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Little Brother

2008-05-14 3 comments

I just finished reading Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. I read a lot, in the order of a couple of hundred books per year. Many books are promptly forgotten, but this is one I’m going to add to my re-reading pile. I’m also going to buy a few copies and give them to a few people. For those who are into reading e-books, the electronic versions of many of Cory Doctorow’s works are freely available from the author’s website, published under a creative commons license, like my blog. That right there earns my respect, and I’m presently perusing the rest of Cory Doctorow’s catalog.

I’m always having these discussions with my wife about this discomfort I have with the idea of surveillance societies and the loss of privacy (ironically, considering how much information about myself that I voluntarily publish). The book Little Brother is a fictional story about what gives me the willies about the attitude “I have nothing to hide, so why should I care if they video me everywhere, read my email and wiretap my phones?” I think that attitude is based on a logical fallacy, that privacy only has value to people who are hiding something. That’s called a false dichotomy. Privacy is valued by people who are not criminals and do not have a guilty conscience too. Otherwise, why do we have curtains? If you have the “I have nothing to hide” attitude, I suggest you read this paper on the fallacy of that idea, written by George Washington Law School Professor Daniel J. Solove. Click the link and scroll down to find several links to the actual PDF of the paper.

Surveillance societies give up essential freedoms in the name of safety. Unfortunately, the sacrifice of freedoms is generally in vain, because the increased surveillance of citizens does essentially nothing to prevent crime or terrorism. Search with Google. There are many many articles and reports indicating western societies are no safer from terrorism than before September 11. In fact, many think we’re worse off, and now we have the added fear of misuse of all the surveillance information by the authorities.

If, like me, you are Canadian, you might think that there’s not much surveillance going on in our country. If that’s the case, do a little experiment. When you’re out and about, think about every instance during your day when your location or activity is recorded by somebody or some automated system. Do you go into a store? You’re on video. Do you buy something with credit or debit? Somebody knows what you bought. Use cash? If so, what about your Safeway Club card or Save On More card? They still know what you bought. Buying online? Same thing. What about traffic cameras looking at your license plate as you travel around town? Somebody could know everywhere you’ve been, and when. Now read Little Brother, and think about the picture of your life that all those little points of surveillance that could be constructed if a single authority were able to combine all that?

Really, I’m only a little paranoid, and I freely share a lot of info about myself. However, as is famously and often stated, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Sleep well.

Running FreeBSD 7.0 on ESX Server

2008-01-17 14 comments

I’m building new DNS servers for our corporate DNS due to our recent hardware problems with one of our old servers. We have had good success with publicly exposed BSD servers on the Internet, including OpenBSD and FreeBSD. My experience with FreeBSD is much more recent than with OpenBSD so for the new servers I am going with FreeBSD 7.0. We also have been building almost everything new as virtual machines on ESX server for the last year or so, so the DNS servers will be no exception.

FreeBSD is not officially supported by VMware on ESX server, but it runs on ESX 3.x without problems. My ESX server is configured with ESX 3.02. My first step was to build a template FreeBSD virtual machine. I’m going to use that as the basis for a master DNS server that we hide away and use to make changes on, and some slaves that are public-facing.

The first thing I didwas to get the FreeBSD iso files and put them somewhere where the ESX server can see them. I have an ISO library on my Sun x4500 that can be nfs mounted by my ESX servers, so that’s where I put the FreeBSD iso files (there are 3 iso files for FreeBSD 7.0 RC1).

Next, I set up a new virtual machine with 512 MB of RAM (probably overkill for a dedicated authoritative DNS server in charge of a few zones) and an LSI scsi adapter. For the guest OS, I chose Other/Other (not 64-bit). I pointed the VM’s CD-ROM drive at the FreeBSD disk1 iso file, and booted it. I’m not going to go over the partitioning and installation details of FreeBSD here. The install of FreeBSD is fairly straightforward if you have some UNIX/Linux experience. I chose to install the “Developer” package set, and to install the ports collection. I also added emacs and bash via the packages at the end of the installation because that’s how I roll. During the install it’s a good idea to add another user besides root, and to make them a member of the wheel group, so that they can run su to become root. In FreeBSD you have to be a member of the wheel group in order to be allowed to run su.

Once the install was completed, I rebooted, and logged in as root. To make the FreeBSD system a good virtual citizen on your ESX server, it’s a good idea to install the vmware tools. Unfortunately there is no vmware tools installer for FreeBSD on ESX 3.x. Luckily, the vmware tools for FreeBSD from VMware Server work in ESX Server. To install them on my virtual machine, I downloaded the tgz package for VMware Server 1.04, extracted it, and copied the file vmware-server-distrib/lib/isoimages/freebsd.iso to my ISO library. Then I connected that iso file as the CD-ROM of the virtual machine. Then from inside the VM, I used the ports collection to install the vmware tools. To do that, I logged as root (or become root with su) and then ran the following commands:

cd /usr/ports/emulators/vmware-tools6
make install clean distclean

Once the install completed, I rebooted to startup the vmware tools guest daemon. I logged in after the reboot and ran ps ax | grep vmware to verify that the vmware guest daemon was running, and I saw output like this:

570 ?? Ss 0:03.52 /usr/local/sbin/vmware-guestd --background /var/run/vmware_guestd.pid --h

The final thing to get the FreeBSD VM ready to go is to replace the default ethernet device, which is a lance virtual nic. There are many anecdotes about the lance ethernet driver in FreeBSD dropping packets under load. It’s a good idea to change to either the vmxnet device or the e1000 device instead of lance. The FreeBSD GENERIC kernel (the default kernel) in FreeBSD 7.0 does not have a driver for the vmxnet device, but it does have one for the e1000 device. Either can be used, but if you choose the vmxnet device, you have to build a new kernel (waaay beond the scope of this post).

To replace the default lance virtual nic with the e1000 one, I first shut down and powered off the vm. Then, I accessed my ESX server as root with a shell (via ssh or on the console) and used vi to edit the .vmx file of the FreeBSD virtual machine. I found a bunch of lines beginning with ethernet0 and inserted a line at the top of those lines like this:

ethernet0.virtualDev="e1000"

Then, I saved the file and started up the virtual machine. When it came up, there was no IP address bound to the ethernet interface in the VM, and I had to login to it using the VMware ESX server Virtual Infrastructure Client console or Virtual Center. I logged in as root to the VM, and edited the /etc/rc.conf file. I found the line that said ipconfig_le0=... and changed it to ipconfig_em0=... and then rebooted. The new virtual nic was then started up with the same settings as the old one had before I replaced it.

That's it. If you follow this procedure, you will have a VM that is ready to be configured for whatever workload you want to put on it.

Categories: Editorial, Virtualization

Swimming in Alberta and LTAD

2007-07-06 2 comments

There are two types of competitive swimming programs in Canada, summer swimming and year-round swimming. Before I start expounding my opinions, let me just say that I am a product of both programs, but primarily of the year-round program, and I swam competitively from age 7 until I graduated from university at age 24. I also have two kids who are swimmers (among other sports) so I have perspective on these issues from both directions. I’m also about to make some sweeping generalizations, so don’t be offended if your organization has a different philosophy from what is discussed below.

Year-round swimming is a unified program nationally in terms of having an over-arching organization (Swimming / Natation Canada), and a common set of rules. The season starts in September and carries on until the following summer. Nationals and high-level international competitions take place over summer, so for elite swimmers, the season pretty much lasts all year. Swimmers in all parts of Canada participate in meets together including twice-yearly Provincials, age-group Club Nationals and open-age National Championships. National team members also come from the year-round program. Training for many swimmers is every day, with Sunday off, and some do workouts morning and night, before and after school. It can be a major commitment, but that’s how the programs produce internationally successful swimmers.

Summer swimming varies by province. There is no national organization. In Alberta, summer swimming is managed by the Alberta Summer Swimming Association, supported by the Swim Alberta. The season goes from May to August. Kids participate in meets between clubs in the various regions in Alberta, and then each region hosts a regionals. Top swimmers from each regionals go to Summer Swimming Provincials in August. Swimmers generally train about five times per week through the season. It’s a lot more focussed on fun and enjoyment of swimming rather than the performance-oriented focus of year-round swimming. It is also a great sport for developing athletes, because it allows the participation in multiple sports throughout the year.

In Alberta, year-round swimming hosts an age-group Provincials competition. This is the only competition where summer swimmers have the opportunity to race against their age-counterparts in year-round swimming. If summer swimmers achieve year-round-swimming “A” time standards, they qualify for the Alberta Summer Swimming All-stars, which is a multi-club team that goes to Alberta year-round swimming summer Provincials. It’s a fun experience for the summer swimmers, firstly because the summer swimmers get some new kids to race against, and secondly because it’s the only time in summer swimming that kids get to race in a 50m pool. The rest of the summer swimming season is done in 25m pools.

I think that the other great benefit of the All Stars is that it shows the value of the summer swimming program in comparison to the year-round programs (not the value of summer swimming above year-round swimming, just in comparison to it). Summer swimmers who come and compete at year-round swimmers see that their programs are not inferior, and that they can compete directly with kids who train in swimming all year. Year-round swimming proponents (some of whom stupidly look down on summer swimming as a joke) get incontrovertible proof that summer swimming produces competitive athletes, especially at the younger ages, without unnecessary early specialization in swimming. Unfortunately, the All-Stars team also engenders the equally stupid fear held by many summer swimming organizations that year-round swimming is out to steal athletes from summer swimming, and that having athletes move to year-round swimming somehow harms summer swimming. The pathological dismissal of summer swimming programs by year-round swimming organizations, and the paranoia held about year-round swimming organizations held by summer clubs is a problem that benefits nobody.

Presently, Sport Canada is pushing to adopt a new philosophy, called the Long Term Athlete Development model (LTAD). The LTAD model is a non-sport-specific model for athlete development from early childhood, through youth, to nationally and internationally competitive athletes, to post-competitive active adults. The LTAD considers a lot of scientifically supported information regarding child and adolescent development, as well as athlete development, and long-term health and wellness.

The point of this article is that in terms of Sport Canada’s push to adopt the Long Term Athlete Development model, the existing summer swimming program in Alberta is more appropriate and compatible with the LTAD than the existing year-round swimming program, for the LTAD’s first three stages. Those are: FUNdamentals, Learning to Train and Training to Train. The first three stages encompass young athletes up to ages of about 15 for girls and 16 for boys. The LTAD recommends no sport specialization for the FUNdamentals stage, focusing on at least three sports in the Learning to Train stage, and on two primary sports in the Training to Train stage. Year-round swimming, with it’s intensive training programs and long season, discourages generalization during the Learning to Train stage, and essentially requires one-sport specialization in the Training to Train stage. The LTAD recognizes early specialization as a contributing factor to a lack of basic motor skills, over-training injuries, early burnout and early departure from competitive sport. A requirement for early specialization may also eliminate potential future star swimmers from swimming entirely, because many young athletes are interested in participating in multiple sports, and if participating in one sport precludes other sports, the exclusive sport might be dropped in favour of the others.

The summer swimming program in Alberta, in contrast, fits nicely into the LTAD model for the first three stages. The season is brief, allowing ample time throughout the year for kids to participate in multiple organized sport programs. The attitude of summer swimming is very fun-oriented and light, and most clubs in Alberta even encourage and facilitate participation in other summer sports, like soccer. The program obviously works for the young ages, judging by a direct comparison of 12-and under swimmers at year-round swimming provincials. Athletes who have successful summer swimming careers, and then move onto year-round swimming towards the end of the LTAD Training to Train stage, often have tremendous success and tremendous career longevity in year-round swimming. The Swimming/Natation Canada national team bios contain several stories of national team members who didn’t specialize in year-round swimming until the middle teen years.

As a former participant and beneficiary of both programs, and now as a parent of a couple of budding (no Flowers pun intended) young aquatic talents, I would like the summer swimming program to get rid of its paranoia and start encouraging kids who have outgrown the summer swimming program to consider moving on to year-round swimming. I would also like year-round swimming programs to start recognizing summer swimming programs as valuable sources of developing athletes, and as appropriate programs for multi-sport athletes, and being more supportive and inclusive of summer swimming. Changing attitudes on both sides will benefit both, and more importantly, will benefit the athletes most of all.

Categories: Editorial, Personal, Swimming

TV Sucks

2007-05-11 Leave a comment

Well, this is bad news (Dark Horizons). Battlestar Galactica, the best show on TV, will be going off the air after the fourth season. Instead, we’ll be treated to more crap like this, and other hour-long commercials for Home Depot thinly disguised as entertainment.

Categories: Editorial

I’m Shocked and Sickened

2007-04-16 Leave a comment

I’ve been at work most of the day and didn’t hear about this until just now. There has been a shooting spree at Virginia Tech today in which 31 people have died, including the shooter and many students.

I went to McGill University in Montréal, and was a student there in 1989 during the incident when Marc Lépine murdered 14 women at École Polytechnique. There are many ties between the engineering schools at McGill and École Polytechnique, and many of my friends and classmates were friends with one or more of the victims. It was a devastating event that affected everyone I knew there.

I can sympathize with the shock and horror of what has happened today in Virginia. I hope that anyone still trying to reach their family members there is successful, and my deepest condolences go out to those who have lost loved ones.

Categories: Editorial, Personal

STS-121 Successful Launch!

2006-07-04 Leave a comment

The Space Shuttle Discovery was successfully launched today. I just finished watching the launch live on Nasa TV. As I always tell people, the astronauts are true heroes and I wish the world had more of that kind of spirit. Congratulations NASA and best of luck returning home safely.

Categories: Editorial

New Government for Canada

2006-01-24 Leave a comment

Today we get to celebrate the fact that we no longer have a Liberal government in Canada. The Conservative party has won the federal election, and will make up the next government. Unfortunately, it’s a Conservative minority government, which means the Liberals will be able to impede the work that the Conservatives try to do.

The biggest upside is that we’ve gotten rid of a morally bankrupt party as our government. The Liberals in power were corrupt and excelled only at making things financially sweet for themselves and their cronies. The wonder of the election to me is that many seats in the house of commons were retained by Liberal party members, especially in the big centres of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Re-electing Liberal candidates after that corrupt, thieving bunch of criminals screwed us all over for the last 12 years was like saying “Thank you sir, may I have another” after being slapped in the face.

At least a lot of Westerners are feeling like their votes counted for something for the first time in a long time. I know I feel that way.

Categories: Editorial

They’ve Sent in the Soldiers

2005-09-02 Comments off

I wes talking to my father-in-law yesterday about the terrible people involved in shootings, attempted hijackings of rescue and aid vehicles, rapes and looting in New Orleans. I said that it just makes the disaster worse when the horrible circumstances are used by people to drop the trappings of civilized behaviour and become animals.

My father-in-law suggested that if the US sent troops into New Orleans who were armed and authorized to shoot people committing these crimes on sight, it wouldn’t take long to restore order. I’m not certain that I concur with this idea, because it could be tough to judge whether a looter is trying to steal food to survive, or valuable goods just to take opportunistic advantage of the situation. I wouldn’t consider the first to be a crime.

Regardless of my take on the matter, I read this today: Shoot-to-kill orders for New Orleans. I find that very scary and it is surreal for us to be carrying on pretty much business as usual when this type of stuff is going on in the world.

Categories: Editorial

While on the Subject of Looting…

2005-09-01 Comments off

There’s another type of looting going on that’s just as harmful, dangerous and blatantly wrong as the criminals in the street in Louisiana; big business opportunism. On the same day that the levees were breaking in New Orleans, the gas prices at the pump in Edmonton 4000 kilometers away, were jumping up tens of percent on fuel that was already in the ground at the gas stations prior to the disaster. This is disaster opportunism at it’s worst and should be illegal. In fact, I think it is illegal in Canada, but nobody seems to be doing anything about it.

How can the supply lines for gas in Canada be so short that the suspension of operation of some oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico can have an immediate effect on gas prices all over North America? I can see how the prices would rise over time as the effect of the service interruption propagated through the supply chain, but that should take weeks or even months. Come on! It is the same bullshit that the oil companies pull when they jump the prices a couple of days before every long weekend. Its gouging, plain and simple. Only this time, its gouging that will have a real effect on the speed of the USA’s ability to recover from the crisis, and that’s just wrong.

Categories: Editorial

Looting and Chaos in New Orleans

2005-09-01 Comments off

I don’t know how to react to the hurricane aftermath in Louisiana and Mississipi, and the other weather-ravaged areas in the USA. Neither, apparently, do the victims, nor the American government. After the September 11 attacks, we got to witness the best of people who have been irrevocably harmed but then rise above the dispair and pull together to improve their lot and hold up their heads. This also seemed to happen in Southeast Asia after the Tsunami, although the victims’ reactions were harder to guage due to the different style of news coverage after the Tsunami.

This time, there are many heroic people trying to salvage what they can, save whoever they can and deal with the disaster as well as possible. But, there are also people, who instead of rising above the disaster to elevate the human condition, are sinking beneath the morass to become part of, and exacerbate the disaster. The news has made reports of people running rampant through the streets in disaster-struck areas, looting and burning and shooting. There were even pictures of men stealing bags of sporting goods like runners and basketball jerseys from a New Orleans sports store. Those will presumably feed them well in the coming weeks when there will be no food, water, heat or power.

Other reports have stated that rescuers in boats have had to abandon searches due to risk from gun-weilding survivors. One report I heard on the radio said that a rescue helicopter had to abandon the evacuation of a critically injured patient from a medical facility because gun-weilding nutcases were swarming about the landing pad, and the pilot was afraid the helicopter would be hijacked.

This morning I heard a local professional footbal player who lives in Louisiana in the off season, say that the storm damage would be the least-cause of damages to his Louisiana home. He said that locals near his home knew he was a professional football player and was away from home. He was sure that his house would be looted and destroyed in the chaos down there.

The overwhelming urge to survive is fundamental to us all. Thank God I can’t speak from experience when contemplating a disaster like this, but I have to ask: Why don’t the people of the damaged areas see that cooporating and maintaining civility will maximize the chances of survival for the largest possible number of people, and it will also shorten the time necessary to get things back to normal?

Categories: Editorial
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