Tech Veganism

“One place where the veganism metaphor breaks down is that, although nearly anyone can be a vegan, tech veganism is mostly practiced by those who are expert enough or privileged enough to learn the elaborate workarounds to avoid the GAFAMs of the world. Setting up an Ubuntu laptop, a LineageOS phone, a Fastmail account, and wiring it all together so that you actually get calendar notifications is no easy feat. You will probably have to get your hands dirty on the command line.

I find that there’s a bit of a ‘let them eat cake’ attitude among tech vegan boosters, because they often discount the sheer difficulty of all this stuff. (‘Let them use Linux’ could be a fitting refrain.) After all, they figured it out, so why can’t you? What, doesn’t everyone have a computer science degree and six years experience as a sysadmin?”

-Nolan Lawson, “Tech Veganism.” nolanlawson.com. May 31, 2019.

Reposting my comment here:

The point that a lot of people miss is that there are two tech revolutions going on.

On one end, there’s the application, end-user technology that is designed to fit some specific need and be easy to use. Ideally, it’s just tapping buttons on a screen.

These tend to follow direct physical analogs of specific, single purpose tools: Search/Keep replaces the file cabinet, Maps replaces maps, YouTube is mobile television, Play is mobile board games, News replaces the newspaper, Gmail is mail, Contacts replaces the Rolodex, Drive replaces the suitcase, calendar replaces the Day Planner, Translate replaces the foreign language phrase book, Photos replaces the photo album, etc.

They do one thing. They do it well. They are useful. And they are all being combined in one device. But, they aren’t the standard by which every tool needs to be judged.

Some tools are general tools that can be applied to a wide variety of problems. Any idiot can pick up an arc welder or write a Python script. But, it takes time to learn how to use these general purpose tools well. They’re never going to be easy in the way that using email is easy. And there is no need to use Python or an arc welder on your phone.

Should TeX be compared to Word? It’s apples and oranges. How much does that Venn diagram overlap, regardless of definition?

Emacs is as different from a word processor as a word processor is from the legal pad. There’s inherent capability that doesn’t reduce down to the level of a pull-down menu or button. As soon as you make ease of use the defining feature, you narrow down capability to what a pull down menu can handle.

Most people aren’t solving problems that require training A.I.s, collaboratively writing programs with a tool like Git, making CGI movies with Renderman, etc. So, they have no need to learn these tools, and these tools do not need to simplified to suit them. They are what they are. OpenBSD is about security, not being “user-friendly” to the novice user. If you want “user-friendly,” use what everyone else uses.

“Tech vegans,” as you describe them, have different needs and different values. Some day, it would be nice if a LineageOS device were available at your telephone carrier’s store, Google didn’t mess with ad blocking extensions in their browser to make more money, and so forth. But, the incentives are what they are. Opting out of the default is hard by design. That’s not only a technology problem. It’s also an economic one.

OpenBSD’s Guide to Netiquette

The OpenBSD’s mailing list page netiquette section is excellent. It is a distillation of how to communicate online, i.e.:

  • Plain text, 72 characters per line [or simplest formatting available]
  • Do your homework before writing
  • Include a useful subject line [or headline]
  • Trim your signature
  • Stay on topic
  • Include important information
  • Respect differences in opinion and philosophy

Using only plain text is extreme outside of email. But, the idea that formatting should not get in the way of content is good. Know what you are talking about. Help others to understand. Give them all the relevant information. Trim out anything that does not move the discussion forward or is confusing. Treat everyone with respect.

It’s good advice for any kind of communication and for life. It’s relevant to writing an email, a newsletter, a blog post, an article or anything else you may do.

OpenBSD: Configuring mutt & gpg/gpg2

After spending some time configuring the mutt email client to use gpg2 in OpenBSD 6.1 and not finding a straight-forward explanation online, I thought I would document my process so other novice OpenBSD users would not have the same difficulties I had. I have used these same instuctions with some modification to configure mutt on Debian, Arch and other Linuxes, and it has helped me get to a working configuration.

  • Install mutt and gnupg.

# pkg_add -i mutt gnupg [add cyrus-sasl to your package manager on linuxes without it baked in]

A series of options will display. Pick the current version of mutt-1.8.0v3-gpgme-sasl and gnupg-2.1.15p2.

  • Copy the system example gpg.conf file to your home directory.

$ cp /usr/local/share/gnupg/options.skel /home/bedouin/.gnupg/gpg.conf

  • Add this text to the gpg.conf file [seemed necessary on OpenBSD, not on some varieties of Linux sans gnome]

# Enable gpg-agent
use-agent
pinentry-mode loopback

  • Start the gpg-connect-agent daemon.

$ gpg-connect-agent

  • Import your secret and public keys into your keyring (see man if you need to make them new).

$ gpg2 –decrypt file.sec.gpg | gpg2 –import –batch

  • After import, check to make sure the secret keys imported.

$ gpg2 -K

  • Create a file /home/bedouin/.gnupg/email-password.gpg with this text.

set imap_pass = “yourpassword”
set smtp_pass = “yourpassword”

  • Encrypt email password file.

$ gpg2 –encrypt /home/bedouin/.gnupg/email-password.gpg

  • Finally, create a .muttrc configuration file and add a line to decrypt your password, which also has the benefit of launching gpg-agent and saves your password for use in mutt. Example:

# email configuration

set ssl_starttls = yes

set ssl_force_tls = yes

set folder = imaps://user@emailprovider.com:993

set spoolfile = imaps://user@emailprovider.com/INBOX

set postponed = +Drafts

set record = +Sent

set trash = +Trash

mailboxes = +INBOX

set hostname = emailprovider.com

set from = user@emailprovider.com

set smtp_url = smtp://user@emailprovider.com:587

set postpone = ask-yes

set delete = ask-no

set editor = “emacs”

set visual = “emacs”

set noconfirmappend

# Email password
source “gpg2 -dq /home/bedouin/.gnupg/email-password.gpg |”

# GPG

set pgp_sign_as = user@emailprovider.com

set pgp_use_gpg_agent = yes

set pgp_timeout = 3600

# Reduce polling frequency to a sane level
set mail_check=60

# keep a cache of headers
set header_cache=~/.hcache

# Display download progress
set net_inc=10

This should get you to a working set-up to read and write email. This discussion helps make explicit a few points that took me a few hours to figure out, e.g., without gpg-connect-agent started, I had not imported my secret key into my key ring despite thinking I had.

Also, I tried to indicate where gpg-connect-agent and some of these other steps were unnecessary on Linux distros in an update a year later.

Good luck!

OpenBSD & The Command Line

Lately, when I’ve been using a computer, I’ve been using a laptop with OpenBSD installed. It’s changing what I want a computer to do, and how I want to interact with one.

OpenBSD isn’t an easy system to use. For example, you cannot just plug-in a USB drive and have it work. You have to determine the device name, create a directory as a mount point, login to the root account, then type in a command that might look something like this:

# mount -t msdos /dev/sd1i /home/cafebedouin/usb

The default configuration makes the graphical window managers look terrible. Popular, resource intensive desktop environments on Linux systems that automagically mount usb drives are available, such as GNOME. But, they run so slowly on the default OpenBSD installation settings that they are impossible to use without making significant changes to OpenBSD configuration files, such as to the limits on user file sizes.

I know GNOME can run on the laptop in question, because GNOME works just fine when I boot it with a USB version of Linux. But, OpenBSD demands that you learn what you are doing in order to get what you want. It’s not user-friendly.

But, what should I learn? Do I want to figure out how to change the settings on a window manager to get it usable and have it mount this usb drive for me, or would I rather just figure out how to mount the usb myself from the command line?

The answer to that question is easy. The command line is for me.

The documentation on OpenBSD is fantastic, with detailed discussion of every system daemon, how to configure system files, and so forth in the man files. Still, sometimes it is necessary to look up information on the Internet. And, rather than launch X Windows and then Firefox, the text browser lynx made more sense to use. 

Nothing cuts through the crap of the Internet, such as ads, like a browser that will only render text. Further, no tabs or windows means I am rarely multi-tasking. Another thing I am rarely using? A mouse. You do not need one on the command line.

For me, using OpenBSD has been an education in thinking through the tools I use. There’s a difference between LibreOffice and emacs/vi. If you want to write text, why get involved in formatting at all? Further, if all you are doing is modifying configuration files and writing text, why use a tool with so much other functionality, when a simpler editing program like mg will do the job? On the other hand, limiting yourself to the command line is an excellent way to gain an appreciation for all the functionality an editor like Emacs provides, such as an in buffer window browser eww.

If you have an old machine, installing OpenBSD on it will likely be very easy. The hard part will be figuring out how to use it, which will invariably increase your understanding of how UNIX derivative systems work.