because I have a tendency to return to a comfort zone of unchallenging tasks that I already know how to do. Newport would connect that to a job with an open plan office, a very interrupt-driven communications culture, and my personal habits, outside of work hours, of multitasking between TV, on-line chat, and some project I'm working on.

I'm not particularly happy about that diagnosis. I don't like being bored, I greatly appreciate the ability to pull out my phone and occupy my mind while I'm waiting in line, and I have several very enjoyable hobbies that only take "half a brain," which I neither want to devote time to exclusively nor want to stop doing entirely. But it's hard to argue with the feeling that my brain skitters away from concentrating on one thing for extended periods of time, and it does feel like an underexercised muscle.

Some of Newport's approach seems clearly correct: block out time in your schedule for uninterrupted work, find places to work that minimize distractions, and batch things like email and work chat instead of letting yourself be constantly interrupted by them. I've already noticed how dramatically more productive I am when working from home than working in an open plan office, even though the office doesn't bother me in the moment. The problems with an open plan office are real, and the benefits seem largely imaginary. (Newport dismantles the myth of open office creativity and contrasts it with famously creative workplaces like MIT and Bell Labs that used a hub and spoke model, where people would encounter each other to exchange ideas and then retreat into quiet and isolated spaces to do actual work.) And Newport's critique of social media seemed on point to me: it's not that it offers no benefits, but it is carefully designed to attract time and attention entirely out of proportion to the benefits that it offers, because that's the business model of social media companies.

Like any time management book, some of his other advice is less convincing. He makes a strong enough argument for blocking out every hour of your day (and then revising the schedule repeatedly through the day as needed) that I want to try it again, but I've attempted that in the past and it didn't go well at all. I'm similarly dubious of my ability to think through a problem while walking, since most of the problems I work on rely on the ability to do research, take notes, or start writing code while I work through the problem. But Newport presents all of this as examples drawn from his personal habits, and cares less about presenting a system than about convincing the reader that it's both valuable and possible to carve out thinking space for oneself and improve one's capacity for sustained concentration.

This book is explicitly focused on people with office jobs who are rewarded for tackling somewhat open-ended problems and finding creative solutions. It may not resonate with people in other lines of work, particularly people whose jobs are the interrupts (customer service jobs, for example). But its target profile fits me and a lot of others in the tech industry. If you're in that group, I think you'll find this thought-provoking.

Recommended, particularly if you're feeling harried, have the itch to do something deeper or more interesting, and feel like you're being constantly pulled away by minutia.

You can get a sample of Newport's writing in his Study Habits blog, although be warned that some of the current moral panic about excessive smartphone and social media use creeps into his writing there. (He's currently working on a book on digital minimalism, so if you're allergic to people who have caught the minimalism bug, his blog will be more irritating than this book.) I appreciated him keeping the moral panic out of this book and instead focusing on more concrete and measurable benefits.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2018-05-11: Review: Always Human

Review: Always Human, by walkingnorth

Publisher LINE WEBTOON
Copyright 2015-2017
Format Online graphic novel
Pages 336

Always Human is a graphic novel published on the LINE WEBTOON platform. It was originally published in weekly updates and is now complete in two "seasons." It is readable for free, starting with episode one. The pages metadata in the sidebar is therefore a bit of a lie: it's my guess on how many pages this would be if it were published as a traditional graphic novel (four times the number of episodes), provided as a rough guide of how long it might take to read (and because I have a bunch of annual reading metadata that I base on page count, even if I have to make up the concept of pages).

Always Human is set in a 24th century world in which body modifications for medical, cosmetic, and entertainment purposes are ubiquitous. What this story refers to as "mods" are nanobots that encompass everything from hair and skin color changes through protection from radiation to allow interplanetary travel to anti-cancer treatments. Most of them can be trivially applied with no discomfort, and they've largely taken over the fashion industry (and just about everything else). The people of this world spend as little time thinking about their underlying mechanics as we spend thinking about synthetic fabrics.

This is why Sunati is so struck by the young woman she sees at the train station. Sunati first noticed her four months ago, and she's not changed anything about herself since: not her hair, her eye color, her skin color, or any of the other things Sunati (and nearly everyone else) change regularly. To Sunati, it's a striking image of self-confidence and increases her desire to find an excuse to say hello. When the mystery woman sneezes one day, she sees her opportunity: offer her a hay-fever mod that she carries with her!

Alas for Sunati's initial approach, Austen isn't simply brave or quirky. She has Egan's Syndrome, an auto-immune problem that makes it impossible to use mods. Sunati wasn't expecting her kind offer to be met with frustrated tears. In typical Sunati form, she spends a bunch of time trying to understand what happened, overthinking it, hoping to see Austen again, and freezing when she does. Lucky for Sunati, typical Austen form is to approach her directly and apologize, leading to an explanatory conversation and a trial date.

Always Human is Sunati and Austen's story: their gentle and occasionally bumbling romance, Sunati's indecisiveness and tendency to talk herself out of communicating, and Austen's determined, relentless, and occasionally sharp-edged insistence on defining herself. It's not the sort of story that has wars, murder mysteries, or grand conspiracies; the external plot drivers are more mundane concerns like choice of majors, meeting your girlfriend's parents, and complicated job offers. It's also, delightfully, not the sort of story that creates dramatic tension by occasionally turning the characters into blithering idiots.

Sunati and Austen are by no means perfect. Both of them do hurt each other without intending to, both of them have blind spots, and both of them occasionally struggle with making emergencies out of things that don't need to be emergencies. But once those problems surface, they deal with them with love and care and some surprisingly good advice. My first reading was nervous. I wasn't sure I could trust walkingnorth not to do something stupid to the relationship for drama; that's so common in fiction. I can reassure you that this is a place where you can trust the author.

This is also a story about disability, and there I don't have the background to provide the same reassurance with much confidence. However, at least from my perspective, Always Human reliably treats Austen as a person first, weaves her disability into her choices and beliefs without making it the cause of everything in her life, and tackles head-on some of the complexities of social perception of disabilities and the bad tendency to turn people into Inspirational Disabled Role Model. It felt to me like it struck a good balance.

This is also a society that's far more open about human diversity in romantic relationships, although there I think it says more about where we currently are as a society than what the 24th century will "actually" be like. The lesbian relationship at the heart of the story goes essentially unremarked; we're now at a place where that can happen without making it a plot element, at least for authors and audiences below a certain age range. The (absolutely wonderful) asexual and non-binary characters in the supporting cast, and the one polyamorous relationship, are treated with thoughtful care, but still have to be remarked on by the characters.

I think this says less about walkingnorth as a writer than it does about managing the expectations of the reader. Those ideas are still unfamiliar enough that, unless the author is very skilled, they have to choose between dragging the viciousness of current politics into the story (which would be massively out of place here) or approaching the topic with an earnestness that feels a bit like an after-school special. walkingnorth does the latter and errs on the side of being a little too didactic, but does it with a gentle sense of openness that fits the quiet and supportive mood of the whole story. It feels like a necessary phase that we have to go through between no representation at all and the possibility of unremarked representation, which we're approaching for gay and lesbian relationships.

You can tell from this review that I mostly care about the story rather than the art (and am not much of an art reviewer), but this is a graphic novel, so I'll try to say a few things about it. The art seemed clearly anime- or manga-inspired to me: large eyes as the default, use of manga conventions for some facial expressions, and occasional nods towards a chibi style for particularly emotional scenes. The color palette has a lot of soft pastels that fit the emotionally gentle and careful mood. The focus is on human figures and shows a lot of subtlety of facial expressions, but you won't get as much in the way of awe-inspiring 24th century backgrounds. For the story that walkingnorth is telling, the art worked extremely well for me.

The author also composed music for each episode. I'm not reviewing it because, to be honest, I didn't enable it. Reading, even graphic novels, isn't that sort of multimedia experience for me. If, however, you like that sort of thing, I have been told by several other people that it's quite good and fits the mood of the story.

That brings up another caution: technology. A nice thing about books, and to a lesser extent traditionally-published graphic novels, is that whether you can read it doesn't depend on your technological choices. This is a web publishing platform, and while apparently it's a good one that offers some nice benefits for the author (and the author is paid for their work directly), it relies on a bunch of JavaScript magic (as one might expect from the soundtrack). I had to fiddle with uMatrix to get it to work and still occasionally saw confusing delays in the background loading some of the images that make up an episode. People with more persnickety ad and JavaScript blockers have reported having trouble getting it to display at all. And, of course, one has to hope that the company won't lose interest or go out of business, causing Always Human to disappear. I'd love to buy a graphic novel on regular paper at some point in the future, although given the importance of the soundtrack to the author (and possible contracts with the web publishing company), I don't know if that will be possible.

This is a quiet, slow, and reassuring story full of gentle and honest people who are trying to be nice to each other while navigating all the tiny conflicts that still arise in life. It wasn't something I was looking for or even knew I would enjoy, and turned out to be exactly what I wanted to read when I found it. I devoured it over the course of a couple of days, and am now eagerly awaiting the author's next work (Aerial Magic). It is unapologetically cute and adorable, but that covers a solid backbone of real relationship insight. Highly recommended; it's one of the best things I've read this year.

Many thanks to James Nicoll for writing a review of this and drawing it to my attention.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2018-05-07: podlators 4.11

podlators is the CPAN distribution that contains Pod::Man, Pod::Text, and its subclasses, used for rendering Perl documentation as man pages or text files. It's been part of Perl core for a very long time.

This release cleans up a bunch of long-standing bugs in Pod::Text and its subclasses thanks to a series of excellent bug reports from eponymous alias. The default value of the sentence option was documented incorrectly, the width option was ignored in Pod::Text::Termcap, that module also worked incorrectly when COLUMNS wasn't set in the environment, and both Pod::Text::Termcap and Pod::Text::Color had various problems with wrapping that are now fixed. Long =item text was miswrapped due to an incorrect length calculation, and text attributes are now cleared at the end of each line and then reapplied to work better with common pagers.

In addition, the none value for the errors option of Pod::Man and Pod::Text now works correctly, thanks to a bug report from Olly Betts.

You can get the latest version from the podlators distribution page.

2018-05-06: rra-c-util 7.1

This is my collection of portability libraries and test suite support for my C projects.

The big news in this release was already discussed in the corresponding C TAP Harness release: much better support for valgrind checking. Not only has valgrind been enabled in this package to check the portability and utility layers, but the TAP helper library has been updated to support spawning remctld with valgrind for remctl tests. (The primary consumer of this support will be the remctl package, of course.) This release also includes a valgrind/logs check that is meant to run last in a test list and scans a directory of valgrind logs, reporting test failures for any that contain valgrind errors. If the test suite isn't run under valgrind, this test is just skipped.

Some other fixes in this release:

This release also contains a few other, more minor fixes, and switches the license of all of my public domain source files to the FSF all-permissive license in the name of standardizing on licenses registered with the SPDX project and vetted by actual lawyers.

You can get the latest release from the rra-c-util distribution page.

2018-05-06: C TAP Harness 4.3

This is my test harness and C library for supporting TAP (Test Anything Protocol, the same used by Perl) tests for C projects.

The big change in this release is test options: a test list passed to runtests can now include space-separated options after the name of the test to run. The two supported options are valgrind, which controls whether the test can be run under valgrind, and libtool, which further controls how the test is run under valgrind.

The background on this is a bit interesting.

I've had Makefile targets to run test suites under valgrind for various packages for a while, using valgrind's --trace-children=yes option and running runtests under valgrind. However, this has a serious problem: valgrind tries to trace into every child, including shell scripts or Perl scripts used in the test suite. This results in valgrind logs that are basically always unuseful: lots of false positives or uninteresting small memory leaks in standard system tools.

For projects that use Libtool, the situation becomes far worse, since Libtool wraps all the executables in the build tree with shell scripts that set up an appropriate library path. valgrind traces into those shell scripts and all the various programs they run. As a result, running valgrind with --trace-children=yes on a non-trivial test suite such as remctl's could easily result in 10,000 or more valgrind log files, most of which were just noise.

As a result, while the valgrind target was there, I rarely ran it or tried to dig through the results. And that, in turn, led to security vulnerabilities like the recent one in remctl.

Test options are a more comprehensive fix. When the valgrind test option is set, C TAP Harness will look at the C_TAP_VALGRIND environment variable. If it is set, that test will be run, directly by the harness, using the command given in that environment variable. A typical setting might be:

VALGRIND_COMMAND = $(PATH_VALGRIND) --leak-check=full             \
        --log-file=$(abs_top_builddir)/tests/tmp/valgrind/log.%p  \
        --suppressions=$(abs_top_srcdir)/tests/data/valgrind.supp

and then a Makefile target like:

# Used by maintainers to run the main test suite under valgrind.
check-valgrind: $(check_PROGRAMS)
        rm -rf $(abs_top_builddir)/tests/tmp
        mkdir $(abs_top_builddir)/tests/tmp
        mkdir $(abs_top_builddir)/tests/tmp/valgrind
        C_TAP_VALGRIND="$(VALGRIND_COMMAND)"                    \
            C_TAP_LIBTOOL="$(top_builddir)/libtool"             \
            tests/runtests -l '$(abs_top_srcdir)/tests/TESTS'

(this is take from the current version of remctl). Note that --trace-children=yes can be omitted, which avoids recursing into any small helper programs that tests run, and only tests with the valgrind option set will be run under valgrind (the rest will be run as normal). This cuts down massively on the noise. Tests that explicitly want to invoke valgrind on some other program can use the presence of C_TAP_VALGRIND in the environment to decide whether to do that and what command to use.

The C_TAP_LIBTOOL setting above is the other half of the fix. Packages that use Libtool may have tests that are Libtool-generated shell wrappers, so just using the above would still run valgrind on a shell script. But if the libtool test option is also set, C TAP Harness now knows to invoke the test with libtool --mode=execute and then the valgrind command, which causes Libtool to expand all of the shell wrappers to actual binaries first and then run valgrind only on the actual binary. The path to libtool is taken from the C_TAP_LIBTOOL environment variable.

The final piece is an additional test that scans the generated valgrind log files. That piece is part of rra-c-util, so I'll talk about it with that release.

There are two more changes in this release. First, borrowing an idea from Rust, diagnostics from test failures are now reported as the left value and the right value, instead of the seen and wanted values. This allows one to write tests without worrying about the order of arguments to the is_* functions, which turned out to be hard to remember and mostly a waste of energy to keep consistent. And second, I fixed an old bug with NULL handling in is_string that meant a NULL might compare as equal to a literal string "(null)". This test is now done properly.

The relationship between C TAP Harness and rra-c-util got a bit fuzzier in this release since I wanted to import more standard tests from rra-c-util and ended up importing the Perl test framework. This increases the amount of stuff that's in the C TAP Harness distribution that's canonically maintained in rra-c-util. I considered moving the point of canonical maintenance to C TAP Harness, but it felt rather out of scope for this package, so decided to live with it. Maybe I should just merge the two packages, but I know a lot of people who use pieces of C TAP Harness but don't care about rra-c-util, so it seems worthwhile to keep them separate.

I did replace the tests/docs/pod-t and tests/docs/pod-spelling-t tests in C TAP Harness with the rra-c-util versions in this release since I imported the Perl test framework anyway. I think most users of the old C TAP Harness versions will be able to use the rra-c-util versions without too much difficulty, although it does require importing the Perl modules from rra-c-util into a tests/tap/perl directory.

You can get the latest release from the C TAP Harness distribution page.

2018-05-05: DocKnot 1.05

DocKnot is the program that generates the top-level web pages and README files for my software packages (and eventually should take over generation of the LICENSE files, doing release management, and may eventually incorporate the tools for the macro language I use to generate my web pages).

For this release, I did a bit more research about the little badges that people have started displaying in their README files on GitHub and in a few other places (Rust's crates.io, for instance). DocKnot can now generate the Travis-CI badges, and also uses Shields.io for CPAN badges for things I upload to CPAN. I will probably add more as I work on other packages that have meaningful badges.

This release also moves the documentation of environment variables to set to enable more parts of the test suite to the testing section of README files. I have no idea why I put that in the requirements section originally; this should make more sense.

There are a few additions to support generating web pages for remctl, which previously wasn't using DocKnot, and a bug fix for README generation when there are additional bootstrapping instructions. (Previous versions miswrapped the resulting paragraph.)

DocKnot now requires Perl 5.24 or later, since right now I'm the only user and don't need to support anything older than Debian stable, and that way I can start using the neat new $ref->@* Perl syntax instead of the much noisier @{$ref} syntax.

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

2018-05-05: remctl 3.15

As promised in the security advisory accompanying remctl 3.14, this release of remctl (and upcoming releases of C TAP Harness and rra-c-util) implements proper valgrind testing. In the process, I found and fixed a potential data loss bug: a server-side command accepting input on standard input that exited before consuming all of its input could have its output truncated due to a logic bug in the remctld server.

This release also adds some more protocol verification (I didn't see any bugs; this just tightens things out of paranoia) and much-improved maintainer support for static analysis and compiler warning checks.

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

2018-04-30: Review: Vallista

Review: Vallista, by Steven Brust

Series Vlad Taltos #15
Publisher Tor
Copyright October 2017
ISBN 1-4299-4699-7
Format Kindle
Pages 334

This is the fifteenth book in the Vlad Taltos series, and, following the pattern, goes back to fill in a story from earlier in the series. This time, though, it doesn't go back far: Vallista takes place immediately before Hawk (at least according to the always-helpful Lyorn Records; it was not immediately obvious to me since it had been several years since I read Hawk). That means we have to wait at least one more book before Vlad is (hopefully) more free to act, but we get a bit more world-building and a few more clues about the broader arc of this series.

As is hopefully obvious, this is not at all the place to start with this series.

Vallista opens with Devera finding him and asking him for help. Readers of the series will recognize Devera as a regular and mysterious feature, but this is one of the most active roles she's played in a story. Following her, Vlad finds himself at a mysterious seaside house that he's sure wasn't there the last time he went by that area. When he steps inside, Devera vanishes and the door locks behind him.

The rest of the book is Vlad working out the mystery of what this house is, why it was constructed, and the nature of the people who occupy it. This is explicitly an homage to Gothic romances. The dead daughter Vlad encounters isn't exactly a ghost, but she's close, and there's a locked-up monster, family secrets, star-crossed lovers, and ulterior motives everywhere. There's also a great deal of bizarre geometry, since this book is as detailed of an exploration of necromancy as we've gotten in the series to date.

Like many words in Dragaera, necromancy doesn't mean what one expects from the normal English definition, although there's a tricky similarity. In this world it's more about planes of existence than death in particular, and since one of those planes of existence for Dragaerans is the Paths of the Dead and their strange connections across time and space, necromancy is also the magic of spacial and temporal connections. The mansion Vlad has to find his way out of is a creation of necromancy, as becomes clear early in the book, and there is death involved, but there are also a lot of mirrors, discussion of dimensional linkage and shifts, and as detailed of an explanation as we've gotten yet of Devera's unique abilities.

Vlad seems less devious in his attempts to solve mysteries than he is in his heist setups. A lot of Vallista involves Vlad wandering around, asking questions, complaining about his head hurting, and threatening people until he has enough information to understand the nature of the house. Perhaps a careful reader armed with a good memory of series details would be able to guess the mystery before Vlad lays it out for the reader. I'm not that reader and spent most of the book worrying that I was missing things I was supposed to be following. Thankfully, Brust isn't too coy about the ending. Vlad lays out most of the details in the final chapter for those who weren't following the specifics, although I admit I visited the Lyorn Records wiki afterwards to pick up more of the details. The story apart from the mystery is a very typical iteration of Vlad being snarky, kind-hearted, slightly impatient, and intent on minding his own business except when other people force him to get involved in theirs.

As is typical for the series entries that go back and fill in side stories, we don't get a lot of advancement of the main storyline. There is an intriguing scene in the Paths of the Dead with Vlad's memories, and a conversation between Vlad and Verra that provides one of the clearest indications of the overall arc of the series yet, but most of the story is concerned only with the puzzle of this mansion and its builder. I found that enjoyable but not exceptional. If you like Vlad (and if you're still reading this series, I assume you do), this is more of Vlad doing Vlad things, but I doubt it will stand out as anyone's favorite book in the series. But the series remains satisfying and worth reading even fifteen books in, which is a significant accomplishment.

I eagerly await the next book, which will hopefully be the direct sequel to Hawk and an advancement of the main plot.

Followed by (rumored, not yet confirmed) Tsalmoth.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2018-04-29: Review: Full of Briars

Review: Full of Briars, by Seanan McGuire

Series October Daye #7.1
Publisher DAW
Copyright August 2016
ISBN 0-7564-1222-6
Format Kindle
Pages 44

"Full of Briars" is a novella set in the October Daye series, between Chimes at Midnight and The Winter Long, although published four years later. It was published independently, so it gets a full review here, but it's $2 on Amazon and primarily fills in some background for series readers.

It's also extremely hard to review without spoilers, since it is the direct consequences of a major plot revelation at the end of Chimes of Midnight that would spoil a chunk of that story and some of the series leading up to it. So I'm going to have to be horribly vague and fairly brief.

"Full of Briars" is, unlike most of the series and all of the novels, told from Quentin's perspective rather than Toby's. The vague thing that I can say about the plot is that this is the story of Toby finally meeting Quentin's parents. Since Quentin is supposed to be in a blind fosterage and his parentage kept secret, this is a bit of a problem. It might be enough of a problem to end the fosterage and call him home.

That is very much not something Quentin wants. Or Toby, or any of the rest of the crew Toby has gathered around her in the course of the series.

The rest of the story is mostly talking, about that decision and its aftermath and then some other developments in Quentin's life. It lacks a bit of the drama of the novels of the series, but one of the reasons why I'm still reading this series is that I like these characters and their dialogue. They're all very much themselves here: Toby being blunt, May being random, and Quentin being honorable and determined and young. Tybalt is particularly good here, doing his own version of Toby's tendency to speak truth to power and strongly asserting the independence of the Court of Cats.

The ending didn't have much impact for me, and I don't think the scene worked quite as well as McGuire intended, but it's another bit of background that's useful for series readers to be aware of.

This is missable, but it's cheap enough and fast enough to read that I wouldn't miss it if you're otherwise reading the series. The core plot outcome is predictable, as is much of what happens in the process. But I liked Quentin's parents, I liked how they interact with McGuire's regular cast, and it's nice to know exactly what happened in this interlude.

Followed by The Winter Long (and also see the Toby Short Stories page for a list of all the short fiction in this universe and where it falls in series order).

Rating: 6 out of 10

2018-04-15: Free software log (March 2018)

I did get a few software releases out this month, although not as much as I'd planned and I still have a lot of new releases pending that are waiting for me to have a bit more free time.

control-archive got a 1.8.0 release, which catches up from accumulated changes over the past year plus and falls back to GnuPG v1 for signature processing. One of the projects that I'd like to find time for is redoing all of my scattered code for making and checking Usenet control messages.

DocKnot 1.03 adds more support for SPDX license identifiers, which I've started using in my projects, and then 1.04 was a quick bug fix release for something I broke in the test suite on Windows systems.

I also redid the Kerberos authentication plugin for INN to use modern Kerberos APIs, which cleared up some build issues when pointing at non-system Kerberos libraries.

2018-04-14: INN 2.6.2

(As usual, Julien finished this release a bit back, and then I got busy with life stuff and hadn't gotten the announcement out. And yes, I copied and pasted this parenthetical from the last announcement. Tradition!)

In the feature department, this release adds a new syntaxchecks parameter to inn.conf that can be used to disable message ID syntax checking, better header sanitization support in mailpost, support for TLS 1.3, and support for using GnuPG v1 (which is unfortunately important for control messages and NoCeM on Usenet still).

In the bug-fix department, this release always uses the OVDB helper server with OVDB to avoid various stability problems, fixes a header checking bug in inews that was incorrectly rejecting some long headers, fixes some control command reporting in the daily status report, and hopefully fixes buffindexed on systems with a native page size larger than 16KB.

As always, thanks to Julien ÉLIE for preparing this release and doing most of the maintenance work on INN!

You can get the latest version from the official ISC download page (although that download link still points to INN 2.6.1 as of this writing) or from my personal INN pages. The latter also has links to the full changelog and the other INN documentation.

Last spun 2018-05-20 from thread modified 2008-08-13