Mon, 18 Sep 2017

Tears for Transparent

I binge-watched season 3 of Amazon's "Transparent" show over the last couple of days. I really enjoyed the first two seasons and think that season 3 is probably the strongest one so far. In fact, I had an incredibly strong and unexpected reaction to one of the episodes.

One of the episodes follows young Maura when she's about 10 years old. (NOTE: Although Maura was not then known by that name, trans people generally prefer not to be dead-named and I respect that convention even for a fictional character.) Her grandfather has a bunker in his yard (this was the height of the 1950s nuclear hysteria) and Maura spends time there alone, dressed in her mother's clothes, jewelry, hair accessories, etc. Her mother and grandmother know about this and disapprove mildly, but do not try to stop Maura.

One day, there's an air raid drill and Maura's grandfather yells at everyone to get into the bunker. He enters last and sees Maura dressed in her mother's clothes. He yells at Maura, calling her a "feygele" (faggot) and saying she's sick and needs to see a doctor. Maura is frightened almost beyond words and promises never to do it again.

Well. That scene left me in tears. In fact, I could not control myself for about 10 minutes. I was thinking about the next 60 years of Maura's life, the feelings she would have, and the experiences that I know only too well.

There's the disconnect of looking in the mirror and seeing someone else, or seeing a grotesquely distorted version of who your mind insists you are. The shame and self-loathing as you try desperately to understand this strange compulsion to be a girl. The pre-Internet loneliness where you think nobody else is like you. The portrayal by media and entertainment of transgender women or crossdressers as either monsters (Buffalo Bill in "The Silence of the Lambs" or Robert Elliott in "Dressed to Kill"), or comic relief (Joe and Jerry in "Some Like it Hot"). And most toxic of all, the insistence by society back then and even now, in some quarters, that you are broken, defective, sick.

Although my family was and is extremely supportive and probably would have been even if I'd come out as a child, these toxic influences from society insidiously took hold, freezing me in fear for 40 years. And it's not just transgender people who are hurt by this; rigid gender roles, sexism and misogyny hurt everyone.

I knew how Maura's next 60 years would play out. And I knew she'd eventually reach the point where she had to overcome fear to save her life. This is a journey on which many transgender people embark and sadly one which many do not complete alive.

Over the past decade or so, we have witnessed an amazing new phenomenon: We are seeing transgender children openly proclaiming their gender identity and being supported by their parents. This is a portentous moment; we are on the cusp of a society that will have the first generation of transgender people not to have to suffer for proclaiming their identity; for whom their identity just is, rather than being something to struggle against and then to struggle for.

And on the cusp of this new society, we see the regressive forces of oppression fighting back. Trump's ban on transgender people in the military plays into the old narrative that we're sick, defective, unfit. Social conservatives bray about the mental disorder of transgenderism, not realizing that by the time a trans person transitions, they are healing, not displaying sickness.

Most unconscionable of all are those who target transgender children. These are people, who out of fear of change or out of vested interest in an oppressive system of gender classification and rigid gender roles, would condemn children---children!---to years of suffering and quite possibly to death.

Some of these social conservatives condemn supportive parents, claiming that the parents are "pushing" their kids to be transgender. I can tell you this: There is not a single parent alive who wishes his or her child to be transgender, given the difficulties trans people face. But good parents accept and love their children unconditionally, and we are seeing that.

I wish for the sake of these social conservatives that they have a transgender child to open their eyes; at the same time, I wish that none of them ever has a transgender child, for the sake of the child.

We are at a crossroads. We can turn to darkness, fear and divisiveness. Or we can continue expanding the group of people we consider worthy of human rights. We need to safeguard the bending of the arc of the moral Universe, to use Martin Luther King's imagery.

The choice is ours. And it is stark.


Wed, 06 Sep 2017

Bored. Replied to a spammer.

A spam was quarantined from someone asking about "ordering our products". Being bored, I decided to reply. Here's the reply.

From: Dianne S <***>
Subject: Re: Inquiring Order


I am happy to respond to your questions.

> 1.Inform me about the Minimum Order Quantity,

Our minimum order is 2,434,293,657,390,291,321,494,669 units.  That
is: two septillion, four hundred thirty-four sextillion, two hundred
ninety-three quintillion, six hundred fifty-seven quadrillion, three
hundred ninety trillion, two hundred ninety-one billion, three hundred
twenty-one million, four hundred ninety-four thousand, six hundred
sixty-nine units.

> 2.Delivery time,

If you order now, delivery will take place in
3,432,124,395,607,391,441 business days.  That is: three quintillion,
four hundred thirty-two quadrillion, one hundred twenty-four trillion,
three hundred ninety-five billion, six hundred seven million, three
hundred ninety-one thousand, four hundred forty-one business days.

> 3.And payment terms warranty.

Payment is due in advance.  Please send us your credit card details,
authorizing a payment of $348,231,324,495,394,123,594,653,123.79 (that
is: three hundred forty-eight septillion, two hundred thirty-one
sextillion, three hundred twenty-four quintillion, four hundred
ninety-five quadrillion, three hundred ninety-four trillion, one
hundred twenty-three billion, five hundred ninety-four million, six
hundred fifty-three thousand, one hundred twenty-three US dollars, and
seventy-nine cents) and we will ship your order right away.


Dianne S.


Mon, 28 Aug 2017

Hello, Facebook

After a month, I'm back on Facebook, but with a lot of changes. I'm using technology to make Facebook less addictive and less stressful. This post talks about how I did that.

No App

First technical change: I do not use Facebook on my mobile device. Mobile devices tend to be locked down, and with Facebook in charge of both the client and server experience, you've lost. So no Facebook app and no using Facebook via the mobile Web site because mobile browsers are not very customizable.


Next up: I headed over to F. B. Purity and installed the excellent browser plugin. This alters Facebook so I only see stuff I want to see.

Hide, hide, hide!

Finally, I had to decide what I wanted to see. I boiled it down to this: I want to see what my friends actually write and post on their timelines. I don't want to know what they've "liked". I don't want to know which events they're attending. I don't want to know what they've shared.

I only want to see original content created by my friends; this usually means something important to them has happened and I want to know about that. Luckily, FBP has very fine-grained controls to let you hide various story types and it was flexible enough to meet my needs.

Oh, and for the love of all that is holy, stop using those stupid graphical status updates. FBP converts those obnoxious giant colourful squares with meme-ish status updates into plain text for me, so nobody's yelling at me.

Combined with FBP's blocking of ads, plus a couple more browser plugins and an ad-blocking proxy, my Facebook experience is now pleasant and non-addictive. Yay technology!


Mon, 17 Jul 2017

Goodbye, Facebook

I was on Facebook for several years, and quite active over the last couple of years. But I started to notice that I was becoming addicted to checking my Facebook feed. And I couldn't resist being drawn into contentious debates or responding to nonsense. I also found the noise level becoming unbearable.

Then I watched a TEDx talk on quitting social media and it really resonated. Go ahead and take 15 minutes to watch it:

I acknowledged that social media is a net negative in my life. So I got rid of it. Some of my Facebook friends had no other way to get in touch with me, so I put up a post for a couple of days with my email address. But all the people I really care about have my email address and/or phone number anyway.

It's still early and I'm feeling withdrawal symptoms. But I think after a couple of weeks, I'll notice a positive effect on my life. And I won't be a data commodity for Facebook to sell or exploit.


Fri, 12 May 2017

Canada "Free" Press

What is wrong with these pictures?


Wed, 05 Apr 2017

The Danger of Safe Spaces

Now that my brain is swirling with thoughts on identity politics, I'd like to talk a little bit about "Safe Spaces".

Let me be clear: Everyone deserves and has the right to the following:

Those are not what I'm talking about when I talk about Safe Spaces. Those rights are the bare minimum that must be offered by an ethical society. The kinds of Safe Spaces I'm talking about are the ones where everyone is protected from being offended. Note that freedom from being offended is not in the list of basic rights above, nor (to my knowledge) is it in the tradition of any liberal democracy.

I believe that people who create Safe Spaces are, for the most part, well-meaning. They genuinely want to help marginalized and disadvantaged groups. And I agree that Safe Spaces can be useful for people lacking confidence to feel comfortable and more confident.

But Safe Spaces, in my view, should be viewed the same way as kindergarten: Yes, they are a useful tool for some people's personal development. But we all need to graduate from kindergarten. And we cannot expect the world to be like kindergarten, nor to conform to our restrictions on expression inherent in the construction of Safe Spaces.

What Safe Spaces are emphatically not is a model for how the wider world should work. First, it's completely untenable to expect the wider world to accommodate everyone's feelings. Some people are by nature very touchy; Safe Spaces tend to move in the direction of accommodating the least reasonable and most easily-offended person, which means pretty much suppressing any diversity of opinion.

Second, Safe Spaces can actually be harmful in that they create expectations in people that wider society should accommodate their feelings (something doomed to failure) rather than teaching people coping skills to deal with hurt feelings when they are inevitably offended.

Third, Safe Spaces can form an insidious echo chamber, in which members isolate themselves off from the outside world, preferring the comfort and conformity of opinion of the Safe Space rather than dealing with messy, offensive reality.

Personal growth involves going outside your comfort zone. To grow as a person, you cannot stay in a Safe Space. You have to challenge yourself to go into Unsafe Spaces, stand up for yourself, and claim those Spaces as your own. In other words, we need to build strong, resilient people who do not need the protection of Safe Spaces.


Mon, 20 Mar 2017

On Identity, Politics and Identity Politics

I've been thinking a lot about identity all my life, and about identity politics more recently. I'm starting to fear a society carved up into smaller and smaller interest groups based on some aspect of identity. I feel this can only weaken societal cohesiveness and is detrimental to democracy.

As a transgender woman, I've thought a lot (even obsessed) about identity. For the last couple of years, my identity as a transgender person was always at the forefront. Lately, though, that has begun to recede as I've become more comfortable as a woman and the whole issue of gender identity has settled and faded into the background.

During my journey, I'd often find myself out of step with others in the trans community. My politics is hard to pin down; when it comes to economic policy, I'm basically a free-market capitalist, but also believe in the role of the state to provide basic human rights like health care and education, and to ensure that nobody lives in abject poverty.

On social issues, I'm feminist and liberal, though I do get nervous at state intervention in free speech in the name of creating safe environments. I believe free speech should be abridged only when there is a clear threat to safety; other than that, I don't think the government has any place in legislating against being an asshole and saying horrible things.

But most importantly, I'm not a single-issue voter. I don't just vote one way because I'm trans, or because I'm a woman, or (to take intersectionality to its logical conclusion) because I'm a Jewish Atheist South African Newfoundlander Engineer Transgender Woman. (A fine community of one.)

Every single one of the three main Canadian political parties has positions with which I agree, and every single one has other positions with which I disagree. I certainly wouldn't expect all transgender people to vote in lock-step because we're transgender and therefore we fit into a box of homogeneity and groupthink.

Which brings me to... why the heck am I writing this? Well, for the past year or so, I've been involved as an amateur in the Ottawa comedy scene, performing once or twice a month doing standup, improv and a tiny bit of sketch.

For Pride 2016, I was involved in a show with other LGBT people and we did a Pride-themed show. It was an amazing show... lots of fun and very well-received. And in the context of the Pride celebration, an LGBT show was absolutely appropriate.

After the pride show, the group more-or-less went dormant until recently, when it was resurrected as a group whose self-described mission is "Carving space for people who identify as LGBTQIA+ to express themselves through Improv and Comedy."

I didn't join the group. The people who are in the group are lovely people I love and respect, but I feel uncomfortable with the whole concept. The image of "Carving space" unintentionally plays into my feeling that identity politics is chopping up our society into tiny little self-interested pieces. And while I love stage time, I'd always wonder whether I was being given stage time because I am trans, or because I am funny.

I don't want stage time for any other reason other than being funny. If I'm not funny, don't give me stage time!

I'm also uncomfortable with the idea of comedy in a safe space. Comedy by its very nature is dangerous; the safer it is, the blander it becomes. Now I'm not offering this as an excuse for people to go out and be nasty, sexist, racist, homophobic, or whatever, but at the same time, if you go to a comedy show, don't be surprised if something offends you and don't try to build a world where nothing offensive can be said.

On International Women's Day 2017, I did a standup set at an amazing all-female show. It was a wonderful experience and again... the people were lovely, the show was well-received and it was a lot of fun. And echoing previous words, in the context of International Women's Day, an all-female show was completely appropriate.

There's also a monthly women-and non-binary only show I used to participate in. As a computer engineer, the "non-binary" part troubles me. (That was a joke, OK?) Lately, I've been troubled by the idea of the monthly women-and-non-binary-only show, especially as they deliberately include a "token" male. Do I get time on the show because I'm a woman? Or because I'm funny? And should we fight sexism by adopting a mirror-image pose, tokenism included?

I've decided that except for special occasions like Pride and International Women's Day which are annual celebrations of LGBT+ people and women respectively, or charity or other special-occasion shows, I will not perform in shows that restrict participation on the basis of identity. I want to be part of a community of comedians, not a community of LGBT+ comedians or a community of women comedians or whatever.

I don't want to carve a space for myself. I want to take up all the space. And if I'm not funny, I don't deserve any space at all.


Sat, 09 Apr 2016

Those Hateful Bathroom Bills

Many state politicians in the United States have finally woken up to the most pressing issue facing the country and have started passing laws to prevent transgender people from using the washroom that matches their gender identity and gender expression.

Examples of such hateful laws are:

So what's going on? My theory is that this is all a right-wing backlash against the historic Supreme Court victory for same-sex marriage advocates..

On the other hand, the proponents of these bills say this all has to do with "women's safety" and that it would be dangerous to allow "men" into the ladies' room.

But this argument makes no sense. In states that have anti-discrimination protection for transgender people, there just haven't been any problems.

Further, the bills would have the ridiculous effect of forcing this person to use the men's room:

while forcing this person to use the ladies' room:

Oh yes, that's right. The social conservatives are so busy protecting their [sic] women that they forget about trans guys.

The level of hatred coming from parts of the United States saddens and shocks me. The toxic brew of ignorance and religion once again poisons society.


Sat, 22 Aug 2015

Who sed That?

The Linux virtual file /proc/pid/environ contains the environment variables associated with process pid. Unfortunately, they're not stored in a particularly useful format: They're a sequence of null-terminated strings. I wanted output similar to what env prints.

So I thought... Hmmm, maybe this will work:

sed -e 's/\x0/\r\n/g' < /proc/1/environ

OMG! It worked! GNU sed handles that without skipping a beat. I am impressed.


Wed, 22 Jul 2015

Discovering x11vnc

Oops! More than two years since my last blog posting!

Yes, I'm probably late to the game and all you people in the know will scoff at me, but I only recently discovered x11vnc.

This is the remote support tool I've been pining for! It lets you attach to an existing X11 display and connect via VNC. So when my mom calls me up for desktop support, I just ssh in, fire up x11vnc, and take control of her desktop. I can walk her through things or just fix the problem for her.

Similarly, at work if someone has desktop problems, I no longer need to get up and go to the machine. I can just access it remotely. That might not be such a good thing, actually... I probably do need to get up and walk around more.

Anyway, if you haven't tried x11vnc, give it a whirl. It's really cool.


Sun, 21 Apr 2013

PostgreSQL Awesomeness

My company provides a hosted anti-spam service which has been growing quite nicely. A big component of our service is a PostgreSQL database that tracks user preferences, quarantined messages, etc. The PostgreSQL database has grown to about 110GB---not particularly large as databases go, but still an inconvenient amount of data to sling about casually.

Our system had been running PostgreSQL 9.0 on a machine with 32GB of RAM and six SATA drives. I wanted to move it to a machine with 48GB of RAM and eight drives. At the same time, I wanted to upgrade to PostgreSQL 9.1.

In the past, upgrading from version x.y to x.(y+1) of PostgreSQL meant a dump/restore cycle. Unfortunately, our data takes about three hours to dump and restore and that would have meant a complete outage for three hours... no mail, not web access to the quarantine, nothing.

Fortunately, two relatively new PostgreSQL features saved the day: Streaming Replication and pg_upgrade.

Streaming Replication is a mechanism whereby a standby server can be kept very closely in sync with a master server. Streaming replication is asynchronous, so the standby server may be a few transactions behind the master, but it is usually pretty close. Additionally, if you are planning to shut down the master, you can make sure that the hot-standby is completely synchronized with the master as it was at shutdown by simply waiting until all transactions have been streamed.

So to get the data over to the standby machine, I installed PostgreSQL 9.0 on the standby, made a base backup and set up streaming replication. I therefore had a replica that was staying very closely in sync with the master.

To upgrade from PostgreSQL 9.0 to 9.1, I used the pg_upgrade tool. This lets you do an in-place upgrade of a PostgreSQL 9.0 database to 9.1. It even handles tablespaces, which we use.

So to convert our system over, I followed these steps:

  1. Install PostgreSQL 9.1 on the standby server. It can coexist with the 9.0 installation because Debian nicely separates the two into their own directories.
  2. Block SMTP connections. I also blocked web access by redirecting to a "system undergoing maintenance" page.
  3. When the database was completely quiet, I ran an UPDATE query on it and made sure that query had been replayed on the standby database. This let me know that the standby was completely up-to-date.
  4. Shut down the primary database.
  5. Force the standby out of hot-standby mode into active mode.
  6. Shut down PostgreSQL 9.0 on the hot-standby.
  7. Run pg_upgrade. This step took about 3 minutes.
  8. Run vacuumdb --analyze-only --all to update statistics. This step took about 12 minutes.
  9. Start PostgreSQL 9.1 and do basic queries to make sure the data looks OK.
  10. Re-enable the Web interface and SMTP.

I could have gotten away with about 15 minutes of downtime, but I actually took 30 minutes just to check everything over, make sure the PostgreSQL configuration settings were the same as before, and so on. Still, 30 minutes of downtime is far better than three hours, and the whole process went extremely smoothly. As an added bonus, if something had gone horribly wrong, I could have simply backed away from the whole process and restarted the original master server, which had the original untouched database.


Fri, 22 Jun 2012

Government-Funded Censorship

Canada has a state-funded broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that has an online news section.

My eye was caught by an article on self-censorship. A long-time CBC reporter, Neil MacDonald, was criticizing Alice Walker for refusing to allow her novel to be translated into Hebrew.

CBC's news side has a "comments" section run by Disqus. The quality of discourse in the comments section is rather low, to be extremely charitable. CBC moderates comments before posting them, supposedly according to these guidelines. I posted a comment on Neil MacDonald's story and it was approved by the moderators.

About 30 minutes later, my comments was taken down. I have no idea why; I don't believe my comment violated any of the guidelines. In the past, I've sometimes posted half a dozen basically similar comments on a story only to see some approved and some not, with no reason given in either case.

I can only conclude that CBC's comment-moderation guidelines are arbitrary and opaque. Despite the fact that the CBC moderates comments, the quality of discourse is worse than the most childish Slashdot flamewar.

I'm done with the CBC. I will return to the CBC web site if it either (1) shuts off comments on news stories (a news organization doesn't need to allow people to comment on the stories) or (2) allows complete freedom of expression on its comment board. As it stands now, the CBC is in the ironic position of censoring comments on a story that decries suppression of the exchange of ideas. And to add insult to injury, it does it with our tax dollars too.


Thu, 19 Jan 2012

Rude Clueless Politicians

Yesterday, I received a call from my Member of Parliament, John Baird. Well, more precisely, I received a call from an auto-dialer that played a recording informing me that Baird would be holding a telephone "town hall" the next day. A telephone town hall consists of a Rude Clueless Politician interrupting your supper to spout the party line at you while you listen mutely.

The initial robo-call annoyed the hell out of me, but it's not illegal in Canada. For some reason, the politicans made sure to exempt themselves from rules against nuisance calls.

Nevertheless, thanks to the open-source world, I can fight back. I programmed my Asterisk home telephone system to redirect John Baird to "the monkeys". That is, any call originating from his constituency office does not ring through to our phones. Instead, the caller is treated to several seconds of shrieking monkeys before Asterisk hangs up. (If you'd like to experience it for yourself, call +1 613 231-6599 extension 126.)

The nuisance number I blocked, by the way, is 613 990-7720. If you'd like to reduce unwanted communication from Rude Clueless Policitians... block that number.

And finally, the sweetest entry of all in my Asterisk call logs:



Thu, 08 Sep 2011

Video Production on Linux, part 2.

I couldn't resist. Yet another silly commercial for my company.


Wed, 24 Aug 2011

2011 Trip to Israel

We spent 11 days in Israel this August. My wife and I hadn't been to Israel for 21 years and our kids had never been.

The trip was a lot of fun. We had a guided tour for part of it, so got to see a lot, including:

Israel is an amazing country. It's very small, but the geography varies dramatically from one part to another, from the Dead Sea over 400m below sea level to Jerusalem perched dramatically in the Judean hills; from the coastal plains of Tel Aviv to the cool mountain heights of Tzfat.

We saw sights like:

A 2000-year-old Roman theatre in Caesaria:

A mine field in the Golan Heights:

The austere grandeur of Metzada:

And the top of Metzada:

Ein Gedi oasis in the middle of the forbidding desert:

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives:

A cool poster:

And sunset over the Mediterranean at Tel Aviv:


Fri, 22 Jul 2011

Video Production on Linux

A colleague introduced me to the joys of video production in Linux, specifically the amazing tools Audacity and Cinelerra.

After wasting spending many hours with these tools, I decided it was time to try my hand at video production. The result is a silly ad done by two of my kids and me for my company.

I hope you enjoy the video... we had tons of fun making it.


Fri, 20 May 2011

Telus Paperless Billing WTF??

My company has a Blackberry for tech support and we use Telus as our wireless carrier. Telus has recently switched to paperless billing, which is fine. However, I need a PDF of our bill to print out to keep our accountant happy.

Here's how a sensible workflow would look:

  1. Telus would send us an email with a link in it.
  2. We'd click the link once and be presented with a login page.
  3. After logging in, our PDF bill would be available either immediately or by clicking one more link.

Here's the actual work flow:

  1. Telus sends us an email with a link in it.
  2. I click the link once and am presented with a login page.
  3. I log in.
  4. The web site asks me which province I'm in. WTF??? I just logged in! Telus has my address information already!
  5. I'm sent to a generic account page. I have to click "View your e-bill."
  6. Then I have to click "View all monthly bills".
  7. Then I have to click the most recent bill by date. Huzzah! PDF!

I asked Telus why the couldn't just attach the PDF bill to the original email or simplify the process. They claimed attaching the bill would be a security/privacy risk and never did explain why their process is so complex. Gah!

Update: But wait! There's more! In my haste to click the most recent monthly bill, I failed to notice that it was for last month. The current bill isn't available yet in PDF form.

There is an option to get a text-formatted bill. I went through the several clicks to enable that and got a notification saying that the formatting of the bill was "in progress" and that it would eventually be available as a .zip file. Wha???? All the billing data is clearly displayed in (printer-unfriendly) HTML. Why a background process to generate a plain-text version??


Tue, 25 Jan 2011

Annoying VPN Clients

Sometimes, our customers can't or won't give us direct SSH access to their CanIt machines. Instead, we have to use the dreaded commercial VPN client.

One of our customers asked us to use the Juniper Networks Network Connect client. This is a monstrosity that uses Java to give you a GUI (what? You didn't know that VPNs require a GUI?) and a shared library to do the actual encryption.

I use the XFCE desktop. Here's a screen shot of a typical terminal window:

And here's a screenshot of the Juniper VPN client:

Note the different window decorations? Yes, the Juniper VPN client sets the OverrideRedirect window property so it is not managed by a window manager. And then it reimplements the typical "Minimize / Maximize / Close" Window manager buttons! WTF??

Except it doesn't do it properly. I have 6 virtual desktops. The Juniper VPN client doesn't know about virtual desktops. So I can't move it off virtual desktop 1 by dragging it "off the edge" of the desktop. (I can move it in the little virtual-desktop overview grid. So it looks like there is some kind of communication with the window manager going on...)

Also, the Juniper VPN client wants my default route to be via the VPN. Excuse me... I don't want that! I only want a specific subnet to be routed via the VPN. So I had to make an LD_PRELOAD shared library that prevents the Juniper client from touching the routing table. Every few seconds, the client notices that its route is missing and attempts to add it back, so we get cute log messages like this:

ncsvc[p7274.t7274] rmon.warn adding back the missing route to [redacted]...
ncsvc[p7274.t7274] rmon.warn adding back the missing route to [redacted]...

but of course, the ioctl system calls are intercepted by my shared library. The Juniper VPN client seems to hum along happily in spite of its routes not being present, just so long as the ioctl call pretends to succeed. :)

So what's the moral of the story? Simply that closed-source VPN products are usually inferior, filled with WTFs and require stupid workarounds to break out of their limitations. Why can't everyone just use OpenVPN?


Wed, 29 Dec 2010

Two Dumb Things Microsoft should Answer For

We offer both anti-spam software and a hosted anti-spam service. One of the features of our software and service is the ability to do a little SMTP callout to verify recipients. That is, before our server accepts a RCPT command, we run a mini-session against the real mail server to see if it would accept the RCPT command. This helps reduce backscatter and avoid useless scanning of messages to nonexistent recipients.

It works really well, except that Microsoft Exchange, by default, does not reject invalid RCPT commands. Futhermore, most Exchange admins only hazily grasp SMTP and the control to enable RCPT-time checking is complex and annoying.

The second dumb thing Microsoft should answer for is the recommendation to use fake names for hosts. Yes, you heard me right. (The previously-referenced page has one of the finest examples of gobbledegook I've seen in ages: This method requires additional configuration to enable optimized performance.)

So we have customers who own perfectly good domain names, yet name their machines host.local. Or host.lan. Or host.wookie.quux.zub.snoo.corp. WTF??

Naturally, these host names are hardly ever resolvable in the DNS, which causes all kinds of troubles. And again, Microsoft administrators tend to have at best a hazy notion of Internet standards, so we have to patiently explain the folly of this naming convention over and over again...

Thanks a bunch, Microsoft.


Wed, 06 Oct 2010

Canadian Banking System WTF?? (Number 3)

I need to provide my accountant with bank statements. Since I'm not the most organized person on Earth (paper and I just don't get along), I tried downloading a year's worth of banking details from my bank's online site.

I can go very far back in the normal Web interface view. But if I want to download the very same data in CSV format, the bank only lets me go back 3 months.

WTF?? It's the same data!


Tue, 28 Sep 2010

Canadian Banking System WTF?? (Number 2)

We occasionally receive wire payments from our customers. The US dollar wire payments go into our USD account, and our statement shows the name of the company making the payment.

However, Euro wire payments are first converted into Canadian dollars and then deposited. Our statement just shows a foreign exchange with absolutely no indication where the money came from. We just have to guess.

I asked my bank about this. They said they could trace the origin of the payment "for a fee."

I'm so happy with the Canadian banking system. It can track all kinds of transactions to nail terrorists and drug dealers, but it can't even tell its own customers who is paying them.


Thu, 09 Sep 2010

Canadian Banking System WTF??

I have two business accounts at a Canadian bank known as BMO. One is a Canadian dollar account and the other is a US dollar account.

I've been accustomed to dropping off cheques in the night deposit box and having them show up one (or maybe two) business days later in my account. It all worked very smoothly.

Until recently. I deposited two USD cheques on August 31st. They didn't show up in our account until September 8th. Why? Well, the nice person at BMO told me that BMO now outsources processing of the night deposit contents. Here's the procedure:

  1. A truck drives up to the bank in Ottawa. The contents of the deposit box are driven to a processing centre in Montreal.
  2. The Montreal centre processes all the deposits. Er... well. All the cash deposits.
  3. Cheques are loaded onto a truck and driven back to the branch in Ottawa where they are processed.

So now all my night deposits get a scenic round trip from Ottawa to Montreal and back.

Well. I do have an ATM card. I can even use it to deposit Canadian dollar cheques in the CAD account so as to avoid the jaunt to Montreal. But I cannot deposit USD cheques via an ATM. Why not? Well, according to the nice person at BMO, it Simply Cannot Be Done.


Update, 2010-12-29

BMO seem to have fixed their process. Cheques deposited in the after-hours box now show up quickly. Yay!


Thu, 29 Jul 2010

Fearing the Future of Perl 6

About a decade ago, the design process for Perl 6 got under way. Ten years later, there's still no production Perl 6 implementation, but there is a "useful, usable, 'early adopter' distribution of Perl 6.

The developers note that it still has some bugs, it is far slower than it ought to be, and there are some advanced pieces of the Perl 6 language specification that aren't implemented yet. But that's OK; I thought I'd kick the tires.

Just to digress a bit: At work, we use Perl 5 extensively, both in in-house tools and plumbing and in our commercial products. So I've grown to like Perl a lot, though current directions in Perl development make me fear for the future of Perl.

Anyway, I downloaded the Rakudo Star release and built a perl6 binary. Let's look at some comparisons between the perl5 binary (the 5.10.0 release that ships with Debian Lenny) and the perl6 binary:

 Program SizeMemory after startupStartup Time (ms)
Perl 51.19MB3.4MB4
Perl 615MB93MB2212

So there you have it. The 2010-07 release of Rakudo Star is a program that's 12.6 times as big as perl 5, uses 27.4 times as much memory after initialization, and takes 553 times as long to start up.

To be precise, "program size" is the text component reported by the size command. "Memory after startup" is the VSIZE reported by ps and "startup time" is the sum of user and system CPU of a command similar to this:

time perl < /dev/null

Note that this release of Rakudo Star is not even feature-complete; it's missing a lot of stuff.

I asked on a forum what the goals are for relative size and speed of Perl 6 vs. Perl 5, and a Perl 6 developer responded that a reasonable goal would be to have Perl 6 be twice as big as Perl 5 and take twice as long to start up.

To achieve this goal, the Perl 6 developers will have to shrink the program size by a factor of 6.1 (that is, get rid of about 84% of the code.) They'll need to reduce startup memory consumption by a factor of 13.7 (that is, cut out 93.7% of their memory use) and reduce startup time by a factor of over 275.

Oh, and this is after they add in all the missing features required to bring Perl 6 up to production-level.

If they pull this off, the Perl 6 developers will have achieved a feat unprecedented in the history of Computer Science.

Unfortunately, I think reality is far grimmer, and that Perl 6 will simply be a prominent example of Second System Syndrome.

Update: A Perl 6 developer has a rebuttal to this article here. I think he's gaming the comparison (just as he accuses me of gaming it), but for the sake of fairness, I've linked to his rebuttal.


Fri, 25 Jun 2010

Nuking a Rented Server

We recently upgraded one of the servers running our hosted filtering service. The old server was rented from our colocation provider; we own the new server.

The problem we faced was that after the move, we had to remove all data from the rented server remotely. We wanted to completely wipe the disks so no confidential information was left behind. And this had to be done without physical access to the machine.

Luckily, the filtering server was a Linux VServer on its own partition. So zeroing out the filtering server was easy; we just unmounted the partition and overwrote it with zeros. Clearing out the root partition was trickier; we had to nuke it while the system was running.

The solution was as follows:

Amazingly, nuke-block-device ran to completion. Naturally, the system hung up completely after it finished. While erasing the disks with nuke-block-device is not completely secure (you need something like Darik's Boot And Nuke for that), completely zeroing out all the disks makes it impossible for an attacker to recover the data without specialized equipment. And that was good enough for us!

The Code for nuke-block-device

Here's the source code for nuke-block-device. It's a quick hack, and is Linux-specific.

The following code is DESIGNED to destroy all data on a block device. DO NOT run it unless that is your intention!

#include <unistd.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <sys/ioctl.h>
#include <fcntl.h>
#include <errno.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <linux/fs.h>
#include <sys/mman.h>

#define MEGABYTE 1048576
#define SPIT_PERIOD 10

char buffer[MEGABYTE];

main(int argc, char **argv)
    unsigned long long size_in_bytes;
    unsigned long size_in_megabytes;
    unsigned long megabytes_done;
    int i;

    char *blockdev;
    int fd;

    if (argc != 2) {
	fprintf(stderr, "Usage: %s block_device\n", argv[0]);

    if (mlockall(MCL_CURRENT|MCL_FUTURE) < 0) {
	fprintf(stderr, "mlockall failed; continuing anyway: %s\n",
    } else {
	fprintf(stderr, "mlockall succeeded.\n");

    blockdev = argv[1];

    fd = open(blockdev, O_RDONLY);
    if (fd < 0) {
	fprintf(stderr, "Could not open %s: %s\n", blockdev, strerror(errno));
    if (ioctl(3, BLKGETSIZE64, &size_in_bytes) < 0) {
	fprintf(stderr, "ioctl failed: %s: Is %s a block device?\n",
		strerror(errno), blockdev);

    printf("The capacity of %s is %llu bytes.\n", blockdev, size_in_bytes);
    size_in_megabytes = size_in_bytes / MEGABYTE;

    fd = open(blockdev, O_WRONLY);
    if (fd < 0) {
	fprintf(stderr, "Could not open %s for writing: %s\n", blockdev, strerror(errno));
    fprintf(stderr, "You have 10 seconds before all data on %s is IRRETRIEVABLY NUKED!\n", blockdev);
    for (i=10; i >0; i--) {
	fprintf(stderr, "... %d\n", i);
    fprintf(stderr, "... 0!\n");
    fprintf(stderr, "Nuking %s!\n", blockdev);
    memset(buffer, 0, MEGABYTE);
    megabytes_done = 0;
    while(1) {
	ssize_t n = write(fd, buffer, MEGABYTE);
	if (n <= 0) break;
	if (!(megabytes_done % SPIT_PERIOD)) {
	    fprintf(stderr, "Done %lu megabytes of %lu.\n", megabytes_done, size_in_megabytes);
    printf("%s is officially nuked.\n", blockdev);


Fri, 28 May 2010

Server Crash

On Tuesday, 25 May 2010, this server crashed hard. It has an ext3 file system on a RAID-1 mirrored pair using Linux Software RAID. The disks were OK, but we must have hit a file system bug because dmesg started spewing ext3 errors and remounted the root filesystem read-only.

The system failed to reboot. A manual fsck threw hundreds of errors and resulted in a non-bootable system.

Our hosting provider put in new disks and reinstalled Debian Lenny. They attached the original disk via USB.

This server hosts Roaring Penguin's corporate web site, my sister's framing store site, the MIMEDefang site and the OMJS site. It also hosts our mail filter.

What Went Right

We had offsite backups of most important things, including an almost-live backup of our web site on another colocated server. For a few hours, we redirected our Web traffic there.

We moved our mail filtering quite seamlessly to our hosted filtering service. The dead server was a secondary MX for that service, but the primary MX machine just kept chugging along.

What Went Wrong

We didn't have a quick way to restore from "bare metal". Recovering the server took me several hours late at night. Not fun.

The hosting provider was way too slow to react. Our server was down for over 12 hours.

We didn't have offsite backups of everything. There were a few crusty little scripts in /usr/local/bin that weren't backed up or version-controlled; they made their absence known in annoying cron messages.

We'll back up and version-control everything from now on!


Fri, 21 May 2010

PGCon 2010

PGCon 2010 wrapped up and as usual, there are exciting things ahead for PostgreSQL.

Our anti-spam products make extensive use of PostgreSQL; I've been using the database since 1999 when it was at version 6.5. As I write this, version 9.0 is just around the corner and the improvements in the software have been nothing short of amazing. PostgreSQL has always had a professional, disciplined development team. Their documentation is a pleasure to read and navigate and the software has never let us down. I'd rank it as one of the top ten highest-quality software systems (not just databases or open-source projects: It's in the plain top ten.)

What I'm looking forward to most is hot standby with streaming replication. This allows backup databases to stay almost-current with the master (instead of having to wait for an entire WAL file to be shipped) and allows for read-only queries to be made against backup databases even while they are replaying the WAL. This solves one of the biggest annoyances with our CanIt product: It effectively eliminates the database as a single point of failure.

A really cool talk at PGCon was one on Postgres-XC which allows for synchronous replication of tables, and for sharding of other tables. We spent enormous effort to build a horizontal sharding system into CanIt to achieve horizontal scalability. It still isn't in production use in a major way. If Postgres-XC proves successful, we can pretty much throw away all our sharding work and just use Postgres-XC directly. That's both gratifying and highly annoying.

Anyway, PGCon is over and it's back to work on Tuesday where I have the joy of wrestling an evil PHP web interface into submission...


Wed, 19 May 2010

Improvise After the Fact

I'm taking a course called "Improvise the Act" at the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama and it's a lot of fun.

Except... I always come up with the perfect idea 30 minutes too late.

Example: Tonight, we were given two nouns and had to come up with a funny reason why they are alike. I was given "pet rock" and "toddler" and came up with "because they're both really quiet."

That limping sound you hear is my lame response slinking offstage.

Thirty minutes later, I came up with "because they both sound like a good idea until you actually get one." That won't get me a job writing for Leno, but at least it has two good legs.

Example: We were given a line and had to build a scene. We got "You don't bring me flowers any more." Yeah, a couple of so-so scenes.

But then thirty minutes later...

"Igor! Igor, I must speak to you. When I ask for amulets of evil for the lair, I want bat wings. I want lizard's tongues. I want bones freshly dug up. But Igor, Igor, you DON'T bring me flowers ANY MORE!"



Tue, 18 May 2010

Why I Don't Like Apple

This is a copy of a post I made to the Remind-Fans mailing list. A bit of background to explain the last paragraph: My Remind product includes code in that makes it somewhat annoying to compile on Mac OS X.

I'd like to explain my anti-Apple stance. This will be long(-winded), so feel free to skip it. :)

As a kid, I was always a tinkerer. By about 12, I was fooling around with electronic kits, home-made gunpowder, etc. (Believe it or not, in those days, the local drugstore delivered potassium nitrate AKA saltpeter directly to our apartment, no questions asked!)

When I was about 14 years old, I bought a book on BASIC. I didn't have a computer, but I read the book and started writing programs anyway. I wrote them with pencil and paper, and "ran" them in my head.

The next year was my first year of high school. I finally got access to a computer (a Commodore PET). Its dialect of BASIC was a bit different from what I'd learned, but I adapted my programs and typed them in. Of course, they failed miserably. :)

But I was hooked. I could see that this computer thing was amazing, that it could take my abstract thoughts and make them concrete.

Over the years, I did an undergraduate and Masters degree in electrical engineering, but software was always my first love. After graduation, I worked at a couple of places as a software developer before striking out on my own by founding Roaring Penguin Software Inc. in 1999.

A few years before that, in 1994, I had discovered Linux. I was completely amazed when I saw the famous "X" cursor running on my (ex-)DOS PC. Discovering Linux brought forth the same rush of feeling I had when I was 15 and first got my BASIC program to run on that PET. It was once again the sense of limitless possibilities.

I don't have anything in particular against non-free software. My company makes its money, in fact, by selling non-free software. (We supply source and you're allowed to modify it; you just can't redistribute it or a derived product.) But I do have strong feelings against proprietary companies that try to limit what you can do with your hardware, or that try to hide the innards of their systems from tinkerers. To do so is a tragedy; it deprives us of future hackers.

Some say that Apple fills a niche by providing products that "just work" or are "simple to use." Well, my parents and kids find that their Linux machines "just work" and are "simple to use". (They'd never been exposed to Windows or the Mac, so I guess the first computer system you learn becomes the yardstick by which you measure simplicity.)

But should they choose to, they can delve into the innards of the system. I'll never forget the day I found my middle daughter using the "View Source" feature of Firefox to get past an online game's quiz. That's thinking like a hacker. And when she got her electronics kit, I could see the spark in her eyes. Sure, the circuits are far beyond her understanding. (I barely even remember how they work and I studied the stuff.) When I explained that capacitors were like water tanks and resistors were like thin pipes, she sort-of got it. But when she tinkered with the circuit by changing capacitor or resistor values, she really got it. It was obvious that a bigger capacitor held more water (well, charge) and took longer to charge up, so the circuit worked slower. And higher resistors were like thinner pipes, so the water (charge) took longer to drain.

This kind of learning involving deep, gut understanding is simply impossible without tinkering.

In my various jobs, I've interviewed about 24 software developers. Without exception, the ones who were "tinkerers" as kids, who enjoyed writing software just for fun and who thought like hackers were far superior to those who just studied computer science because they thought they'd get well-paying jobs.

Apple directly opposes and threatens the hacker culture. (Well... Apple is a big company, and big companies are always multi-faceted, so I'm sure there are many open-source and hacker-friendly people in Apple. I'm referring here to the direction in which Steve Jobs is taking the company.)

Apple seeks to create a walled garden of locked-down gadgets, Apple-approved applications and even Apple-approved development methodologies. It seeks to exclude contentious or "obscene" content, and it can terminate your right to sell applications on its platforms at its pleasure.

If I came to computers as a 14-year-old given an iPhone or iPad instead of a PET, I probably would have played with the thing for a few months and moved on. I'd never have experienced the beauty and creativity of crafting a piece of software. And that would have been tragic for me.

For the sake of the next generation, we have to tell the world that Steve Jobs' vision of computing is a sterile, stifling, ultimately poisonous vision. And if that means putting "puerile" code in ./configure scripts, then I proudly wear the label "puerile".




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