LLAP Leonard Nimoy

This is a subject that I have shared with people close to me, mostly as idle discussion, shared geekery, or drunken rambling. This morning's news about the passing of Leonard Nimoy has brought it to the fore for me so I thought I would try to put it in writing somewhere where it can be seen without having to worry about my bar tab.

Anecdotally there seems to be a certain fondness for Mr. Spock amongst segments of the Neurodiversity/Autism/Aspergers community. A wonderful example is this piece by Pensive Aspie (a 'pen-name' but, so what, it is the best way to find this person's writing) titled "Thank you Leonard Nimoy." In it the author describes growing up as an undiagnosed Aspie and the relationship they had with both the fictional Mr. Spock and the real Leonard Nimoy. With a few changes, it is pretty close to my life. I grew up with LtCdr Data and LtCdr Spock (TNG was airing weekly and TOS was given eagerly anticipated annual marathons on a local broadcast affiliate).

It would be nearly twenty years before I was ever formally diagnosed as an Aspie but I still identified with these observers of the 'human condition'. My heros were not the bold captains/explorers/ladies-men, they were the outsiders, logical, knowledgeable, and skilled; trying to find a middle ground where they could be accepted by the rest of the crew and the rest of society. They were often the butt of jokes which they did not understand or derided for their 'overly-cerebral' approach to the problems they faced, but every episode it usually fell to them (at least in part) to make sense of what was happening and how to put things right. When they had to hide themselves from an alien civilization donning a wooly hat could cover their ears or claiming to be from a far-off continent could explain their complexion but they were always betrayed by their mannerisms and intonation. No matter how they tried to be similar to everyone else on their ship they were always the outsider. To me these were people (fictional people but people nonetheless) who shared much of my existence.

Even as an adult, after I was diagnosed I still felt this kinship with those alien outsiders. In some ways, especially so. Once labeled as an Aspie, or placed on the Autism spectrum, I was given an explanation for why I didn't fit in but that just meant that I now had to contend with the people who view Autistic people as some cruel aberration that needs to be locked away, studied and prodded, and eventually eradicated. Leonard Nimoy never made me feel that way and often seeing him play Spock, or even reading or hearing his kind words could make me feel just a little better. Knowing that there was someone in the world that thought 'we are all people' was a good enough reason to show kindness and compassion, could get me through at least a little more of the day.

Now, today, we face a world where there is one less voice saying, 'we are all people'. And the world is poorer for that.

Confusion about what Title II is

Some of my friends on Twitter seem to be confused about the nature of Title II authority and classification and Twitter is a terrible medium for addressing that sort of thing so I thought I would try this as a medium for explaining what I think about the new FCC order.

To start off, it helps to look at the FCC's summary of the "Net neutrality" order they issued yesterday: http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2015/db0226/DOC-332260A1.pdf
We don't have the full text of the order but that is long, dense, and mostly legalese that doesn't matter much to you and me (unless you are the embodiment of an ISP).

The largest point of confusion seems to be over exactly who is covered by this Title II reclassification. The answer is simple: ISPs such as Verizon (Wireline and Wireless), AT&T (U-Verse and Wireless), Comcast, Time-Warner Cable, Clear (if they still exist), and any other wireline or wireless broadband provider. Note the absence of hosting companies, web services, content services, and so on. This order affects how your internet access is delivered to you, not what content is available on the Internet.

One fact that was largely left out of the hype on both sides of the fight over "Net Neutrality" before this order is that this really just brings the regulation of ISPs back under the same rules they operated under before 2002. In 2002 the FCC classified Cable Modem service as an "Information Service" (http://transition.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Cable/News_Releases/2002/nrcb0201.html) instead of a "telecommunications service". The effect was to reduce the authority the FCC had over last-mile ISPs to regulate their behavior. ISPs who used other methods of providing access (telcos providing ISDN and DSL, anyone providing fiber-optic lines or the many different forms of wireless access) managed to get their ISP operations classified under this rule (even while the standard analog telephone service that were provided on the exact same strand of copper as the DSL service remained a Title II service). The logic of the Information Service classification were born out of a very different time and in a very different environment from what we have now. The bulk of the population had only experienced being 'online' through services such as AOL, CompUServe, and so on; broadband connectivity was novel and only available in very limited areas; the bulk of online content still catered to users on dial-up connections (which were a strange hybrid of the two classifications, the connection between you and AOL (provided by your local Baby-Bell) was still covered under Title II because it was just a funny sort of phone call, but AOL itself was an 'information service' which acted as a portal to data from their own private network and the various networks they connected to.

The concerns about websites suddenly being shuttered and popular services being blocked are essentially the opposite of what this new FCC order does and are mostly the result of FUD spread around by ISPs opposing Net Neutrality rules. The legal status of Google's web sites, Netflix, or any website, IRC network, FTP server, or any other site, node, service, you connect to through the internet has not changed. They are still covered under the same patchwork of laws with terrible acronyms containing lots of "C"s such as the CFAA (Computer Fraud And Abuse Act of 1986, as amended in 1989,1994,1996,), CDA (Communications Decency Act of 1996), DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998), and ECPA (Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986), as well as amendments to those laws by the USA PATRIOT Act (not going to spell that one out Act of 2002) and Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act of 2008 (and many more laws concerning the content of communications, email, hosting and all of the other stuff that actually makes up what you see and do on The Internet. The Title II classification specifically bars ISPs from discriminating against content or interfering with your connection based on the content, protocols, and services you use.

While the new FCC order does not do many things that I believe would be positive for customers (such as measures which would quickly increase the number of choices consumers have for ISPs or regulating rates to reduce the absurdly high costs ISPs charge because of their near monopoly position in local markets), this order definately does not pose a threat to the content and services you use your ISP to access.


Revisiting interfaces and computer education

Over four years ago I wrote a piece on computer interfaces (logical and physical), looking back on it I could have done much more with it but, I can often conceptualize much more than I can actually execute. Yesterday I came across a blog post by John Goerzen, a software developer from Kansas. In this piece he talks about how he introduced his young children to computers starting with the time he and his, then three year old, son built a computer together and more recently, he introduced his kids to a limited GUI in the form of xmonad.

This story reminded me of my own experience being introduced to computers. When my parents were preparing for my birth in the early 80's my father convinced his employer to provide him with computers which he could use to work at home, they responded by providing an AT&T (ATTIS) workstation for our home. I grew up with my parents letting me occasionally 'play' on the machines we had. Before I could read I was learning to navigate AT&T System V UNIX, CP/M-86, and DOS on AT&T workstations, learning to type my name in various editors including Wordstar (according to my father, managing to wear out at least one keyboard along the way) and working my way up to figuring out how to bring up such 80's stalwarts of computer entertainment such as Tetris: The Russian Challenge (at the time having a picture of the Kremlin rendered in code page 437 was amazing). By the time Windows 3.0 was released I was the one in the family who had to figure out how to install it (along with the new hardware that became available with the introduction of the early Windows Multimedia Extentions such as CD-ROM drives and sound cards) and then show my parents how to use it.

These early experiences determined a lot about both how I understand and interact with computers as well as how I dealt with computers when I was in school as a child. Until very recently I was still having to help my father run the copy of Lotus Organizer (for Windows 3.0), which finally ended when he had to replace a dead XP machine with a 64-bit system running Windows 7 which would refuse to run 16-bit executables. When I first received formal computer classes in grade-school I had been using Unix and IBM compatible CLI systems for several years and was frustrated by the kludged together Apple II machines we were given to use, that we were only allowed to run Logo-BASIC, that we didn't have the greater control I felt the IBM-style keyboards provided. For children in the New York City public schools of the late 80's and early 90's  'computer education' consisted of Logo-BASIC and typing classes, boring and frustrating for someone who had experienced the power and variety of university software libraries for Unix and CP/M, and limiting in later life. At what could have been a critical opportunity for introducing children with a minimum of preconceptions, school programs forced students to progress in lock-step and actively discouraged exploration and understanding of the underlying concepts that made the computers work at all; emphasis was placed on touch typing (on non-standard keyboards) and learning non-transferable skills (Logo-BASIC, useful for learning the essential structure of BASIC programs but useless if you don't introduce data-structures, variables and all of the other components of real programming).

In Middle School the technology lag was heightened. Every classroom was receiving PCs with Windows 9x attached to a shared T1 at a time when most homes were getting online (if they were at all) with 56kbps analogue modems and AOL (or their dwindling competitors), yet NYC's public school computer classes still used the same Apple II's I had been introduced to years earlier. Instruction in computing was now a strange mix of basic typing and rudimentary instruction in how to navigate the World Wide Web (at the time a very cutting edge term since we hadn't even started the Dot Com bubble). Alta Vista and Doom II ruled the world.

In high school the Dot Com bubble was in full swing, aDSL was beginning to enter the home, and I was being denied entry into my school's computer science program. No matter, I spent my free periods and lunch times building the Comp Sci classes' computers and robotics labs from spare IBM 386s in the metal shop and completing the left over Comp Sci class exams as a way to kill time while waiting for OS installs to complete. Eventually I transferred to a high school which offered internships and practical skill demonstrations for course credit, I spent my remaining terms bouncing between corporate law firms' IT departments and non-profit advocacy groups. Learning to navigate Dell's enterprise support phone system trumped any actual technical ability. Even amongst the full time staff, no one had a college degree in IT.

Cue college, the Dot Com bubble has begun to collapse, the concept of networks and broadband connectivity has begun to enter the home I have been running Linux since Widows 98/2000 (an actual OS build variant, not the semi-contemporary OSes) began erasing my hard drive every six months. I have convinced my father that a router and DHCP server are important for allowing the whole family to share the aDSL line and am still trying to explain that a 100Mbps ethernet switch and a 10Mbps Ethernet hub are significantly different. WiFi becomes something that a university student plugs into the PCMCIA port of their laptop (if you are one of the 20 or so students at the university which own a laptop). By the time I have transferred again I am arguing with the college's IT department about the blocking of Usenet News, IMAP and SMTP while Windows XP and built-in 802.11 NICs have finally supplanted Windows 2000 and plug-in wireless cards. Eventually I drop out of college because no amount of Adderall and Jolt can keep up with the demands of working 12-hour/day remote support jobs and 8-10 hour/day class schedules. The idea of a degree in applied computer science (IT) is only embraced by 'colleges' which advertise on subways and offer it as a course of study alongside programs in HVAC repair and GED completion.

Fast forward several years, I am at the local Department of Labor office, fulfilling the required skill and job search review. The gentleman in front of me in line is a recently laid-off IBM mainframe engineer, both of us receive the same response from the clerk: 'Wow, computers... you know, we offer classes in computer skills. We teach you to make a resume on a computer and show you how to use Office.' They are proud of this. I try to explain that I was using and working on computers when MS Office was introduced, that I still have install disks for Word 1.0 and DOS. They think I need classes in typing and using a mouse.



A short post this time while I try to rein in a much longer (and more rant-y) piece on a more serious topic.

I have never hidden my extreme dislike of Steve Jobs. I object to his deification by his followers^Wfans and the popular media. I found his attitude grating, his business practices and ideology distasteful, and his hypocritical, narcissistic self-aggrandizing at the expense of the brilliant engineers, designers, and developers who actually made the devices and products he built his fortune and reputation on to be repugnant.
So, I will certainly not be seeing the latest whitewashing of his legacy starring a current Hollywood darling.
I do not think you should either but, you do not have any reason to take my word for it (see the preceding several lines), just take a look at Steve Wozniac's reaction to this movie (https://www.google.com/search?q=Wozniak+reviews+Jobs, no I won't link directly to most of the sites because they are from Gawker) and decide for yourself. I will stick with "Pirates of Silicon Valley" and "iWoz".

Unlike Jobs, I have faith in my readers to be able to make their own decisions.


SysAdmin Day

Today is the 14th observation of System Administrator Appreciation Day, a day when (in theory) people show their appreciation for their IT staff for making everything work the other 364 days in the year. I have yet to see anyone outside of an IT department observe it but, if you feel inclined to do so, check out http://sysadminday.com/.

Personally a lot of the IT people I know would settle for a living wage on a W-2 or 1040.


The new .nyc

Later this year (assuming that everything goes as tech blogs and the City predict) a new TLD will be available, .nyc, which will supposedly be available to businesses and organizations operating in New York City as well as (supposedly) residents of NYC. The City has setup a website claiming to offer information about the city's new TLD (mydotnyc.com) but it doesn't provide much in the way of useful information right now (a pair of press releases and a long list of links to blogs and news sites prefaced by some vague PR/marketing slurry). It is even a bit vague about exactly who would be eligible to apply for a domain under the new TLD or how to actually do so.

As some might remember ICANN's gTLD expansion program has been running for a few years now (about 4 by my last estimate) and there have been many previous discussions about local TLDs for much longer (probably since around when the national TLDs based on two letter ISO country codes were introduced back before the collapse of the USSR). When Neo Amsterdam and I heard about the gTLD expantion program a few years ago, we began cooking up an idea of starting a company to apply for and administer a .nyc TLD, we have these ideas occasionally and being civic minded technologists we come up with ideas for how we can do something of value to the community (previous ideas included starting up a truly independent ISP in Brooklyn which would offer modern FTTP service to areas of the city which are badly served by the incumbent telcos and CATV operators). In our discussions we had decided that one of our best selling points for a proposal was that we were New York City residents and that we could offer competitive costs since it would basically be run by a handful of local hackers who were more interested in making things work and getting by then a business focused on stock prices, big profits, and bigger executive compensation. Of course we have no money and no existing organization or capital so it never got off the ground. Instead of selecting a local organization, or operating the new TLD through part of the city government (like the Department of Informaton Technology [DOIT]which would officially 'own' the .nyc TLD) the city chose Virginia based Neustar, Inc (www.Neustar.biz) which currently operates the .us and .biz TLDs, a company who's only relation to the City of New York appears to be their listing on the NYSE and the fact that they will be operating the .nyc TLD registry.

The selection of a non-New York based private company (or private sector company) to manage the city's soon-to-be TLD seems to be at odds with most of the PR material that the City has been producing to try to talk up the new TLD. There are plenty of companies based in, or operating primarily in the New York City area which should be perfectly capable of operating a TLD but instead it is a company based several states away with no appreciable presence in the city, for a program which is being sold as being for the benefit of the city's population and businesses, or to benefit the city's 'silicon alley' and start-up population, why wasn't the responsibility of operating this TLD given to a company which actually employs some of those people and would be contributing back to the city itself.

As an aside, I have been trying to secure the remaining relevant TLDs for my domain (I have .net and .us just now), maybe, unless I have a sudden change of circumstances, I'll try to secure nite0wl.nyc. Anyone having similar thoughts? Or maybe just some fun ideas for domain name jokes using this new TLD? Put them in the comments.


Thinkpad RIP

While this might, in the fullness of time, end up looking alarmist and reactionary, I believe that this is acceptable and, in fact the circumstances which would make that so would probably be welcome.
Last week Lenovo unveiled their new 2012 Thinkpad lineup. Most years there would not be much of interest to any but the most diehard of hardware geeks and Thinkpad aficionados (my reader/s might be aware that I have a small collection of Thinkpads but I do not count myself in the group I am referring to here). This time is something of a different situation. This year Lenovo has made it clear that they see "Thinkpad" as a brand in terms of name and color scheme only.
This time, they got rid of the keyboard.

People who know me know that I am particular about keyboards. They have seen my review of the Das Keyboard (which is still in use exactly where it was when I reviewed it), they have seen my late manufacture M5-2 and heard my periodic diatribes on why I love it. They usually have trouble understanding why my smartphone and tablets all have keyboards. Guests in my home have been woken in the middle of the night by the noise of me typing on one of the several mechanical switch keyboards on my desk. I am particular about keyboards.

Thinkpads, when they were introduced in 1992, did not have any real competition or comparison in the laptop market since one did not really exist at the time. As time went on though Thinkpads retained their increasingly distinct keyboards while other manufacturers and brands dropped mechanical spring switches for membrane switches, ignored spill protection on all but the most ruggedised  or expensive models, introduced ever flatter and cramped keyboards culminating in the current crop of "chicklet" keyboards. Thinkpads managed to keep all the keys of IBM's classic 'space saver' design while even occasionally adding a couple of unique function keys which made laptops more comfortable to use.

This past week put an end to all of that. Lenovo, out of a desire to "standardise across all lines" replaced the nearly 20 year old keyboard design with the "isolation" (read 'chicklet') keyboard that they had introduced on their consumer and ultra budget lines. They claim that this new six row design improves typing speed and comfort and that they 'tested it with hundreds of users'. I used one on a Thinkpad Edge (a Thinkpad in name only made for the brand conscious on a budget) that I was given for work during the winter holidays, it was a nightmare. While some of the problems I had were unrelated to the keyboard itself (task critical software and hardware issues and the unaccustomed weight and bulk of a 15 inch laptop after years of using 9-12 inch netbooks and ultraportables) typing on this new keyboard was a nightmare. Breaking up the classic operation and navigation cluster (home, end, insert, delete, page up, page down and the arrow keys) and scattering them around or relegating them to Fn+* combination functions made common tasks more difficult and the flatter keys with significantly reduced travel made it physically painful to type, even at angles and conditions that have been perfectly comfortable to use my X201 in.

If Lenovo does not return to using the true Thinkpad keyboard, I will have to resort to nursing my old Thinkpads along as long as possible (a task made more difficult by Lenovo's design and build quality failings) until I can find someone who does make a laptop for real use.