Free Speech: A Magic Shield That Lets You Be An Asshole?

“The strategy of a lot of the people on the far right is to get us to attack our own institutions and not think that they’re valuable anymore.

By waving free speech around as if it was a magic shield that lets you be an asshole, they’ve convinced a significant percentage of the rest of us that the problem is free speech, as opposed to the problem is you people. I think that there’s a real risk going on here that people fall for it.”

—John Battelle, “A Magic Shield That Let’s You Be An Assh*le?NewCo Shift. May 18, 2018.

Can we at least agree that if you are going to use the word asshole, you should do so without any cute modifications or simply choose another, non-cuss, word?

Inbox Zero and the Search for the Perfect Email Client | Ars Technica

“Are you the sort of person who needs to read and file every email they get? Or do you delight in seeing an email client icon proudly warning of hundreds or even thousands of unread items? For some, keeping one’s email inbox with no unread items is more than just a good idea: it’s a way of life, indicating control over the 21st century and its notion of productivity. For others, it’s a manifestation of an obsessively compulsive mind. The two camps, and the mindsets behind them, have been a frequent topic of conversation here in the Ars Orbiting HQ. And rather than just argue with each other on Slack, we decided to collate our thoughts about the whole ‘inbox zero’ idea and how, for those who adhere to it, that happens.”

—”Inbox zero and the search for the perfect email client.” arstechnica.com. May 13, 2018.

There is no perfect email client. You have two choices.

1. Let things sit in your inbox and deal with new email as it comes in.

2. Configure filters, file and delete email, so you don’t have email collecting in your inbox.

There is a right answer. The ability to manage email is a basic 21st century skill. Maybe artificial intelligence and your email client will one day do it for you, but currently, it is a skill you just need to learn.

Freedom & Limits: The ASUS C201 with libreboot and Parabola Linux

Unfree BIOS Software

Surfing the web one day, I came across a mention of libreboot, a free software replacement for BIOS firmware used to load and run operating systems that’s been around since December 12, 2013. For many years, the only system you could buy with a free BIOS that could run free software was the Lemote Yeelong. Prior to that, every system ran nonfree BIOS system to initialize the computer prior to starting the operating system.

Unfree Software Everywhere

Unfree BIOS software is not a unique problem. Most elements of a computer are run using software that’s secret. For instance, none of the modems that are responsible for cell phone network communications run on free software. No one knows exactly what it does, except, perhaps, the people that created it.

Same is true of wifi. There are also only two wifi chips with free software drivers. The rest require blobs. Blobs are black boxes. You can know what goes in. You can know what comes out. But, you’re not entirely sure what happens in the middle.

Controller firmware, CPU microcode, graphic acceleration and many other elements of a modern computer system are almost always proprietary. Unfree software is the norm.

Free Software: Who Cares?

If it is a norm, why should anyone care about free software? People in the free software world often talk about free as in beer, i.e., it does not cost anything, opposed to free as in freedom, which enables people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.

One example is a car. All modern cars have a series of electronic systems that control every facet of the car’s operation. When those electronic control systems are proprietary, it can mean that owners of the car can be compelled to see an auto mechanic rather than repair the car themselves. Or worse, a manufacturer could decide to not share information with auto mechanics and establish a system where car owners would have to go to a dealer to get their car repaired.

Proprietary software puts the owner of the software’s copyright in control. Free software, at minimum, reliquishes the copyright and gives that control over to the user of the software or the hardware it powers. In some cases, it tries to exert control over the process, making it a requirement that improvements also have to be shared under the same conditions that the original software was shared.

Free software is fundamentally about empowering people. You might not care about the code running your car, but you likely do care if that code limits the supplier of repair services to a monopoly that charges significantly more than it would if it had competition.

Enter libreboot

Looking over the libreboot site, it is clear the BIOS problem persists. There are a handful of systems that can run libreboot. Most computer systems run a lot of proprietary software, e.g., BIOS, device drivers – such as wifi, controller firmware, CPU microcode, graphics acceleration hardware, etc. Under these conditions, is it even possible to run free software? If there is going to be compromises, what is an acceptable level? How much inconvenience will it entail?

Freedom always comes at a cost. In the modern world, the cost is often in convenience or capability. But, the reality is that we often have no idea what something costs us, as individuals or as a society. It’s not until we struggle with a different, perhaps even radical position, that the standard quo has a foil to make these costs visible.

I found such a foil while looking at the libreboot site and read this quote in the documentation for the only ARM laptop compatible with libreboot, the ASUS C201:

In practise, you can (if you do without the video/wifi blobs, and replace ChromeOS with a distribution that respects your freedom) be more free when using [an ASUS C201 than other libreboot systems that are Intel based].

What does “more free” mean? On the ASUS C201, the embedded controller firmware is free software, and there is no microcode. On ARM CPUs, the instruction set is implemented in circuitry, without microcode. If you choose not to use the wifi/video blobs, you can make the system about as free as is possible in the modern computing landscape.

Getting There From Here

It’s a bit of work to make the ASUS C201 run with free software. I bought one with faulty wifi from eBay for $52 dollars and a wifi dongle with a free Artheros chipset for $31 from Think Penguin. I then got the low end iFixit tool set to take apart the laptop for $25, removed the write protection screw, installed libreboot, installed Arch Linux on a SDCard I bought for $20 and then converted Arch Linux into Parabola by switching the depositories. For ~$130, there was a lot of educational value in the exercise, and the end result was a usable laptop that is my daily driver. Not bad. But before you go off and try it yourself, let me share some of the bad news.

All the instructions mentioned the possibility of making the computer unusable or damaging it while installing libreboot. In my case, I did manage to put a small crack in the top of the laptop in the course of prying it open. I ended up covering it with a sticker. Problem solved.

It is also possible to make a mistake flashing the firmware with libreboot and “bricking” the machine, which is always a possiblity when flashing firmware. It didn’t take the first time for me, but it didn’t seem to cause any problems either.

There are also other issues that can come up. For example, if you are not familiar with the command line and mounting usb or sdcards, you might not know that you need to use a set of commands like the following to transfer the libreboot files from a usb drive to the C201 in the first place, which the instructions assume you know how to do and don’t specify:

# cd /
# mkdir libreboot
# mount /dev/sdb1 /libreboot
# cp /libreboot/libreboot.img /

You can also make mistakes when installing the operating system, such as missing part of the long command to partition the table properly. Assuming you can get the whole thing to boot, then you have to set-up the Arch Linux distribution from scratch.

Arch Linux starts with a minimal distribution, and it is built around the idea of you create the distribution you want, with only the most up-to-date software. Prior to this experiment, I used primarily Debian. Arch Limux showed me was how many decisions Debian was making for me during the installation process. You could say that Debian is more focused on stability and ease of use.

So, the initial process was reevaluating software. On Debian, Gnome is the default, but it will not run on an ASUS C201 because it doesn’t have the video acceleration required to run it well. I found myself trying a number of window managers and eventually settled on ratpoison, a tiled window manager, that would work well with the limitations that free software on the ASUS C201 required. Hot tip: “ctrl-t :” will bring a text box up in the corner, then you can type “quit”, without quotes to exit. It took me a bit to learn that detail.

The graphics limitations of the ASUS C201 tended to encourage the use of the command line, just as working with OpenBSD did. The command line is something every user of a UNIX derivative should know in some detail, including Macs.

Debian also does some of the basic set-up for you, such as creating users, installing base software like sudo, or getting wifi to work. Arch Linux largely doesn’t, although setting up wifi through wifi-menu was easy.

Then, there is switching your distribution from Arch, which allows some proprietary drivers, to Parabola, which doesn’t. This leads to additional issues, like an update of the machine made a fully-functional touchpad useless. Was it a software upgrade of X or a firmware upgrade to the touchpad driver? Probably the latter, but the end result is that I try to keep to the command line where using a mouse isn’t necessary.

Another thing cutting down on my use of graphics? Apparently, the icu package (International Components for Unicode) updates every 3 months, but it breaks iceweasel, the only free software graphical browser that will run javascript and render pages correctly. I’ve since learned how to downgrade packages from cached packages on the machine. However, in the process of learning, I cleared the cache. I ended up having to wait six weeks to get an unbroken graphic browser package. Part of the delay is because the dependencies in the browser are written for specific versions of icu, and so they break every time it is updated. Part is because the ARM architecture doesn’t get the same kind of support as other architectures, because the number of people using it is much smaller.

The Point

So, what’s the point of this long litany of issues with making an ASUS C201 a free software machine? I think the main value is the exercise of rejecting the default option and choosing for ourselves. That’s what free software offers. You may not want the freedom, but sometimes just making an effort in that direction helps us to evolve into people that appreciate options beyond those that are offered by default.

In this case, the default is to use ChromeOS. It provides a safe, relatively secure computing environment where people can browse the web, read email, use networked Google software applications and such, and the price for the machine is minimal. However, there is a price to be paid in freedom. Convenience is offered in exchange for agreeing to become the commerical product of Google. For some people, this doesn’t bother them. They might even view it as a benefit. Since Google knows so much about them, the advertising driven by Google might help them to make better purchasing decisions.

Trying to swim against the default stream, whether it is the defaults of Google or a particular Linux distribution such as Debian, means a lot of work. It also means inconvenience, where hardware doesnt work like it should or graphical browsers remain broken for months. But, I would argue that taking the risk of bringing your computer, accepting a restraint like “free software only”, having to try new alternatives, etc., all leads to a mindset worth cultivating.

Even if you think concerns about free software is a kind of zealotry, there are kinds of knowledge that only a zealot can know because they are willing to accept limits others will not. There’s an education to be obtained in doing it. The only question is whether it is worth it to you.

Rudy Giuliani & Carnival Politics

The interesting feature of John Oliver’s piece on Rudy Guiliani is it exhibits why so much of the political discourse in the United States is so incredibly stupid.

Politics has become indistinguishable from the pitch of the carnival barker. Grab the mark’s attention, and sell, Sell, SELL. You won’t believe your eyes!

Freak shows? Politics attracts everyone with an agenda. The relatively normal ones do it for the money. Horrible in its way, but less so than the zealot who wants an aggressive foreign policy to hasten the Rapture, thinks vaccines cause autism, or wants to square the circle of global war fighting capability and “small government”. Or, on the other “side”, there are the true believers in government as the solution to every problem, from guns to sugar consumption.

Rigged games? What could be more rigged than a right/left, conservative/liberal dichotomy. It’s bunkum. These mental models might be a way to talk about the true believers with an agenda. People love the freak show. It brings dramatic tension to the spectacle. But, even at its most engaging, it is still only a side show.

Where’s the dichotomy on non-interventionalism, which used to be the one of the hallmarks of Rockefeller Republicanism? How is it that neither party is interested in criminal justice reform, serving the interests of both small government conservatives and liberals concerned about institutional racism in our justice system?

When there is universal agreement of this sort, it’s always instructive to ask: who loses their lunch with these changes? Time and time again, money trumps ideology.

Most carnies have no philosophy or policy positions beyond: Does it sell? Does it get people through the gates or asses in seats? Or, more crucially, is there money to be made?

Politicians are the same. It’s comes down to money and clout. Get them, or get out. Did you contribute to their reelection fund, represent a sizable voting block that can get voters to the polls or have a measure of fame and can influence people? Then, step up and play.

When the game is done, they close up their booth and move on — whether as professor, lobbyist, consultant, executive vice president, or a new shingle with their name on it — just like a carnival rolling into a new town. Living with consequences of what they have done while in office rarely is a game they have to play.

But, there are consequences. We are all left holding an empty bag at the end in a park littered with garbage and debris. Fine, and not uncommon, for a night’s entertainment. But, for a life, or for a state or a country? Well, that’s another matter altogether.

John Oliver shows the outline of this problem, how Guiliani will say anything — the more controversial, the more unbelievable, the better. It sets the agenda, where the marks argue about whether it is “real” or “true” or not.

But Oliver treats it all as carnival fare, placing Guiliani in the freak show, when he is much more emblematic of the business as usual politics of corruption that is at the heart of the political carnival at all levels of government in the United States. The political system is filled with incentives that serve powerful interests over those of the populations they supposedly represent. Guiliani is typical, not some strange outlier.

Period. Space. Space.

“The most recent edition of the American Psychological Association (APA) Manual states that two spaces should follow the punctuation at the end of a sentence. This is in contrast to the one-space requirement from previous editions. However, to date, there has been no empirical support for either convention. In the current study, participants performed (1) a typing task to assess spacing usage and (2) an eye-tracking experiment to assess the effect that punctuation spacing has on reading performance. Although comprehension was not affected by punctuation spacing, the eye movement record suggested that initial processing of the text was facilitated when periods were followed by two spaces, supporting the change made to the APA Manual.”

Rebecca L. Johnson. “Are two spaces better than one? The effect of spacing following periods and commas during reading.” Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. April 24, 2018.

Open, Closed, and Privacy – Stratechery by Ben Thompson

“That gets at the more important way that the relationship between open/closed and encryption is relevant to data and privacy: just as encryption at scale is only possible with a closed service, so it is with privacy. That is, to the extent we as a society demand privacy, the more we are by implication demanding ever more closed gardens, with ever higher walls. Just as a closed garden makes the user experience challenge of encryption manageable, so does the centralization of data make privacy — of a certain sort — a viable business model.”

—Ben Thompson. “Open, Closed, and Privacy.” Statechery.com. April 25, 2018.

It’s an interesting comment. However, there are a number of technologies being developed that solve the problem of identity and seamless public key transfer in different ways, e.g., Autocrypt (email), Conversations with OMEMO (chat), Keybase (chat), etc. It is possible to have user-friendly, decentralized and private communications. But, it’s hard to do without state or corporate funding, and increased privacy doesn’t serve those interests. Still, it’s possible. We just might have to wait for it.

Echo Chamber Test

“[D]oes a community’s belief system actively undermine the trustworthiness of any outsiders who don’t subscribe to its central dogmas? Then it’s probably an echo chamber…

…An echo chamber doesn’t destroy their members’ interest in the truth; it merely manipulates whom they trust and changes whom they accept as trustworthy sources and institutions.

And, in many ways, echo-chamber members are following reasonable and rational procedures of enquiry. They’re engaging in critical reasoning. They’re questioning, they’re evaluating sources for themselves, they’re assessing different pathways to information. They are critically examining those who claim expertise and trustworthiness, using what they already know about the world. It’s simply that their basis for evaluation – their background beliefs about whom to trust – are radically different. They are not irrational, but systematically misinformed about where to place their trust.”

—C Thi Nguyen, “Why it’s as hard to escape an echo chamber as it is to flee a cult.” Aeon. April 9, 2018.

The central idea isn’t that we all need “epistemological reboots”, although it’s often not a bad idea. The central idea is of intellectual humility, such as the possibility that you could be wrong. Philosophical skepticism, like that of Descartes, is taking it to the logical extreme, that not only can you be wrong, you might be wrong about everything. For example, everything we believe is real could be a Matrix-style simulation. We cannot exclude that possibility, even if it isn’t terribly useful in our day to day existence.