Blog Fiasco

April 19, 2014

The right way to do release notes

Filed under: Linux,Project Management,The Internet — Tags: — bcotton @ 8:52 pm

Forever ago (in Internet time), the developer(s?) of Pocket Casts released an update with some really humorous release notes:

Release notes for Pocket Casts 3.6.

As I do, I got thinking about how I felt about it. While my initial reaction was to be amused, I quickly turned to finding it unhelpful. In fact, most apps have awful release notes. My least favorite phrase, which seems to appear in the release notes of every updated app on my phone, is “and bug fixes.”

Despite the title of this post, there’s no one right way to write release notes. The “right” way depends on what you’re releasing, for one. In a Linux distribution like Fedora, release notes could be composed of the release notes for every component package. However, that would be monumentally unwieldy. Even the Fedora Technical Notes — which report only the changed packages, not the notes for those packages — is not likely to be ready by too many people. The Release Notes are a condensed view, which highlight prominent features. The Release Announcement is even further condensed, and is useful for media and public announcements. This hierarchy is a good example of the importance of the audience.

I’ve seen arguments that release notes are unnecessary if the source code repository is accessible. Who needs release notes when you can just look at the commit log? This is a pretty lousy argument. A single change may be composed of many commits and a single commit may represent multiple changes (though it shouldn’t). Not to mention that commit messages are often poorly written. I’ve made far too many of those myself. Even if the commit log is a beautiful representation of what happened, it’s a lot to ask a consumer of your software to scour every commit since the last release.

My preference for release notes includes, in no particular order, a list of new features, bugs fixed, and known issues. The HTCondor team does a particularly good job in that regard. One thing I’d add to their release notes is an explicit listing of the subsystem(s) affected for each point. The exact format doesn’t particularly matter. All I’m looking for is an explanation as to why I should or should not care about a particular release. And “fixed some bugs” doesn’t tell me that.

April 2, 2014

Amazon VPC: A great gotcha

Filed under: HPC/HTC,The Internet — Tags: , , , , , — bcotton @ 9:01 pm

If you’re not familiar with the Amazon Web Services offerings, one feature is the Virtual Private Cloud (VPC). VPC is effectively a way of walling yourself off from all or part of the world. If you’re running a public-facing web server, it might not be so important. If you’re running a compute cluster, it’s a no-brainer. Just be careful about that “no-brainer” part.

While working on a new cluster for a customer today, I was trying to figure out why the HTCondor scheduler wasn’t showing up to the collector. The daemons were all running. HTCondor security policies weren’t getting in the way. I could use condor_config_val from each host to query the other host. I brought in a colleague to double-check me. He couldn’t figure it out either.

After beating our heads against the wall for a while, and finding absolutely nothing helpful in the logs, I noticed one tiny detail in the logs. The schedd kept saying it was updating the collector, but the collector never seemed to notice. The schedd kept saying it was updating the collector via UDP. How many times had I watched that line go by?

The last time, though, it clicked. And it clicked hard. I had set up a security group to allow all traffic within the VPC. Except I had set it for all TCP traffic, so the UDP packets were being silently dropped. As UDP packets are wont to do. When I changed the security group rule from TCP to all protocols, the scheduler magically appeared in the pool.

Once again, the moral of the story is: don’t be stupid.

February 14, 2014

Thoughts on Comcast and Time Warner Cable

Filed under: The Internet — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 9:32 am

When I wrote a review of Susan Crawford’s Captive Audience two months ago, I didn’t expect to be revisiting it so quickly. Then came the news that Comcast was planning to buy Time Warner Cable, gaining a few million more customers and several regional sports networks. With the acquisition of NBC, Comcast is clearly making a play to be in the content business. There’s not much growth potential left in being a service provider, so it makes sense that Comcast would want to hedge their bets. That’s why I suspect they’re more interested in acquiring regional sports nets (live sports being one of the main reasons people don’t cut the cord) than the few million subscribers they’d pick up if the deal is approved.

It’s not like Comcast and Time Warner were really competing, despite how “competitive” the FCC and Comcast claimed the industry to be a few years ago. The cable companies largely have agreed not to step on each others’ toes. In most places, customers have exactly one choice for cable TV provider. Individual consumers will see no difference in the competitive landscape, so it’s easy to dismiss this as a non-issue (as I initially did). Where this may get interesting is when it comes time for networks to renegotiate carriage agreements. Comcast would have greater leverage to low-ball content providers, potentially squeezing a few out of business. As long as other modes of TV exist (e.g. satellite, AT&T U-Verse), I expect Comcast will remain somewhat constrained in their ability to harm content providers, but they’ll continue to be able to prevent competition from sprouting up.

Of course, it’s not guaranteed that this buyout will occur. Despite the relative ease with which the FCC and the Department of Justice approved Comcast’s purchase of NBC, the landscape has changed somewhat. Denying AT&T’s purchase of T-Mobile was a surprisingly pro-consumer decision, and it’s possible that this deal is doomed as well. I don’t follow Washington closely enough to say what’s likely. All I know is that I can’t wait for Metronet to extend their fiber offering to my neighborhood. I’ve been told it may happen as early as next month.

January 9, 2014

Online learning: Codecademy

Filed under: Linux,mac,The Internet — Tags: , , , , , , — bcotton @ 9:05 pm

Last week, faced with a bit of a lull at work and a coming need to do some Python development, I decided to work through the Python lessons on Codecademy. Codecademy is a website that provides free instruction on a variety of programming languages by means of small interactive example exercises.

I had been intending to learn Python for several years. In the past few weeks, I’ve picked up bits and pieces by reading and bugfixing a project at work, but it was hardly enough to claim knowledge of the language.

Much like the “… for Dummies” books, the lessons were humorously written, simple, and practical. Unlike a book, the interactive nature provides immediate feedback and a platform for experimentation. The built-in Q&A forum allows learners to help each other. This was particularly helpful on a few of the exercises where the system itself was buggy.

The content suffered from the issue that plagues any introductory instruction: finding the right balance between too easy and too hard. Many of the exercises were obvious from previous experience. By and large, the content was well-paced and at a reasonable level. The big disappointment for me was the absence of explanation and best practices. I often found myself wondering if the way I solved the problem was the right way.

Still, I was able to apply my newly acquired knowledge right away. I now know enough to be able to understand discussion of best practices and I’ll be able to hone my skills through practices. That makes it worth the time I invested in it. Later on, I’ll work my way through the Ruby (to better work with our Chef cookbooks) and PHP (to do more with dynamic content on this site) modules.

December 1, 2013

Book review: Captive Audience

Filed under: The Internet — Tags: , , , , — bcotton @ 5:25 pm

I recently learned Of Susan Crawford’s book Captive Audience when she was a guest on the “This Week in Law” podcast. In Captive Audience, Crawford examines the merger of Comcast and NBCUniversal. Crawford makes no attempt to hide her feelings on the nation’s largest cable provider getting (further) into the content business. The book is more of an advocacy journalism work than a dispassionate academic report. Comcast’s supporters may object to Crawford’s arguments, but her characterizations are refreshingly fair. She is quick to point out that the players are acting, not like evil madmen, but rational business actors pursuing their self-interests. Her main concern is that these interests do not line up with what she believes to be the public’s best interests.

Crawford does not blame Comcast CEO Brian Roberts for this disconnect, though his company has worked tirelessly to keep the status quo. The root of the problem is that the Internet industry is both unregulated and uncompetitive. Crawford rejects the notion that DSL, cellular, and satellite services are competitors to cable companies. DSL is too slow and satellite too high-latency for modern Internet applications and cellular, while convenient, is limited by lower bandwidth and small screen sizes.

The state of regulation for cable providers is like that of the early days of the rail road and electrical industries, which is to say non-existent. Cable providers lack the common carrier requirements imposed on the phone companies. As a result, Comcast and others are free to turn the Internet into a walled garden of curated channels, much like the current state of cable television. As dire of a picture as Crawford paints, it’s hard to see it as a likely threat. Plausible, certainly, but I don’t see it on the horizon.

Nevertheless, America clearly has an Internet problem. Our speeds and prices are worse than most of the developed world. In an age where high speed Internet access is increasingly important to social, academic, and economic activities, one third of Americans don’t subscribe to high speed Internet service. A strong correlation between non-subscribership and low socioeconomic status. If Internet connectivity is necessary for prosperity, expensive Internet prevents upward mobility.

Absent competitive pressure, the public interest can only be enforced by regulation. Interestingly, it was the Nixon administration that first sought to prevent monopolies in the cable industry. In recent years, Republicans and Democrats have proven equally unwilling to impose regulation on the industry. Municipal and private sector fiber installations seem to be the only near-term hope for keeping Comcast in check.

In short, I found Captive Audience to be an informative and compelling read. Crawford takes the reader through the history of monopolies in the United States and of the cable industry. She examines the technical and political reasons that Comcast became and remains a monopoly. In closing, Crawford looks at the effect that the Comcast/NBC merger had on AT&T’s failed attempt to purchase T-Mobile. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Internet policy.

October 1, 2013

I’m famous, sorta

Filed under: HPC/HTC,The Internet — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 4:55 pm

One of my co-workers happens to be a co-host of “Food Fight“, a DevOps podcast. Last week, he asked for someone to join in for a crossover episode with “RCE“. When nobody else volunteered, he roped me into it. It turned out to be pretty awesome, I would have loved to extend the conversation a few more hours. With any luck, I’ll re-appear on one of those shows sometime. As you may already be aware, one of my goals is for Leo Laporte to personally invite me to the TWiT Brickhouse to get drunk with him on an episode of “This Week in Tech.” I feel like I’ve moved a little closer today.

Anyway, here are the links:

September 21, 2013

Internet addiction and cell phone sociability

Filed under: Musings,The Internet — Tags: , — bcotton @ 8:24 pm

A picture of a restaurant’s cell phone policy posted to Reddit led me to a back-and-forth with another Redditor about cell phone etiquette. His(?) take was that using your cell phone while out to dinner with someone is unconditionally rude. It’s been my experience that no taboo is universal. The person I was talking to didn’t seem to understand this. “Of course, if every participant doing it, it might be acceptable, though I still wouldn’t agree with their choice. But it is disrespectful that your partner takes his time to spend with you and you just succumb to your addiction.” My point is that if everyone you’re with has no problem with it, then there is no problem. Certainly there’s some context required, too. Spending the entire meal playing Angry Birds is not the same as checking for updates on a loved one undergoing surgery.

Conveniently, Ben Johnson had a story on Marketplace Tech just a few days later. An inpatient treatment center for Internet addiction opened earlier this month in Pennsylvania. The director talked about how Internet addiction progressed from chat rooms and porn to day trading (and porn) to auction sites and social media (and porn). At one point, she referred to the Internet as a tool, which it is, but then went on to ascribe goodness and badness to it. Tools are not inherently good or bad; it’s the application of a tool that is good or bad. We don’t talk about “magazine addictions” because some people get addicted to Playboy or to Reader’s Digest.

Both of these cases strike me as examples of how our society has not yet caught up to the technology we use. Social norms, medical understanding, legal structures, and so on all need time to catch up to a world where communication is instantaneous and geographically-unbound. There’s a tendency to wring hands and say “this generation blah blah blah,” but people aren’t really any different than they were 100 years ago. The world we live in is different, and changing. But we change to fit it.

August 31, 2013

Liable for sending texts to drivers?

Filed under: Musings,The Internet — Tags: , , , , — bcotton @ 8:15 pm

On episode 225 of This Week in Law, the panel discussed a recent appeals court ruling in New Jersey. According to a summary by Jeremy Byellin, the court left open the possibility that someone sending a text message to a driver might be held liable for civil damages if the driver is distracted and gets into an accident. I haven’t been able to find the actual text of the decision, so all I have to go on is Byellin’s summary. Given that disclaimer, this seems like a questionable thing to put into a ruling. To be clear, the defendant in this case was not held liable. The court appears to be saying “but if you know someone is driving and will immediately look at your text, you may be partially liable for any damages they cause.”

From a theoretical perspective, it makes sense. If you know you’ll be distracting someone operating a four-wheeled killing machine, there’s a compelling interest to disincentivize such behavior. In the real world, this is tough to prove. The easiest defense is ignorance, since the court required active knowledge to hold a person liable. Unless the driver explicitly said “I’m driving and immediately viewing all messages I receive,” there’s little to prove that the sender had sufficient knowledge to be liable.

Even if the driver did send such a message, it might never see a court room. Because the parties to the conversation would likely delete incriminating messages and most carriers limit the amount of time they store messages, Byellin says “only a very narrow percentage of cases will the content actually be discoverable.”

TWiL panelist Gordon Firemark brought up an interesting point as well. Is the government repsonsible for distracting drivers with Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) messages? From the New Jersey ruling, the government would not be liable because it could not know if a particular recipient is driving. Still, it’s easy to see how this opens the door for additional litigation. Even if every defendant wins, there’s a real cost to having to defend against a suit.

The slippery slope that I find particularly interesting is the non-SMS case. Indiana’s texting-and driving law was wisely written to cover more than just SMS messages. However, a pedantic reading could apply it to any method of data transfer. GPS-enabled applications, such as Google Maps or Waze, can reasonably determine if a phone is mobile or not. By design, they distract drivers from the road. Could Google be sued for not disabling Maps while the car is in motion?

Probably not. Really, this is all just an academic exercise. To my knowledge, no one has ever been held liable for texting a driver, in part because it’s so monumentally difficult to prove the plaintiff’s case. But the fact that a court would basically invite unwinnable suits strikes as little more than a stimulus program for the Bar Association.

June 3, 2013

Student speech rights

Filed under: Musings,The Internet — Tags: , , , , — bcotton @ 7:30 am

To continue the legal theme from a few days ago (with the addition of some “old news is so exciting!”), a high school in Kansas suspended the senior class president for comments he made on Twitter. What did he say? ““Heights U” is equivalent to WSU’s football team“. WSU’s football team doesn’t exist. That’s it. For that, the school deemed his initial tweet and responses were disruptive to the school.

It’s not clear to me if the Heights High School is acting in accordance with legal precedent (their decision is certainly unjust, but that’s another matter). The Supreme Court has affirmed and re-affirmed restrictions on the free speech rights of students. Bethel School District v. Fraser, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, and Morse v. Frederick have all served to limit what students can say.

In Tinker v. Des Moines, the Court protected non-disruptive political speech, with the disruption being the critical factor. In Bethel, Hazelwood, and Morse the speech in question was part of a school-sanctioned activity even if the activity was not on school grounds (as in Morse). It would be a great stretch to consider Mr. Teague’s Twitter account to be a school-sanctioned activity, as it appears to be his personal account. To my knowledge, no Supreme Court ruling has ever addressed a school’s ability to restrict speech that occurs outside of school events.

Arguably, the concept of in loco parentis could be used to support the ability of schools to respond to behavior that happens outside the school. I don’t agree with this, but it would be interesting to see how this argument played out in the courts. In the meantime, I expect that this may end up being discussed in court rooms for years to come. If no suit is filed, it should at least be used as an exercise in high school government classes across the country.

May 30, 2013

Facebook’s post policing

Filed under: Musings,The Internet — Tags: , , , , — bcotton @ 9:59 pm

Casey Johnston had an article on Ars Technica today about Facebook’s announcement that they would step up monitoring and removal of what they deem to be hate speech. Because this appears to be driven by complaints from women’s advocacy groups, the commentary has been largely political. I’d like to set aside the specifics of this and focus on the general case. It’s an interesting move on Facebook’s part because it sets a precedent.

Long, long ago, when telephones were still a thing, there was a legal idea of a “common carrier” (it still exists, of course, I’m just employing some blogtistic license). Common carriers offered services to the general public and were generally prohibited from doing anything about the content. For example, AT&T could not cut off your phone service if you did nothing but swear and say profane things when you were on the phone.

Although phone provides are still considered common carriers, internet service providers (ISPs) generally are not. ISPs, while protected from liability under various laws (e.g. Comcast can’t be shut down because a customer used a Comcast connection to transmit child pornography), can [in my understanding] theoretically terminate service if they don’t like what you’re “saying” on your connection.

Moving up the stack, websites such as Facebook or Funnel Fiasco are neither ISPs nor are they telecommunications common carriers. The general consensus, though untested in court as far as I know, is that sites are privately owned and can allow or disallow whatever content they like. This seems to be a pretty reasonable position, but there’s a difference between Facebook and Funnel Fiasco.

Apart from having a smarter and better-looking founder, Funnel Fiasco doesn’t allow just anyone to have a presence on the site. Facebook, especially for businesses/organizations, is more than just a blog or a message board, it’s a key part of digital presence. While that doesn’t make it an ISP, it does move it away from being just a website. Perhaps some additional category (e.g. “hosting provider”) needs to enter the understanding in this context.

What makes Facebook’s policy interesting to me from my perch as an armchair lawyer is the selective enforcement. While they are well within their legal rights, does it set a dangerous precedent for them? By choosing to police some content, are they liable (legally or otherwise) for not policing other content? Can they be held liable for policing content when other substantially similar content was not policed? Can the publicness of Facebook make it a common carrier?

Eventually this will become better defined. Whether it be by legislation, regulation, or litigation.

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