Arts and Books and Technology12 Aug 2011 at 13:12 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl provides a satisfyingly complex immersion into a bleak Gibsonesque dystopian world of corporate bio-terrorism in the aftermath of an horrible global crash, with enough gritty detail for suspension of disbelief and a large helping of corruption, extortion, riots and murder. I was pleasantly surprised that this book is not about following a hero on some predictable quest… The cast is rather full of anti-heroes and great villains – which I find very refreshing. It is rare enough to be noted that there are enough intermingled competing conspiracies and characters with colliding trajectories that I could not guess where the plot was headed while all this was floating on the tide of political events. This book injected a large volume of of fresh air in its genre !

Free software and Mobile computing and Systems administration and Technology and Unix09 Aug 2011 at 11:17 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Oh noes – I’m writing about a Google product, again. The omnipresence of the big G in my daily environment is becoming a bit excessive, so I’m stepping up my vigilance about not getting dependent on their services – though I don’t mind them knowing everything about me. In that light, acquiring another Android communicator may not seem logical, but I’m afraid that it is currently the choice of reason : I would have paid pretty much any price for a halfway decent Meego device, but Nokia’s open rejection of its own offspring is just too disgusting to collude with. The Openmoko GTA04 is tempting, but it is not yet available and I need a device right now.

Android does not quite mean I have to remain attached to the Google tit : thanks to CyanogenMod there is now an Android distribution free of Google applications  – and it also offers a variety features and enhancements… Free software is so sweet !

As a bonus, CyanogenMod is also free of the hardware manufacturer’s pseudo-improvements or the carrier’s dubious customizations – those people just can’t keep themselves from mucking with software… Please keep to manufacturing hardware and providing connectivity – it is hard enough to do right that you don’t have to meddle and push software that no one wants !

So when I went shopping for a new Android device after my one year old daughter disappeared my three year-old HTC Magic, I made sure that the one I bought was compatible with CyanogenMod. I chose the Motorola Defy because it is water-resistant, somewhat rugged and quite cheap too. By the way, I bought it free from access provider SIM lock – more expensive upfront, but the era of subsidized devices is drawing to an end and I’m going to enjoy the cheaper subscriptions.

On powering-on the Defy, the first hurdle is to get past the mandatory Motoblur account creation – not only does Motorola insist on foisting its fat supplements on you, but it won’t let you access your device until you give it an email address… In case I was not already convinced that I wanted to get rid of this piece of trash, that was a nice reminder.

This Defy was saddled with some Android 2.2.2 firmware – I don’t remember the exact version. I first attempted to root it using Z4root, but found no success with that method. Then I tried with SuperOneClick and it worked, after some fooling around to find that USB debugging must not be enabled until after the Android device is connected to the PC – RTFM !  There are many Android rooting methods – try them until you find the one that works for you : there is much variety in the Android ecosystem, so your mileage may vary.

Now that I have gained control over a piece of hardware that I bought and whose usage  should therefore never have been restricted by its manufacturer in the first place, the next step is to put CyanogenMod on it. Long story short : I fumbled with transfers and Android boot loader functionalities that I don’t yet fully understand, so I failed and bricked my device. In the next installment of this adventure, I’m sure I’ll have a nice tale of success to tell you about – meanwhile this one will be a tale of recovery.

This brick situation is a Motorola Defy with blank screen and a lit white diode on its front. The normal combination of the power and volume keys won’t bring up the boot loader’s menu on start. But thanks to Motorola’s hardware restrictions designed to keep the user from modifying the software, the user is also kept from shooting himself in the foot and the Defy is only semi-bricked and therefore recoverable. Saved by Motorola’s hardware restrictions… Every cloud has a silver lining. But had the device been completely open and friendly to alien software, I would not have had to hack at it in the first place, I would not had bricked it and there would have been no need for saving the day – so down with user-hostile hardware anyway !

With the Motorola Defy USB drivers installed since the SuperOneClick rooting, I launched RSD lite 4.9 which is the Motorola utility for flashing Motorola Android devices. Here is the method for using RSD lite correctly. RSD lite immediately recognized the device connected across the USB cord. The trick was finding a suitable firmware in .sbf format. After a few unsuccessful attempts with French Android versions, I found that JRDNEM_U3_3.4.2_117-002_BLUR_SIGN_SIGNED
worked fine and promptly booted me back to some factory default – seeing the dreaded Motoblur signup screen was actually a relief, who would have thought ?

After re-flashing with RSD Lite, I found that there is a Linux utility for flashing Motorola Android devices :  sbf_flash – that would have saved me from borrowing my girlfriend’s Windows laptop… But I would have needed it for SuperOneClick though – isn’t it strange that support tools for Android are Windows-dependent ?

With CyanogenMod in place, my goal will be to make my personal information management system as autonomous as possible – for example I’ll replace Google Contacts synchronization with Funambol. CyanogenMod is just the starting point of trying to make the Android system somewhat bearable – it is still the strange and very un-Unixy world of Android, but is a pragmatic candidate for mobile software freedom with opportunities wide open.

But first I have to successfully transfer it to my Android device’s flash memory… And that will be for another day.

If you need further information about hacking Android devices, great places are Droid Forums and the XDA-Developpers forum – if you don’t go directly, the results of your searches will send you there anyway.

Identity management and Knowledge management and Social networking and Technology and The Web09 Jul 2011 at 2:21 by Jean-Marc Liotier

I have not read any reviews of Google Plus, so you’ll get my raw impressions starting after fifteen minutes of use – I guess that whatever they are worth, they bring more value than risking paraphrasing other people’s impressions after having been influenced by their prose.

First, a minor annoyance : stop asking me to join the chat. I don’t join messaging silos – if it is not open, I’m not participating. You asked, I declined – now you insist after every login and I find that impolite.

First task I set upon : set up information streams in and out of Google Plus. A few moments later it appears that this one will remain on the todo list for a while : there is not even an RSS feed with the public items… Hello ? Is that nostalgia for the nineties ? What good is an information processing tool that won’t let me aggregate, curate, remix and share ? Is this AOL envy ?

Then I move on toward some contacts management. I find the Circles interface is pretty bad. For starters, selecting multiple contacts and editing their Circles memberships wholesale is not possible – the pattern of editing the properties of multiple items is simple enough to be present and appreciated in most decent file managers (for editing permissions)… Sure it can be added later as it is not a structural feature, but still : for now much tedium ensues. Likewise, much time would be saved by letting users copy and paste contacts between circles. But all that is minor ergonomic nitpicking compared to other problems…

No hashtags, no groups… How am I supposed to discover people ? Where is the serendipity ? Instead of “Google Circles” this should be named “Google Cliques”. In its haste to satisfy the privacy obsessed, it seems that Google has forgotten that the first function of social networking software is to enable social behaviour… It seems that the features are focused on the anti-social instead. I can understand the absence of hashtags – spam is a major unresolved issue… But groups ? See Friendfeed to understand how powerful they can be – and they are in no way incompatible with the Circles model. It seems that selective sharing is what Google Plus is mostly about – public interaction and collaboration feels like an afterthought. This will please the reclusive, but it does not fit my needs.

Worse, the Circles feature only segments the population – it does nothing to organize shared interests : I may carefully select cyclists to put into my ‘cyclists’ Circle, but when I read the stream for that circle I’ll see pictures of their pets too. This does not help knowledge management in any way – it is merely about people management.

Finally Google is still stuck with Facebook, Twitter & al. in the silo era – the spirits of well known dinosaurs still haunt those lands. Why don’t they get on with the times and let users syndicate streams across service boundaries using open protocols such as Ostatus which an increasing number of social networking tools use to interoperate ? Google may be part of the technological vanguard of information services at massive scales, but cloning the worst features of competing services is the acme of backwardness.

Of course, this is a first release – not even fully open to subscription yet, so many features will be added and refined. But rough edges are not the reason of my dissatisfaction with Google Plus : what irks me most is the silo mentality and the very concept of Circles as the fundamental object for interaction management – no amount of polish will change the nature of a service built on those precepts.

I’ll keep an account on Google Plus for monitoring purposes, but for now and until major changes happen, that’s clearly not where I’ll be seeking intelligent life.

Mobile computing and Networking & telecommunications29 Jun 2011 at 15:13 by Jean-Marc Liotier

With UMTS now potentially available on all the frequency bands traditionally allocated to GSM, why are we still operating GSM there while UMTS offers nothing but improvements over it and all contemporary handsets support it. The question is particularly pressing since data traffic has for quite a while accounted for more than 90% of network usage in volume and grows faster than backhaul can be deployed and cells made smaller while spectral efficiency has become awfully close to theoretical optima. GSM data modes such as GPRS and its incremental improvements have their purpose well, but they are hacks shoehorning data into a TDM voice world – nothing like the native capabilities of UMTS. Of course, modern marketing knows the value of nostalgia as an advertising vector, but I suspect that the market of users who insist on GSM for nostalgia’s sake may not be sufficient to justify its cost.

Some manufacturers nowadays offer unified RAN infrastructure that supports both UMTS and GSM on a single piece of equipment – and many antennas are now multiband, but there is still an awful amount of specific equipment with the associated duplicated costs… And then there is the effort of maintaining the software for two entirely independent systems, each with its own bugs, quirks and yearly upgrades attempting to squeeze more throughput out of a slice of spectrum that is not going to expand – a single large operator typically has dozens of people whose workload could be cut in half overnight. I for one would love to spend more time on GIS software for the fiber optics infrastructure and less dealing with the Jurassic park.

So what are we waiting for ? Don’t we understand that frequencies are too precious to be wasted on obsolete protocols ? Let’s recycle ! Let GSM retire ! Taiwan’s ministry of transportation and communications is already working on it

Knowledge management and Politics and Technology28 Jun 2011 at 22:51 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Open data is the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. Share, remix, reuse – just do it for fun, for profit and for the public good… Once the data is liberated, good things will follow ! Alas, some Cassandra beg to differ.

Can the output of a process based entirely on publicly available data be considered unfit for public availability ? As Marek Mahut explains in “The danger of transparency: A lesson from Slovakia“, the answer is ‘yes’ according to a court in Bratislava who ordered immediate censorship of some information produced by an application whose input is entirely composed of publicly available data.

As a French citizen, I’m not surprised – for more than thirty years, our law has recognized how the merging of data sources is a danger to privacy.

I was prepared to translate the relevant section of the original French text of “Act N°78-17 of 6 January 1978 on data processing, data files and individual liberties” for you… But in its great benevolence, my government has kindly provided an official translation – so I’ll use that… Here is the relevant extract :

Chapter IV, Section 2 : Authorisation
Article 25
I. – The following may be carried out after authorisation by the “Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés” , with the exception of those mentioned in Articles 26 (State security and criminal offences processing) and 27 (public processing NIR, i.e. social security number – State biometrics –census – e-government online services):
5° automatic processing whose purpose is:
– the combination of files of one or several legal entities who manage a public service and whose purposes relate to different public interests;
– the combination of other entities’ files of which the main purposes are different.

Short version : if you want to join data from two isolated sources, you need to ask and receive authorization first, on a case-by-case basis.

That law only applies to personal data, which it defines (Chapter I, Article 2) as ‘any information relating to a natural person who is or can be identified, directly or indirectly’. That last word opens a big can of worms : data de-anonymization techniques have shown that with sufficient detail, anonymous data can be linked to individuals. With that knowledge, one may consider that the whole Open Data movement falls in the shadow of that law.

To my knowledge this question has not yet been brought before a court, so there is therefore no case law to guide us… But it is only a matter of time – watch this space !

Brain dump and Knowledge management and The Web and Writing13 May 2011 at 0:23 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Using this blog for occasional casual experience capitalization means that an article captures and shares a fragment of knowledge I have managed to grasp at a given moment. While this frozen frame remains forever still, it may become stale as knowledge moves on. Comments contributed by the readers may help in keeping the article fresh, but  that only lasts as long as the discussion. After a while, part of article is obsolete – so it is with some unease that I see some old articles of dubious wisdom keep attracting traffic on my blog.

Maybe this unease is the guilt that  comes with publishing in a blog – a form of writing whose subjective qualities can easily slide into asocial  self-centered drivel. Maybe I should sometimes let those articles become wiki pages – an useful option given to  contributors on some question & answers sites. But letting an article slide into the bland utilitarian style of a wiki would  spoil some of my narcissic writing fun. That shows that between the wiki utility and the blog subjectivity no choice must be made : they both have their role to play in the community media mix.

So what about the expiration date ? I won’t use one : let obsolete knowledge, false trails, failed attempts and disproved theories live forever with us for they are as useful to our research as the current knowledge, bright successes and established theories that are merely the end result of a process more haphazard than most recipients of scientific and technical glory will readily admit. To the scientific and technical world, what did not work and why it did not work is even more important than what did – awareness of failures is an essential raw material of the research process.

So I am left with the guilt of letting innocent bystanders hurt themselves with my stale drivel which I won’t even point to for fear of increasing its indecently high page rank. But there is not much I can do for them besides serving the articles with their publication date and hope that the intelligent reader will seek contemporary confirmation of a fact draped in the suspicious fog of a less informed past with an author even less competent than he is nowadays…

Jabber and Mobile computing and Networking & telecommunications09 May 2011 at 14:02 by Jean-Marc Liotier

I have owned an an HTC “G2″ Magic for almost two years and one of my biggest disappointments with the Android operating system has been my inability to find a decent Jabber client. On the desktop, my love of Psi has been going on for half a decade but my encounters with mobile Jabber clients have been nothing but disappointments.

On Android in the past two years I have tried them all, including notables such as Jabbdroid, Beem, Jabiru, Yaxim, Emess and many others not even worth citing. Some of them are hampered by a slow graphical user interface, some deplete batteries in a hurry, some lack features I consider essential, some even crash on receiving a message and not a single one is capable of remaining connected while the radio segment hops from GPRS to UMTS to Wi-Fi and back again… They won’t even try to reconnect – leaving me slack-jawed at the lack of such a basic feature when there is even a standard Android class that notifies applications when network connectivity changes.

Enter Xabber – it does everything I expect from an Android Jabber client. Yes, it really does – you can drop that unbelieving face. I’ll spare you the whole features list… Let’s just focus on what I was looking for :

  • Permanent tray icon as link to contacts lists
  • vCard based avatars
  • XMPP priorities
  • Groups
  • Contacts list management
  • TLS/SSL support
  • Full Unicode support
  • Chat history
  • Parameters for just enough customization
  • Multi User Chat – you can even join multiple rooms
  • Does not deplete the batteries too quickly
  • Reconnects promptly after each disconnection while the radio segment hops from GPRS to UMTS to Wi-Fi and back again

As a bonus it publishes geographical location, but I have no idea where it gets it from, nor if it is supposed to implement XEP-0080.

Don’t you love the feeling of discovering a new application and finding that it behaves the way you expect, as if the developers had been reading your mind and making helpful suggestions about the fuzzy parts of what they had read ? On Android K-9 Mail is the only other example I can think about… Yes, Xabber is that good.

The only downside of Xabber is that the code is not free… The site does not even mention a license. So you don’t know what lies hidden inside, you can’t modify it and you are at the mercy of the developer changing his mind and starting to ask for money for further versions. But even as a Free software fanboy I’m willing to live with that for now – I’m so relieved to at last have something that works.

From now on, expect to find me online while I’m on the move !

Edit 20130130 – Xabber is now Free Software !

Cooking and Health and Meta09 May 2011 at 13:03 by Jean-Marc Liotier

I used to be the worst local emitter of greenhouse gases. This was not just a matter of occasional mild annoyance for a few unlucky individuals in my immediate vicinity, it was a permanent Bhopal-scale industrial catastrophe unleashing wide-area soul-rotting pestilence on hapless populations… Who did not run away fast enough from the invisible abomination was left twitching on the ground, gasping for non-existent air. Needless to say, my apartment was a strictly non-smoking area.

I was also an expert at going on as if nothing happened while feigning to ignore the origin of the pollution, so credibly playing innocent that some of my co-workers suspected an actual problem with sewer piping in our high-tech office building – the Camorra’s illegal toxic waste disposal operators would be proud. But contrary to widespread rumors, none of my co-workers has ever been spotted bringing a canary along to his workplace.

Anyway, I’m relieved to come out with apologies and a hopeful announcement that those days are past… Afters years of unsuccessful experimentation with various remedies and diet alterations, I have finally found the cause…

Activated charcoal had no effect, anything else my physician prescribed had no effect, antibiotics given on occasion of some intestinal infection did help temporarily but there was the collateral damage of killing all intestinal flora – and antibiotics are not a long-term solution anyway. Contrary to most suspicions, the humongous volumes of vegetables I ingest daily were not the cause – nor was my high-fiber diet. My physician was short of hypothesis to test and even less of potential solutions.

Gone on a personal crusade against intestinal methane-producing bacteria, I ended up systematically eliminating food classes from my diet, each over a week-long period, and noting the incidence on my flatulence. The conclusion of my research : I have become lactose-intolerant.

Eliminating all dairy consumption from my diet reliably reduced flatulence to negligible levels – it took less than two days for the effect to become manifest. I have also long known that dried fruits such as apricot are notable contributors, but the effect if marginal compared to what lactose does to me. For a while I had put the blame on breakfast cereals, but that was the result of a mistake in my experimental protocol : eliminating the breakfast cereals reduced milk intake at the same time.

It feels a bit strange – I had become so used to the permanent bloating, intestinal rumblings and disturbed lower intestinal tract that I had forgotten how life is without them – especially as they had notably worsened in the last years. The feeling of relief is simply awesome and a big cause of the smile I have been harboring for the past few days. As a bonus, I suspect that lactose may have been a contributor to some of my mild knee pains.

Anyways – enjoy the good news and if you have a similar problem, be sure to check that you are not intolerant to lactose. And if you suffer from an ailment for which no one finds the cure, despair not – take the matter in your own hands and start experimenting… After all, no one knows you as well as yourself. So there, a message of hope – sometimes the solution has always been in front of you, waiting for you to see it if you make the effort of looking for it with even the slightest amount of scientific inquiry.

Meanwhile, I’m now enjoying the wonderful flavours of rice milk, almond milk, soy milk, horchata de chufas, spelt milk, quinoa milk and many other sorts of grain milks and vegetable milks – all different and all tasting great. I liked them before ending my cow milk consumption, but I was finding them a bit pricey… Now I have the perfect pretext to splurge on better quality food ! In addition, that fits nicely with my health policy of reducing consumption of animal proteins in favour of  proteins from vegetable sources. Did I mention I’m happy ?

Military and Politics11 Mar 2011 at 19:00 by Jean-Marc Liotier

In his usual grandstanding style, Nicolas Sarkozy has made bold statements about limited air strikes against Libyan targets which include Gaddafi’s Bab al-Azizia command headquarters in Tripoli, an important airbase in Sirte and the key Sebha military complex in the south.

Apart from the slight diplomatic problem that this theatrical gesture has little support across Europe and the ethical problem of banking on emotional reaction to jockey for post-revolutionary oil contracts, there is the technical problem of how to proceed against the Libyan air defense network – here are a few extracts from Sean O’Connor’s excellent analysis in May 2010 :

Libya possesses one of the most robust air defense networks on the African continent, falling second only to Egypt in terms of coverage and operational systems. Libyan strategic SAM assets are primarily arrayed along the coastline, ostensibly defending the bulk of the Libyan population and preventing foreign incursion into Libyan airspace.

Part of the current problem stems from international sanctions placed on Libya during the 1980s which effectively stifled any serious chances of upgrading or replacing obsolete systems. The rest of the problem lies in the systems themselves. All three strategic SAM types operated by Libya have been thoroughly exploited by Western intelligence agencies, and many Western nations have faced these same systems in combat at various times, allowing for continued refinement of ECM systems designed to defeat these weapons electronically. Also, no strategic SAM system operated by Libya possesses a multi-target engagement capability. The only SAM sites representing a threat to multiple aircraft are the S-200 locations, as they possess multiple 5N62 (SQUARE PAIR) engagement radars. As such, even though Libyan strategic SAM sites are arrayed to provide overlapping fields of fire while defending a given area, the relatively small number of sites represents a threat to only a small number of targets. As a result, the overall network is easily susceptible to oversaturation.

The second drawback to Libya’s strategic SAM network is one of layout. If it is accepted that older Soviet-era systems may still be reliable against regional aggressors lacking modern, sophisticated EW or ECM suites, the system still has a significant number of gaps that could be exploited. The S-200 represents the only significant over water threat, but is constrained by having a minimum engagement altitude of 300 meters. Any terrain-hugging aircraft or cruise missiles would easily be able to exploit this weakness to approach the Libyan coastline. Once the coastline has been reached, the most obvious point of ingress would be the area adjacent to the Gulf of Sidra, which is devoid of deployed strategic SAM assets. Furthermore, as evidenced in the image seen previously, there are gaps between areas covered by S-75 and S-125 batteries which could also be exploited. This does not of course take into account the presence or performance of interceptors, AAA, or tactical SAM units, as these systems are outside the scope of this analysis.

At the end of the day, the Libyan strategic SAM network requires a massive infusion of new technology to remain viable in the twenty first century. It was not capable of repelling an attack over twenty years ago, and there is no reason to suspect that it will be capable of such action today.

The article overall dismisses an aging system with gaping deficiencies, but expressions such as “easily susceptible to oversaturation” betray the bias of USian abundance : few nations can casually assemble a strike package of 45 aircraft and send it over Libya like the USA did in 1986. And it is not just quantity – few nations have anywhere near the SEAD capability of the USA… Certainly not France in any case.

Unlike Tornado ECR users who still operate AGM-88 HARM, France has not had anti-radar missiles since it removed the AS37 Martel from service in the early 1990s. France has no dedicated SEAD assets left… Is maintenance of law and order in the colonies the only ambition of independent action that France can afford nowadays ? Of course, even when a consensus is beyond European diplomatic means, France is supposed to cooperate with its close allies for a semblance of international credibility… But the ally that holds the critical assets still has considerably more influence over how the decisions of the coalition. In Europe, Germany and Italy are the only nations left to operate specialized SEAD aircraft. Is France doomed ? Not yet : there is more to this story than just anti-radiation missiles

You remember that the AGM-88 HARM did not produce very good results during the1999 NATO campaign in Yugoslavia. According to one senior serving aircrew officer, US and German aircrew fired around 100 HARMs at a particular Yugoslavian target without success. It may be exaggeration, but word on the Web is that the HARM is nowadays quite easy to spoof. The ALARM did much better, but it may have been compromised as one has been captured intact after having failed to self-destruct. Times are tough for anti-radar missiles

Just because anti-radar missiles are nowadays easy to spoof and still expensive to boot, doesn’t mean that the need for SEAD has gone away. So how is the French air force going to handle that problem ? The answer might lie in the AASM, a French precision-guided munition developed by Sagem and combined with Spectra, the very underrated integrated defensive aids suite developed by Thales for the Dassault Rafale. I just learned about that combination today and what I read on page seven of this November 2009 electronic warfare newsletter is impressive… But since it is in French I’m going to translate and adapt the relevant part for you :

The proposed concept is based on :

– Identification of the approximate coordinates of the fire control vehicles, using previous reconnaissance or on-board sensors such as the Rafale’s Spectra

– Automated target acquisition in terminal phase: even with imprecise initial designation, the IR sensor aboard the AASM enables precise impact on a non-moving vehicle.

Two engagement methods are available, according to range :

– Against short and medium range systems, the scenario that takes best advantage of the AASM’s capabilities is to locate it approximately using the Spectra. Then, as soon as sufficient location precision has been obtained, an AASM may be fired and forgotten – even at off-boresight angles.

– Against long range systems, low altitude long distance approach using terrain masking is preferred and initial target acquisition by a third party is necessary. The launch sequence is then identical to the other scenario.

No costly and spoofable seeker is required. With a 250 kg munition, the AASM carries three to five times as much explosives as dedicated anti-radar missiles, and airburst makes the most of the fragmentation pattern.

Near-vertical terminal course enhances precision by making errors in the estimation of target altitude much less relevant – an important factor since radio-goniometry’s altitude estimates are much less precise than its measurements in the horizontal plane.

In the future, the IR seeker may transmit terminal target acquisition images to the launching aircraft, thus providing instant improvement in battle damage assessment.

Exploiting mostly existing capabilities of the Rafale and of the AASM, the SEAD mission would once more demonstrate the system’s flexibility.

Now, that article was written by someone from the AASM program at Sagem, so the careful reader might want to discount part of the performance boasts as infomercial propaganda… But if even is just some of it is true, then France is actually taking the lead in a new generation of SEAD capabilities. Nevertheless, this wonderful piece of kit has never been involved in anything more taxing than gunboat diplomacy and neo-colonial policing on the coattails of the USA… No one will believe it works until it is proven in combat against more substantial adversaries. And most important, I have not found confirmation that the SEAD capability of the Rafale+AASM combo has reach operational status.

The AASM itself though has seen action in Afghanistan – so we know it works. Considering that each AASM costs 143k€ and that each Rafale flight hour costs 37k€, the critics humorously calculated that it won’t take that many insurgents for the French state to go broke on bombing budget alone… But we suspect that the real point of using fancy pants Rafale with AASM instead of plain old  Mirage 2000 with laser guided bombs is that someone wanted to put the “combat proven” sticker on it to flog it on the international market. With that perspective and Nicolas Sarkozy’s track record of colluding with powerful commercial players, it is easy to imagine a Libyan campaign as a sales demonstration – but of course that would be gross oversimplification : Sarkozy’s diplomatic bet on the protesters for post-revolutionary benefits if not innocent either, but it is a much more serious matter… Though it mostly caters to the same interests.

YGTBSM you say ? We may now need a French word for that undomesticated carnivorous furry little mustelidae

Systems administration02 Mar 2011 at 22:13 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Today I landed my mandatory corporate Windows laptop at a desk supporting a nice 24″ monitor. Willing to take advantage of the available extra display real estate, I plug the DE-15F cable into the laptop’s D-subminiature video port and proceed to set the extra monitor’s resolution in the “Settings” tab of the “Display Properties” dialog. Alas 1280×800 pixels is the most I can set – it is the laptop’s main display’s resolution and it is far below the 1920×1200 pixels the secondary display is capable of. Shutting off and on the monitor, disconnecting and reconnecting the cable on the laptop’s port, putting the laptop to sleep and even rebooting… Nothing worked : it seemed that the system was not detecting the monitor properly and chose to handle it with some sort of default resolution. I even uninstalled the operating system’s monitor drivers – with no visible result.

Suspecting a hardware problem I decided to check all the connections. A quarter of a century of experience has taught me that connections are the most frequent cause of incidents. I reseated and properly screwed the cable to the monitor… And I was mildly surprised to see the display properties settings tab let me choose the monitor’s nominal resolution at last. My instincts had been vindicated.

What happened was a loose VGA cable. All the pins necessary for display were making contact, but some of the ones necessary for plug’n’pray detection were not. Mere visual inspection could not have found that – only reseating the connector makes the problem evident by solving it. I’m not sure I would be able to misconnect the cable just right to reproduce this situation if I wanted to…

And that’s how I learned about Display Data Channel, a collection of digital communication protocols between a computer display and a graphics adapter that enables the display to communicate its supported display modes to the adapter. I’m sure you won’t resist following this link to learn about DDC1, DDC2, DDC/CI and E-DDC to understand some basic technology working in the shadows, taken for granted until it stops functioning…

Code and Free software and Networking & telecommunications and Systems administration and Unix01 Mar 2011 at 20:06 by Jean-Marc Liotier

I loathe Facebook and its repressive user-hostile policy that provides no value to the rest of the Web. But like that old IRC channel known by some of you, I keep an account there because some people I like & love are only there. I seldom go to Facebook unless some event, such as a comment on one of the posts that I post there through Pixelpipe, triggers a notification by mail. I would like to treat IRC that way: keeping an IRC application open and connected is difficult when mobile or when using the stupid locked-down mandatory corporate Windows workstation, and I’m keen to eliminate that attention-hogging stream from my environment – especially when an average of two people post a dozen lines a day, most of which are greetings and mealtimes notifications. But when a discussion flares up there, it is excellent discussion… And you never know when that will happen – so you need to keep an eye on the channel. Let’s delegate the watching to some automation !

So let me introduce to you to my latest short script : – it sends IRC log lines by mail when a specific string is mentioned by other users. Of course in the present use case I set it up to watch for occurrences of my nickname, but I could have set it to watch any other string. The IRC logging is done by the bip IRC proxy that among other things keeps me permanently present on my IRC channels of choice and provides me with the full backlog whenever I join with a regular IRC client.

This Unix shell script also uses ‘since’ – a Unix utility similar to ‘tail’ that unlike ‘tail’ only shows the lines appended since the last execution. I’m sure that ‘since’ will come handy in the future !

So there… I no longer have to monitor IRC – does it for me.

With trivial modification and the right library it could soon do XMPP notifications too – send me an instant message if my presence is ‘available’ and mail otherwise. See you next version !

Politics22 Feb 2011 at 13:57 by Jean-Marc Liotier

The Economist’s Democracy Index 2010 ranks France as a “flawed democracy” with a score below South Africa and Italy.

“France — full democracy to flawed democracy

Various negative political trends in France in recent years have resulted in the country being downgraded to the flawed democracy category. Public confidence in political parties and the government is extremely low. Surveys also show that citizens’ engagement with politics has declined. The degree of popular support for democracy is among the lowest in the developed world. One in seven do not agree that democracy is better than any other form of government. The chasm between the country’s citizens and its political elites has widened. Outbreaks of violent rioting in recent years are another symptom of the country’s political malaise. Under the French political system, the president wields huge power. The autocratic and domineering style of the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, threatens to undermine democratic traditions. There has been increasing anti-Muslim sentiment and emphasis on the country’s Christian roots during the Sarkozy presidency. Pressure on journalists and the electronic media have led to a decline in media freedoms”.

No need to comment – The Economist’s analysis speaks for itself and I believe it does reflect the situation of my country. What is a French citizen to do ?

Networking & telecommunications and Security and Systems administration07 Feb 2011 at 13:04 by Jean-Marc Liotier

I work for a very large corporation. That sort of companies is not inherently evil, but it is both powerful and soulless – a dangerous combination. Thus when dealing with it, better err on the side of caution. For that reason, all of my browsing from the obligatory corporate Microsoft Windows workstation is done trough a SSH tunnel established using Putty to a trusted host and used by Mozilla Firefox as a SOCKS proxy. If you do that, don’t forget to set network.proxy.socks remote DNS to true so that you don’t leak queries to the local DNS server.

In addition to the privacy benefits, a tunnel also gets you around the immensely annoying arbitrary filtering or throttling of perfectly reasonable sites which mysterious bureaucracies add to opaquely managed exclusion lists used by censorship systems. The site hosting the article you are currently reading is filtered by the brain-damaged Websense filtering gateway as part of the “violence” category – go figure !

Anyway, back on topic – this morning my browsing took me to Internode’s IPv6 site and to my great surprise I read “Congratulations! You’re viewing this page using IPv6 (  2001:470:1f12:425::2 ) !!!!!”. A quick visit to the KAME turtle confirmed : the turtle was dancing. The surprising part is that our office LAN is IPv4 only and the obligatory corporate Microsoft Windows workstation has no clue about IPv6 – how could those sites believe I was connecting through IPv6 ? A quick ‘dig -x 2001:470:1f12:425::2’ cleared the mystery : the reverse DNS record reminded me that this address is the one my trusted host gets from Hurricane Electric’s IPv6 tunnel server.

So browsing trough a SOCKS proxy backed by a SSH tunnel to a host with both IPv4 and IPv6 connectivity will use IPv6 by default and IPv4 if no AAAA record is available for the requested address. This behaviour has many implications – good or bad depending on how you look at it, and fun in any case. As we are all getting used to IPv6, we are going to encounter many more surprises such as this one. From a security point of view, surprises are of course not a good thing.

All that reminds me that I have not yet made this host available trough IPv6… I’ll get that done before the World IPv6 Day which will come on 8th June 2011 – a good motivating milestone !

Military and Politics and Social networking03 Feb 2011 at 19:03 by Jean-Marc Liotier

In troubled times and under pressure from a government with powerful social networking analysis capabilities, the mere preliminary act of searching for co-conspirators and linking with them carries a lot of risk. Care in maintaining a anonymity reduces that risk, but the proper use of secure online communication tools is cumbersome, their use itself hints at subversive activity and the anonymous procurement of devices and mobile telephony accounts is yet another drag on the enthusiastic would-be clandestine operator.

In summary, proper risk mitigation techniques are beyond the casual level acceptable for fomenting mass action. As a result, frustrated citizens rising up fall back on existing social networks that were not designed for that purpose. The use of family relationships is the archetypal example though a dangerous one: even  if your government does not emulate Stalin by deporting your entire family after suspecting a single member, it makes tracing very easy using genealogy software as was the case during the USian occupation of Iraq. What is needed is an organization which is more distributed and capable of achieving critical mass fast.

This week, Algeria’s Football Federation has called off a planned friendly with neighbours Tunisia under the rather difficult to believe pretext that “the only two stadiums capable of hosting the match are both unavailable”. The real reason is actually the wave of massive protests that is currently rocking the Middle East. But what does football have to do with it ?

Paul Woodward reports an interview by the prominent Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah on Al Jazeera in which he made the interesting observation that the uprising’s most effective organizational strength comes from a quarter that has been ignored by most of the media: soccer fans known as ultras :

“The ultras — the football fan associations — have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment,” Alaa said. “Maybe we should get the ultras to rule the country,” he joked.

Cited by Paul Woodward, James M. Dorsey, an expert on soccer in the Middle East, writes:

Established in 2007, the ultras—modelled on Italy’s autonomous, often violent fan clubs—have proven their mettle in confrontations with the Egyptian police, who charge that criminals and terrorists populate their ranks.

“There is no competition in politics, so competition moved to the soccer pitch. We do what we have to do against the rules and regulations when we think they are wrong,” said an El Ahly ultra last year after his group overran a police barricade trying to prevent it from bringing flares, fireworks and banners into the stadium. “You don’t change things in Egypt talking about politics. We’re not political, the government knows that and has to deal with us,” he adds.

The involvement of organized soccer fans in Egypt’s anti-government protests constitutes every Arab government’s worst nightmare. Soccer, alongside Islam, offers a rare platform in the Middle East, a region populated by authoritarian regimes that control all public spaces, for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration.

This has not escaped Libya either, as this Google Translation excerpt of an Al Jazeera article mentioned by Zero Hedge attests : among other measures that are part of the state of emergency and security alert imposed since the outbreak of the revolution in Tunisia, the Libyan government abolished the league matches of Libyan Football Association which was to be organized during the following month.

When political organizations are crushed and political life driven underground and dispersed, only apolitical organizations remain – and they end up being politically involved because in the end, everything is political.

Politics and Technology and The media23 Dec 2010 at 12:56 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Bruce Sterling just wrote a wonderful melancholic essay on cypherpunks, Wikileaks, Julian Assange and the human society that forms their milieu. It may be the best piece so far to capture the character of Julian Assange.

Glancing over the comments, I stopped on this one – here is an extract:

[..] the people that run the governments of the world don’t get it at all. As the old guard “nationalists” die off there will be less and less reaction to this kind of thing to the point where it’s happening so much most things are just lost in the noise. I’m younger than Bruce, but not by much, however I know this much that he doesn’t seem to, in a world where the population has grown up with Facebook/MySpace/etc there is not even the expectation of privacy or secrets. Get over it. People will again have to start actually being polite to one another, or they’ll be exposed for all to see.

Personally, I do not believe that information which is solely classified because it’s embarrassing to a government should be. I also believe that people that work for the government should be honor bound to report when crimes are being committed, and that supersedes ALL other directives. Until we reach that state we will not have grown into adults as a society. Right now governments behave as children without adults behave. Read Lord of the Flies.

I disagree with him about expectations of privacy from the Facebook generation, but the rest rings true to me. But what hit me as I read it is his remark that “Ppople will again have to start actually being polite to one another, or they’ll be exposed for all to see” : this immediately reminded me of this Heinlein quote:

“An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life” – Robert A. Heinlein

One may not agree with Heinlein about whether citizens bearing arms is a good idea, but the fact is that the balance of power that was previously wholly on the side of the governments has just been slightly tipped back toward the citizens.

Will that make governments more polite toward their citizens ?

Brain dump and Knowledge management and Networking & telecommunications and Technology16 Dec 2010 at 13:19 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Piled Higher & Deeper and Savage Chickens nailed it (thanks redditors for digging them up) : we spend most of our waking hours in front of a computer display – and they are not even mentioning all the screens of devices other than a desktop computer.

According to a disturbing number of my parent’s generation, sitting in from of a computer makes me a computer scientist and what I’m doing there is “computing”. They couldn’t be further from the truth : as Edsger Dijkstra stated, “computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes”.

The optical metaphor doesn’t stop there – the computer is indeed transparent: it is only a windows to the world. I wear my glasses all day, and that is barely worth mentioning – why would using a computer all day be more newsworthy ?

I’m myopic – without my glasses I feel lost. Out of my bed, am I really myself if my glasses are not connected to my face ?

Nowadays, my interaction with the noosphere is essentially computer-mediated. Am I really myself without a network-attached computer display handy ? Mind uploading still belongs to fantasy realms, but we are already on the way toward it. We are already partly uploaded creatures, not quite whole when out of touch with the technosphere, like Manfred Macx without his augmented reality gear ? I’m far not the only one to have been struck by that illustration – as this Accelerando writeup attests :

“At one point, Manfred Macx loses his glasses, which function as external computer support, and he can barely function. Doubtless this would happen if we became dependent on implants – but does anyone else, right now, find their mind functioning differently, perhaps even failing at certain tasks, because these cool things called “computers” can access so readily the answers to most factual questions ? How much of our brain function is affected by a palm pilot ? Or, for that matter, by the ability to write things down on a piece of paper ?”

This is not a new line of thought – this paper by Andy Clark and David Chalmers is a good example of reflections in that field. Here is the introduction :

“Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin? The question invites two standard replies. Some accept the demarcations of skin and skull, and say that what is outside the body is outside the mind. Others are impressed by arguments suggesting that the meaning of our words “just ain’t in the head”, and hold that this externalism about meaning carries over into an externalism about mind. We propose to pursue a third position. We advocate a very different sort of externalism: an active externalism, based on the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes”.

There is certainly a “the medium is the message” angle on that – but it goes further with the author and the medium no longer being discrete entities but part of a continuum.

We are already uploading – but most of us have not noticed yet. As William Gibson puts it: the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.

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