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Old Posts, Still Relevant

This is going to be a bit unusual post, but I effectively ran out of finished posts for a couple more weeks. The reasons are to be found in my previously-announced COVID experience, which as I said sucked – the last post I wrote in the middle of it turned out to be a much worse rambling mess than usual – and the fact that work had me on tight deadline for most of the summer.

So instead of writing something new, I’m gathering some of the topical commentary that I left on other venues that link to a number of old (sometimes very old) posts of mine. It’s going to be a very link heavy post, rather than an usual “essay”, but hopefully it will also bring out some previously buried posts of mine.

GitLab, Self Hosting, and FLOSS Cooperatives

GitLab was a darling in many FLOSS spaces because they are not affiliated with Microsoft, but in the past few weeks they have been through a huge storm when The Register reported on their plans to delete inactive repositories.

As usually happens when a hosting provider realises they can’t afford to stay around forever (this happened before, and will keep happening), there’s a vocal minority of FLOSS people who will try to convince authors and maintainers that the only option to survive is to run their own infrastructure.

Unfortunately, despite the cries of “the cloud is just someone else’s computer” (“The bakery is just someone else’s oven”), there’s a lot of things that are also someone else’s problem when you use a solution provided by a third party. Maintaining a solid infrastructure, particularly for more complex projects, is very time consuming, particularly when you want to not depend on ready-made solutions.

The last time this topic came out, I wrote that in my opinion what we need is FLOSS Cooperatives, but just as back then I don’t think it’s going to be a feasible option: the moment when money is involved, there are commitments to expect and respect, and given that the comparison would be with staffed and funded solutions such as GitHub, it would take quite a bit of money and userbase to maintain a 24/7 SLO — to the point of competing with paid solutions from companies such as GitLab as well.

To plug more of my previous writing, this is also what I would like to see more of, in terms of non-profits (or maybe B Corporations?) rather than focusing nearly only on privacy, as FSFE appeared to do.

Hyperboles, Personality, and Books

I have a strong dislike for cults of personality in all forms, and have been over time applied the maxim «Follow principles, not people» which, funnily enough, I heard from a person I wouldn’t follow to the bathroom. That appears to make me a renegade in Tech, where everyone appears to accept the words of their heroes with little questioning.

A couple of weeks ago, Mikko Hypponen released a book, titled If It’s Smart, It’s Vulnerable — catchy name, catchy premise, and someone who appears to be widely accepted as being smart. Maybe the premise applies to people as well. I honestly felt annoyed by the amount of uncritical noise in social media over the book, although I admit I am not going to read the book, because I do not believe that Hypponen should be lent the credibility for it.

I’m not trying to argue that he doesn’t have the experience, or the insight, to know what he’s talking about. I’m arguing that just at the end of last year he amplified a silly take about smart thermostats, because it fit his narrative. The same narrative that this book appears to be making front and centre.

This is where for me credibility falls: there’s significant problems with the way current “throwaway” smart devices are deployed and sold, that we don’t need to create fake takes around them. Scaring users won’t help if we are actually trying to help the public.

The whole situation reminded me of how I similarly stay away from Doctorow: much as his early tech coverage has been instrumental at pointing out privacy problems that many had up to them ignored, either out of self interest or simple ignorance, his later takes have been hyperbolic, in my opinion just feeding the caricature of privacy advocates as tinfoil hat wearing weirdos. Case in point? The figurative “literally” when misrepresenting Abbott’s takedown.

Midwife To the Container Revolution

I stumbled across a awkwardly phrased, 13 years old post of mine, which I found it quite fascinating to look at: it was written at a time when I was still finding it interesting to play around with PAM, and with complicating my single-user system to build an understanding of how to secure multi-user systems as well.

That post predates the systemd announcement by a number of months, but it talks about concepts that systemd made popular and effectively omnipresent even on non-systemd Linux installations nowadays, such as /run and its user-specific directories. I do not know if I happened to make the same discovery as Lennart or if he was vaguely inspired by my experiments – we used to chat a lot for a long while, since I was packaging PulseAudio among others – but at the very least I can see that I wasn’t too far off the mark on those concepts.

It wasn’t the only time. The year prior I noted the memory wasted by parsing pci.ids files at runtime. Eventually, the hardware IDs database became a binary format that could be directly mapped from the filesystem. And user services, which again systemd implements nicely nowadays, were basically drafted in February 2009. Again, I don’t expect to have been the direct source for the ideas, but at least I can say that I was sensing a need of some kind.

As I was reflecting on these posts, I joked that I sometimes refer to myself as the midwife of the container revolution. Nowadays everything appears to be using Docker (that was first released in 2013) or a variation thereof, but the Gentoo Tinderbox I ran moved to containers (based on LXC) all the way back in 2009!

You can indeed see that I had a lot of content early on about containers, and I was active in lxc-devel when the project was still managed by IBM. Gentoo Linux was an early easy target to support as a container guest among other reasons because I needed it to be for the tinderbox to run successfully. I can’t take the merit of having made containers a mainstream technology, but I have had my hands dirty in the process.

Similarly, while Roy deserves all the credit for OpenRC, I feel like I had a bit of a part to play in that success as well: what became OpenRC started as part of baselayout2, and it was separated explicitly to make it easier to use in Gentoo/FreeBSD, which was the first project I worked on in Gentoo. And indeed, while Roy is now possibly better known for being a NetBSD developer, he was the original member of Gentoo/FreeBSD/SPARC64, and got hooked on NetBSD while trying to make Gentoo/NetBSD a thing. Roy is awesome, if you didn’t know that!

Closing Thoughts

Have you read something you like on the blog? Please, share it with others! In this world and age it seems like the only way to be heard is to have spicy hot takes and stir up controversy, but personally I don’t have the energy to follow that.

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