Author Archives: jawtheshark

About jawtheshark

I'm a computer scientist by heart, system and network engineer by day and usually sleeping at night (what did you expect?). I live in the only Grand Duchy on this planet.

Five years…

A filled Bofferding glass

A filled Bofferding glass by Thomas Heijting
Creative commons license, found on WikiMedia

I’m a bit late, but it’s still the 1st of March 2015 somewhere on this world at the time of this writing, so I’ll count it as “posted on the right day”. It’s a day I remember every year. Five years ago, I had my last hangover. I can of course never guarantee that there won’t ever be one again, but for now, I haven’t had a drink in 1826 days. If you write that number down, you realize that’s not that much.

It’s also nothing much to be proud of, because frankly, I’d trade in a heartbeat with all of you people, who can have two drinks and say “it’s enough for tonight” and manage to stick to it. I also don’t really think congratulations are in order, as one misstep, and I’m back there on the floor stark-drunk as I was the 28th February 2010. It’s not a nice thought, but I have to keep it in mind every day. Not that there is much craving, that has gone long ago.

What also is not the right thing to say is “I couldn’t do that”. It’s fake admiration. Either you can, but don’t want to (and thus you’re lying), or you cannot for real and then you are like me. Either way, it’s one of the things I don’t want to hear.

So, all of you who can drink, raise a glass on me and get a buzz. It’s all I ask.

What I think of Luxleaks

A picture of some Euro banknotes and various Euro coins.

A picture of some Euro banknotes and various Euro coins. by Avij
Creative commons license, found on Wikipedia

TL;DR: We had it coming.

Long version: Originally I wasn’t going to say much about it, but I keep getting tagged on social media regarding this. I can understand: How many Luxembourgers do you actually know except me? Unless you live here, probably not all that many. Believe me, if something happens in the Luxleaks affair, I’ll know: Our local press won’t shut up about it. So, this post presents my opinions and thoughts about the whole thing.

General observations:

  1. Nothing of this actually surprised any citizen of my country. Well, “nothing” isn’t entirely true, but I’ll get back to that. It is fact that Luxembourg has been providing means to multinationals and big and small corporations alike to alleviate their tax levels. That this was done using “mailbox companies” was also known.
  2. Officially, “mail box companies” are sternly frowned upon. The idea was that, attracting companies to Luxembourg, would create employment. Yes, a local a secretary and local manager is two jobs more than the zero jobs that mailbox company would provide. Apparently, this was only an official stance, and did not match the reality.
  3. The existence of the so called “tax rulings” was known, even though I doubt by the general public. I most certainly never heard of it in that form, but the accountants I talked to, said they knew. Anecdote, of course.

Taxes for citizens and small businesses:

  1. Let me make this clear: we citizens of Luxembourg do pay income taxes and a plethora of other taxes. Yes, is true that we have a rather low income tax compared to other countries. As someone who is rather well-off, I (actually we: income of spouses are cumulated) end up in the second-highest tax level. There is very little I can do about that, except a few minor incentives to save for retirement or a home. The latter being totally ridiculous, as the amounts required to buy any property are so high that those saving incentives are pretty much a drop on a hot plaque.
  2. Small businesses have a bit more leeway as businesses do have more options to do tax write-offs. Nevertheless, the small business like the one of my father in law, have to pay the official taxes. There is no special ruling for them. The bakery at the corner, the plumber, the florist, they all pay the 29% corporate tax.

With this out of the way, let me state this: I was convinced that having multinationals here in Luxembourg was a good thing. I naively assumed they would indeed create employment, and while Luxembourg isn’t cheap, the lesser tax rate -I repeat: 29%-, would be enough incentive to bring business here. I thought: this is good for the country, corporations help fund the rather nice living standard we have.

However, that is not what is happening. What is happening, is that multinationals don’t pay fair taxes. As a matter of fact, some multinational companies pay less tax than me and my spouse. Other multinationals pay taxes with which you can barely buy a mid-class family car.  That is what surprised me.  That is not good for my country. We stand here as the crooks that allowed a crime, with barely any rewards. Barely any employment creation, no significant taxes paid to our countries coffers and a huge scratch in our international image. With the best of will, I cannot see how any government official would call this “positive” for our country.

In all honesty, I can not fathom why nobody is on the streets and asking for the heads of the officials that let this go through.  I can’t understand why mobs aren’t storming the headquarters of big consulting companies and lynching the suits responsible for this.
Well, yes, I can: I wouldn’t do much in the first place.

As for Antoine Deltour, the person who is accused of leaking the documents.  I personally think we can thank him.  Thank him for making public with what abject methods consulting companies work, thank him for showing the lack of transparency the Luxembourgian tax system has and thank him for trying to make this world a bit more fair.
He’ll probably be the scapegoat for the whole thing.  He’ll pay a much larger price than the thinks, literally becoming unemployable.

We all are the losers in this game, except the big multinationals, consulting companies and their respective shareholders.

Of course, it’s all legal and our elected government allowed it. We dealt with the devil and lost. We had it coming.

Don’t blame them

On a Noose

On a Noose by Alex Proimos. Creative commons license, found on Flickr

The recent passing of Robin_Williams spurred all kinds of discussions regarding depression and suicide.  First of all, I am not an expert.  I’m no psychiatrist, or even someone who has a good “feel” on people.  I’m your run of the mill antisocial nerd.

I am not going to talk authoritatively on depression or suicide.  I can’t.  What I am going to talk about is what happens when you botch it up and fail at suicide.  Yes, people botch up suicides all the time.  There are basically three outcomes to suicide attempts:

  • Success!  That sounds harsh doesn’t it?  It leaves behind questions, and grieving relatives and friends.  The event is declared a tragedy, and a few discussion about depression and suicide pop up with those that are left behind.  For the person who commits suicide, the pain is over, at least if you take the rationalist approach.
  • Failed, but no lasting health damage.  This is your typical sleeping-pills overdose subject.  They get found in time, stomach is pumped empty, put under observation for days and then a few weeks or months psychiatry and meds.  While their problem has not been solved, and the psychological torment does go on, they can basically hide it.  Unless you know them well or you witnessed the event, nobody will ever know it happened.  The talking behind their backs is probably the worst part.
  • Failed, causing major bodily injury.  Choose the “major trauma” way out?  Hung yourself and broke your neck, and they could save you?  Stuck a knife in your heart to get over with it?  Jumped from a building after all that’s foolproof?
    Yeah, they’re alive.  They will, however, pay their whole remaining life with pain, surgery, and questions from anyone who notices the damage about “what happened”, which is basically “everyone” if the damage is big enough.  Sure, you can lie and tell it’s a car accident that caused it, or something like that.  Any deeper investigation will easily show that it’s a lie.  However, when people do find out what happened, the most common reaction to the pain and suffering is “it’s your own damned fault”.

It’s the last category I want to plead for.  People with such a botched suicide attempt get no understanding whatsoever from society.  It’s always “How could you be so stupid?” or “The pain is your own fault”.  Even people whom you trust, and eventually tell, can totally change their behaviour towards you.
I’m sure many people reading this will shake their head in disbelief and think “But, but, it is their own damned fault!”.  I’m sure, I would have thought the same when I was younger.  It isn’t.  People who do try to commit suicide had no choice: Their brain told them it was the only solution, that there was no other way.  It’s like when you’re so thirsty that, even if you know you shouldn’t drink salt water, you’re still going to do it.  Perhaps not the best comparison, but I can’t really describe it any better because I haven’t been there.

So, please, if you find out about someone who tried to kill themselves, don’t judge them.  You don’t have to pity them, but please, stop blaming them for what they tried.  Putting the blame on them is definitely not helping and they are not to blame in the first place.
How to act then?  Really, the “lie” of the “car accident” isn’t that bad.  Treat it as an accident, as something they could not influence.  That will make it easier for you and them.  At least, for me, that worked.

iMess with your messages

iMessage chatI want to start off with the Hanlon’s razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

I’m going to talk about iMessage and about what I perceive as technologists making myopic decisions about how something should work. If you’re reading this you are most likely in IT, and perhaps even a programmer: we are trained to look for edge cases, trying to imagine the worst case and still having the damned thing work. Also, if you are in IT, you are aware about the hub-hub going around that Android switchers are penalised for the switch as text messages sent from iPhone users never arrive. I am, by now, convinced it is totally caused by the developers of iMessage living in a tech ivory tower. However, this is not what I’m going to talk about: I’m going to talk about iPhone users being unable to communicate in certain edge cases.

Some background:
An iPhone can send SMS, the “speech bubbles” in such a conversation are green. The way they are sent are through your cellular network: it works even if you have no data connection at all, not even GPRS. SMS is part of the GSM specification and is considered “best effort”. Despite that, it is incredibly reliable.
Contrast to iMessage, the blue “speech bubbles”, where a data connection is needed to send and receive messages. It doesn’t matter how you connect to the Internet, GRPS, 3G, Wifi Avian Carriers, as long as there is Internet. At first, you do think this is a rather reasonable condition, after all iPhone users are tech-savvy always-connected people who can’t live without their precious Internet. Right? Right?
How do I compose that sarcasm sign again?

The trouble is that iMessage, presents itself as a SMS (“Text Message”) replacement, without a way to revert back. Now first, I’ll tell you why it works so well in most settings. We, even the non-tech users, are pretty much connected 24/7 to the Internet in our daily lives. At home you have your wireless setup, at your workplace probably too, the Wireless of your preferred junk-food and junk-beverage places are configured and working. Even if that’s not the case, at least where I live, iPhones are sold with a reasonable data plan. You simply don’t care, anywhere in the country you are connected, which makes the difference between iMessage and SMS totally oblivious to the end-user and this is the typical “It just works” mentality that Apple is famous for. For iPhone users iMessage and SMS are the same thing.

First, to iMessages defence, I don’t know how it gets activated. Perhaps I did that myself, perhaps I clicked away an annoying dialog and accepted it one day. I don’t remember. Fact is, my wife, my mother in law and myself all use iMessage and I sure as hell didn’t “install” or “configure” it in the traditional sense. It was there, one day, and it worked. It might be my fault it has been activated.

So, here is how I found that iMessage has an unfixable problem, at least one I can’t fix, or I haven’t found the appropriate fix. The story involves three iPhone users, two of which are non-tech and yours truly.

My wife has been in Switzerland for surgery the last four weeks, and I made sure she could go on the hospitals wireless (Those Swiss sure know how to do wireless: the whole campus is flawlessly covered!). I even made sure she has my Ultrabook so she could waste all her time, trying to ignore pain. Well, that was of no use, as it seems that she basically uses her phone exclusively and she seems to use text messages all the time. I’m not big brother, but I know that at least her mother and me are those whom she communicates most with using SMS, of course, in reality that’s iMessage.

This works as, I’m always online and my mother in law has the “fuck-yeah-all-the-data-you-want” plan. Messages always arrive, life is sweet, the Internet is a blessing. Last weekend (I visit her every weekend), my wife tells me that her Mom can send her “texts”, but the texts she makes to her Mom never arrive.
This makes me look into the issue, and I realise: Mother in law is not in Luxembourg. She’s on vacation somewhere in Austria. That means roaming, and the default setting on iPhones is to disallow data roaming, which is a good thing. This means that my mother in law, does not have Internet connectivity. Knowing her, she will be unable to connect to public wireless hotspots.

To mother in law, everything looks normal. She is doing the same as always: sending “SMS” to her daugher and they arrive. The phone probably has the “Send as SMS” option activated, which falls back to SMS when no Internet connectivity is present. That is good. On my wifes side, however, her iPhone decides: “This is an iPhone, it can receive iMessage, so let’s send iMessage”. This is, I stress, not configurable. Not per number, not any where. So, my wifes messages to her mother disappear somewhere in a message queue somewhere on an Apple server to be delivered to her mother when her mother gets on the Internet, which will be in a week or two. Brilliant, just brilliant!

I have tried everything, deleting all Mother/Daughter threads on my wifes iPhone, deleting her moms contact entry in order to make it forget that it’s an iPhone and tell it that it’s a “mobile”. Nothing helped. There was no way to convince her iPhone to send SMS instead of iMessage to my mother in law. None.
I gave up in frustration and explained it to my wife, who was very patient and understanding, that we would have to disable iMessage and revert to SMS pure. It would be more expensive, as she is roaming too, but it at least she would be able to communicate with her mother and the problem would be gone. I did so, and indeed it worked.

Now think about this twice: at that point I did a major thinking error. Let me explain. That night I go to the hotel and about around midnight I get a text message from my wife whether I’m still awake. I was and I replied. To my surprise, I didn’t get a reply to my text. My logic error manifested itself, but I didn’t realise it yet. I only understood the next day: We shifted the problem. My phone was now insisting on sending iMessages to my wifes iPhone, but I totally disabled iMessage on her phone. Yup, my messages were now the ones being held somewhere on an Apple server. Of course, I could disable iMessage on my phone, but I have people at work using iPhones who write me iMessages, which I then would then not be able to get. I can’t do that, it is my work phone after all.

So, in the end, I had to put my wife before a choice: Be able to communicate instantly with me or with her mother. She chose me, which is flattering of course. I reactivated iMessage on her phone, which then caused a re-authentication and an SMS to a UK phone number, which will cost us money. Okay, not much, but I know it will.

This all boils down to the developers of iMessage being totally confident that people will have Internet connectivity on their iPhones at all times and not providing a fall-back method. This is provably not the case, especially to people who go to foreign countries. Apple employees do seem to know about this, after all the default setting for roaming is reasonable.
What should happen is that after a timeout period, the iMessage should be sent per SMS. This can be done, by relaying the “not able to send” information back to the phone and perhaps even asking for permission (or just do the damned thing transparently, you’re Apple for crying out loud). This would also fix the issue that Android switchers have. Alternatively, they could use a SMS gateway of their own. This does shift the cost to Apple, so it is understandable that they don’t want this.
Sure, it would delay the message a bit, but that seems totally acceptable. Delayed transmission is preferable over undelivery.
Also, let the user choose per contact whether to send SMS or iMessage. The information is there in the “contact” entry. If the number is specified as “mobile”, send SMS, if it is specified as “iPhone” it is send as iMessage and then use the fall-back mechanism to avoid situations like the one I described. At least, with such a system, I could have fixed it.

Now, I may have overseen something, or have misunderstood an option or setting somewhere. I am confident enough to tell you: If I did something wrong, this rant is totally irrelevant. If it is, I sincerely apologise to the iMessage developers. If not: please, get your act together, you are developing for non-tech users. Keep that in mind.

Tomorrow Windows XP dies, long live Windows XP!

designed for windows xpTomorrow is Tuesday 8 April 2014.  The date that Microsoft kills XP support forever.  I know there are many people who want to see it die.  I don’t because it kills off mature software.  Software that has been tried and trusted, where the bugs are known and can be worked around with a well known graphical user interface.

I know, I hear you: Security!  Boooo!  Hisss.  Scare, scare, scare!  I know, as a matter of fact that it is totally possible to run XP safely.  The rules are rather simple: don’t use any other Microsoft software, use a reasonable anti-virus, don’t install stuff you don’t actually need, and…. apply the Unix principles.  You run as standard user, and do administrative tasks as the Administrative user.  That works, and illustrates that a XP machine can be safe.  Sure, the way XP does it is a bit more cumbersome than more modern systems but that does have its advantages (Oh, I’ll click “Allow”, how bad can it be… Aaargh!).  On the other hand, with “Run As” you could get a long way.

The only other reason, I see, is support for more than 4GB RAM.  Ok, fine, I’ll grant you that.  At the risk of sounding like the 640kB is enough for everyone quote, I can assure you that a normal office desktop for the typical worker bee can live with “just” 4GB RAM.  Heck, I write this on an Ultrabook with a mere 4GB RAM.  Ubuntu tells me that I only have 1GB in use right now.

Regardless.  XP dying is a shame.  The normal worker bee gets nothing out of Vista/7/8, neither does the normal home user.  At best they hobble along and cope with the unneeded changes, at worst they get very frustrated (at which point I send the people I want to help to Linux, and those I don’t want to help to Mac OS  X).

So, I declare the 8th April “Install Windows XP day”.  Dust off that old XP machine you have lying around and don’t use.  Write down the OEM key, then grab the ISO and install it in a Virtual Machine (For easy to start VM software: VirtualBox).  Let it update as fully as it allows you to.  Then pink away a tear, in reminiscence of all the hours you wasted reinstalling XP in the first place, but also a tear for the death of mature software.

That’s what I’ll do tomorrow.  Of course, discard the VM afterwards, after all, installing an OEM license on non-original-equipment is filthy piracy.

On shared computer accounts.

“I read your email” used to be a popular system administrators t-shirt. It probably still is.  Ever since I started playing system administrator, for home systems, it was one of the things I didn’t do.  It’s user data, you don’t touch user data and it’s the way it should be.

Way back in those days, the typical home computers did not have significant user accounts.  Stuff was shared, and I do remember one occasion of one of my family member going through our Eudora account and being angry at something I wrote.  I don’t even remember what it was, it must have been quite petty.  It is then that we separated everything for everyone: everyone got his/hers account,  password protected, preferably with the screen saver locking out access.  All this even got better when we switched to Windows NT 4.0 and later (the best operating system coming from Redmond, ever) Windows 2000.

It brought fun stuff like, having your own colour scheme, your own wallpaper and you could organize your data as you wanted.  The downside was having to log out and the log in when another user wanted to use the machine.  I mean, I am talking pre-Windows XP, here.  When we did switch over to XP (rather late, SP2 was just released), the “Fast User Switching” feature was one of the biggest arguments.  That, and the superior wireless handling.

Why, do I write this?  It’s 2014, and I just found out, by reading into the context, that a certain branch of my family uses a shared computer account.  Today, around 20 years after we started separating our accounts.  They don’t even have the technological hurdles, we used to have!  When I pointed them out that this was not a good idea, I got the typical “we have nothing to hide to each other”.  Well, neither do I… Not really, at least, but you might need the occasional brain bleach if you do go meddling in my data.  For me this is about respect:  I respect your part of the computer and you respect mine.  Just as I respect your sock drawer and you respect mine.  I can look in it, but I won’t.  Because I respect you.  It’s the same reason, my wife won’t ever take my phone without asking me, and I won’t do that with hers either.

In that sense, it’s about trust: I trust you enough to give you your privacy.  I expect the same from you.  Let’s say it a bit differently: You may have nothing to hide, but you should still value your privacy.  Even from loved ones.

As you see, I don’t even touch on global spying, where the NSA and other governments try to track your every move and violate your privacy continuously.  That’s the big picture, but really, you won’t get the big picture if you fail to see the issues within your own four walls with your loved ones.

Presents – Bah Humbug

You shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth — Traditional saying

This saying has some truth in it.  What it doesn’t explore, is whether the person actually wanted a horse.  I’m thirty seven years old, and not a child, I don’t get all starry eyed by gifts.  In all honesty, they tend to make me feel awkward.  I should be thankful, shouldn’t I?  I have a hard time doing exactly that and I am not a good actor.

It isn’t even a secret! I openly say: “Please no presents”, and I mean it.  At my age you should be giving presents to your own children, not receiving any from whoever.  Yet, people don’t listen.  This year a particularly clever one wrote on the present “not a present”.  Inventive, I admit.

Each element in the set of “objects” (and thus its subset “presents”) can be pretty much sorted  according to the properties “need” and “afford”.  The “need” factor is pretty self-explanatory: it defines whether I need something or not.  Logic says that if I don’t need it, it doesn’t make a good present.  You can thus eliminate all objects which I don’t need.
At first glance, the “afford” property doesn’t seem have any importance.  It does, because affordability determines whether an object is obtainable to me.  Since we already eliminated the objects I don’t need, only objects that I need are eligible.  I can either afford those, or I can’t.  If I can afford them and need them, I’ll buy them myself.  So, a good present can only be something I need and can’t afford.

There’s the rub: There is a property we haven’t talked about which applies to the subset “presents”, and it’s “appropriateness”.  Well, expensive presents are, by definition, not appropriate.  This leaves us with an empty set as potential gifts, which means it is logically impossible to get me anything.

Please, save your money, spare me embarrassment, and don’t get me anything.  In our family, we decided decades ago that presents were a no-go.  Best … decision … ever…

The rant that wasn’t.

I wanted to write a rant about social media and everything that’s wrong with it. I found that I deviated into topics and subtopics and really didn’t manage to make a poignant point. Now, I saw a comment on Facebook that really pretty covers it all. Not totally, but good enough:

On social media in the past

I may sound like a hipster by saying: “I have been using social media before it even was named that way”. Well, I also could sound arrogant, but you should be used to that by now. When “blogging” didn’t exists, we nerds had our own webpages that we kept updated… or not… They were rarely dynamic and were basically “fuck, yeah, I have a website” websites.  You can’t call those “social media” yet.  In a sense, it’s ironic that you are reading this on a self-hosted dynamic website.

What we now call “social media” emerged in a certain form on a community-based news website called slashdot.org.  It’s a nerd hangout, so if you haven’t heard of it (but if you read this, you most likely have) don’t worry.  Somewhere before 2001, they introduced a concept called friend/foe.  You could mark users with a little “pill” whether you liked them or not.  I think this was a first necessary step.  The second step, may have been introduced at the same time, or may not.  I simply don’t remember.  What I do know, is that by autumn 2001, slashdot.org had a featured called “Journals”.  Basically, that’s what we call “blogs” today.  When you wrote something, the people who marked you as a friend got notified.  It was an instant soapbox!  I could talk about the world, tech and others worries and I have!  What was wonderful was that people actually read it and they could reply!  Imagine that!

For me that was the “first” social network.  You had all the key ingredients: basic publishing and a friend/foe based network.  I’m not saying slashdot.org was the first.  It may well have been, but I don’t know.  What I do know is that it was the first “social network” I was exposed to, and I used it a lot.  slashdot.org didn’t evolve much past what they made in 2001, at least not from the perspective I have as a user.

All current social networks have these basic properties:

  • Ability link users together
  • Ability to publish for each user
  • Ability for other users to interact with published items
  • Basic notifications between users to be able to keep track of interactions

Most of my contacts left slashdot.org, or they don’t post any more.  I rarely post there myself. Other social networks have taken over, with an audience that is much less technical.

These slashdot.org users often are in my “modern” social networks, but -apart from a few exceptions- I don’t know who is who due to the usage of real life names.  In a sense, I really preferred the handle-only identification.  To many of them, I am still “jawtheshark” (or “jts” in short), but by now many call me simply “Jorg”.  I bet most don’t even know how to pronounce that…

What’s my point?  I have none, but I wanted to give this background information before going head first into a rant about how people fail to handle social networks of today.

First post

My wife asked me to get her a blog.  Obviously, I could simply have pointed her to wordpress.com or blogger.com, but what’s the fun in that, right?  I have lang.lu, so why not simply give her a wordpress under nathalie.lang.lu, right?  That should look “cool” to even the least technical person out there, right?

Infrastructure?  I have infrastructure.  I made lang.lu use my DNS servers.  Then I simply created another Xen DomU on my lab server and installed wordpress and mysql-server from the repositories.  I have to admit, that setting it up is really easy, once you actually understand what goes where.  Next time, I swear, it will only take the promised 5 minutes.

The main complication was that all my infrastructure is behind an OpenBSD server.  I usually don’t run apache/php or any other cgi-based stuff on that machine, because I’m slighty paranoid.  Well, after looking into Apache reverse proxies, I had my solution right there.  Of course, you need to adapt your wordpress for that, by setting bothe WP_HOME and WP_SITEURL to the effective url, you’ll be using.  I really don’t understand why these package can’t simply keep all generated url relative.  Is that so hard to do?

Well, it seems to work now.  Well, it wasn’t really planned, but there you go: I have a “blog”.  Ain’t I hip?