New Iain M. Banks novel - Surface Detail (review)

More randomness!

I just finished reading Iain M. Banks' new(ish) book, Surface Detail - on my new ebook reader, since I managed to leave mine on a plane. Sigh. I was actually really disappointed in it, and after seeing tons of positive reviews online, thought I should lay into it like the miserable contrarian bastard I am (and also, it's a nice change of pace from laying into Canonical, huh?)

I'm going to review this in a way that involves tons of spoilers and sort of assumes you've read the other Culture books, because I'm lazy and it's easier that way. If you haven't read the others or are worried about spoilers, you'll either be bored or annoyed, so you can stop reading now.

Okay, then. So, the positive reviews of Surface Detail (SD) seem spectacularly weakly justified: the mainstream press reviewed it in the way they usually do when they send a non-specialist journalist to review a science fiction book, i.e. poorly. They either pan it because it's too confusing or praise it for its incredible ideas and originality (which usually appear incredible and original to the journalist in question only because their entire previous experience with sf was seeing Avatar). In this case, the reviews tended overwhelmingly to the latter.

What are the big ideas in SD? The only one that's new in the context of the Culture books is the book's maguffin (the conceit that drives the plot): Awesome Future Processing Power makes near-perfect virtual reality possible (and relatively trivial) - this is nothing new, and has been in previous Banks books - and, new twist!, some silly cultures decide to use it to create afterlifes. Including realizations of their cultural equivalents of Hell, where people who've behaved badly are sent to be punished.

As noted, the idea of perfect virtual realities is frankly humdrum by sf standards, it's a common trope. I haven't come across the concept of virtual hells before; so let's give Banks credit for something new (or at least unusual). Okay. That's about as far as the good news goes, though.

The biggest problem with the idea is that it's just not fundamentally interesting or incisive. I happen to believe that no version of hell actually exists - I'm not going into my personal religious views here, it's not really relevant - and I'm fairly sure Banks thinks the same. It's at least a defensible point of view, even if it's not true. The key thing here is that you can do all the psychosocial extrapolations you like from the concept of Hell without the added conceit of technologically-sophisticated cultures making them sort-of-really-real. The fact that the human (or, in Banksian terms, pan-human) psyche seems to come up with the concept with depressing regularity is the interesting thing here, and you don't need the device of virtual reality hells to consider its implications. The best sf uses speculation to illuminate things in ways that are difficult or impossible to do without invoking speculation; the fact that SD's only really Big New Idea doesn't illuminate anything that can't be discussed without the need to invoke speculative futures doesn't bode well for the book.

There's several other problems with the idea, too. The second biggest is that it really isn't terribly plausible, at least in the terms of the Culture universe. One of the idiosyncracies of sf is the classic idea-trap: creators get to make up parameters more or less on a whim in their early works, but if these become popular and they either want to continue within the same universe (or continuity or whatever), or are pressured to by fans / publishers / whatever, they get hemmed into the parameters they made up willy-nilly to serve the narrative needs of earlier works but now can't vary. They develop gigantic encyclopedias of races and tech specs and predispositions and distances and locations and so on and so forth and blah blah, so do a bunch of obsessive fans who will delight in pointing out where previously laid-down 'laws' are being infringed, and everything gets leaden and contrived. SD shows definite signs of Banks getting dragged into this trap. The main plotline of the book, involving the Hells and a contrived fake war being fought over their future and various intrigues surrounding that war involving various species of vastly differing tech levels, forces Banks into spectacular contortions to try and fit everything into the parameters he'd previously established for the Culture universe, which really don't succeed. The cracks become painfully visible. Even worse, the contortions involve large chunks of dull exposition which serve no purpose and fail to interest the reader. Various characters - mostly Minds - pop in every so often to explain regulations about technological transfer and suchlike things which have never cropped up in the series before (do correct me, annoying fact checkers) and have clearly been hastily introduced when Banks thought through various potential objections to the plausibility of the storyline. Even with this, loose ends and vastly implausible bits hang around all over the place.

Perhaps the biggest of these is the ending of the book centring around Veppers' estate housing the virtual Hells; this seems unlikely in the extreme. Veppers is a member of a civilisation which barely counts as an infant in the terms of the Culture universe; it's laughably technologically backward and vanishingly tiny in terms of actual size and influence over the greater galactic meta-civilization. Why would anyone trust a member of such a kiddy-pool species to run its terribly-culturally-significant virtual afterlives? How would such a deal even have happened? Why wouldn't they just run the things on computers stuck in some random out-of-the-way corner of one of their solar systems, or more likely, someone else's, or an uninhabited one? That would make them a lot less detectable and save the trouble of entering into apparently secret and, by the rules established in the book, highly illegal (on the galactic scale) technological agreements with a far inferior civilization.

The book teems with these problems, though. To pick another gaping one, the subplot involving two characters who are involved in a sketchily-drawn conspiracy to 'reveal' the existence of one of these Hells is deeply flawed. These sections include some of the best writing in the book, but the whole subplot just doesn't hang together. The book relies on the existence of the Hells being an apparently established fact, at a galactic scale, to the extent that two big bunches of civilizations decide to have a fake war to decide whether they should be allowed to continue to exist, which is galactic news and much discussed by all the 'in-play' civilizations. Yet we're asked to believe that two members of one Hell-having civilization would be able to cause huge shockwaves within their own society by exposing the existence of its Hell. This isn't remotely logically consistent. Banks makes a half-hearted attempt to wriggle out of this glaring inconsistency by suggesting that the members of the society sort of know on some level that the Hell exists but think that it's not as bad as it really is, or very small, or dormant, or something; but this really fails to wash at all, and the author doesn't even seem particularly committed to it. He puts the final nail in the coffin by later realizing that in the society he's drawn up, the pro-Hell political forces would easily be able to discredit the anti-Hell cabal's 'revelations', and quickly inserting an appeal to higher authority - some kind of ill-defined galactic level tribunal or review; if the society in question is in-play to the extent of being part of this galactic-level process - and indeed apparently submitting to its judgments - how can it be unaware or somehow in denial of the existence of its own Hell to the extent Banks suggests it is?

It just fundamentally doesn't work. In a way these criticisms sound like nitpicking, but when the implausibilities in question lie in major plot points, the effect is much more than to make you stop and scratch your head a bit; it causes the whole book to appear contrived and unconvincing.

The problem of the Hells allows me to move right into the next major problem with the book, which is its excruciatingly bald political polemic. There's clearly a heavy metaphorical element to the Hells of the book; especially in the Prin sequences, they're meant to represent Guantanamo Bay and, more generally, the icky things societies tend to condone by inaction and then (the contention appears to be) conveniently forget about. The metaphor fails, though; in the case of societies in general and the U.S. and Guantanamo Bay specifically, it would be nice to believe that people just don't really understand what goes on and if some heroic crusader were to expose the truth, everyone would recoil in horror and the injustice would be ended, but it's not true. I'd say it's fairly clear that most people in the U.S. actually have a reasonably good idea what goes on at Guantanamo Bay - and, again, in the more general case, in many cases throughout history, people have been pretty well aware of fairly horrible things agents of their societies are doing to others - and broadly approve, in a 'well, it's nasty, but it's justified to prevent Jihadist terrorism / whatever' kind of a way. Banks (and anyone else) is perfectly free to disagree and to push their side of the argument, but to suggest - as the metaphor of the Hells does - that anyone who supports a society breaking the rules it claims to abide by within itself in order to defend itself from a perceived outside threat is simply in denial or misinformed is dubiously supported by any kind of hard evidence and, frankly, somewhat patronizing. In the horribly pat epilogue to the book, Banks draws a rosy picture of a galactic future in which the concept of Hell is abhorred forever and indeed used as a measuring stick of a society's fundamental level of maturity, which is nice, but glib and unconvincing...

...much like the even more glaring political polemic element of the book, in the 'main' storyline involving Veppers, the incredibly powerful member of a comically backward society who creakily contrives to have The Future in his palms, and the woman he kills at the start of the book and (this being sf) who shows up again to kill him at the end of it.

Banks is a good old Scottish socialist, to an extent a member of the weirdly prominent strain of old-school Scottish socialist sf writers in British sf. The Culture has long been a vision of socialism, so vilified at present, winning out utterly in the (very) far future of humanity when we're so damn advanced that there's no scarcity of anything any more, and no-one actually has to work for a living. It's fun because it's daring, at the time it was genuinely new, and it's very plausible, if you take a long enough view of events (though it's hardly the only plausible future vision). Not content with using this as a kind of background for much more complex and nuanced stories as he generally did previously, though, in SD Banks decides to take obvious pleasure in beating us around the head with the innate superiority of the caring, sharing Culture and the hideousness of all go-getter capitalism, ever, as conveniently personified in Veppers.

Veppers, you see, is incredibly rich, and powerful. We are constantly and unsubtly bombarded with cues as to how rich and powerful he is. When this isn't enough, we get a couple of pages at a time of teeth-grindingly dull exposition about exactly how rich and powerful he is. He's rich and powerful, you see. Just in case you didn't get that, he's rich and powerful.

Now, if you're a good socialist this is reason enough to hate him already, but if you're not, Banks makes it easy for you by making him utterly repellent personally, morally, ethically and in every other way he can come up with. He's a rapist, a murderer both personal and on the grand scale, both active and passive, a guy who manipulates everyone around him for the sheer fun and pleasure of it, a narcissist, a philistine, and utterly devoid of any personal charm. Well, Banks tells us when it's convenient to the narrative that he is (or can be) terribly charming, but this is never evidenced anywhere in the text at all. The best he manages are extremely brief periods of 'horribly oily' between the long stretches of 'downright hideous'. This is a guy that Ayn Rand couldn't root for. Well, possibly Ayn Rand, but just about nobody else, ever.

This is, frankly, infantile, and a terribly disappointing climbdown from the deep personal complexities of characters in classic Banks books like Consider Phlebas and my personal favourite, Use of Weapons. It's not just Veppers, though. The disease extends to virtually every human character in the book. Each of them can be summed up in a line, or even a word. None of them convinces as a person. The most interesting, Vatueil, is more or less wasted and dissolves into virtual incomprehensibility by the end. They're all ultimately just boring representations of some single quality or idea for Banks to push around to promote his personal ideology. It's worth noting here that, personally, I'm quite sympathetic to Banks' beliefs - probably more so than to what he perceives to be their opposition. It's not as if this sticks in my craw because I don't agree with him; it sticks in my craw because it's basically simple-minded politicial propaganda, which isn't a lot of fun whether you agree with it or not.

The main narrative concludes with Lededje, who is a sort of lazily-drawn avatar whose motive for revenge is the engine for the narrative but is never interestingly analyzed or utilized, hunting Veppers down and killing him in his own grand estate's folly, a miniature battleship maze. This is a typically Banksian flourish, but it feels more like he's going through the motions than anything else. The vaguely similar conclusions to books like Use of Weapons or A Song of Stone were vibrant and compelling in their metaphor and narrative tightness; the conclusion of SD somehow contrives to be pat, flabby and pretentious all at the same time. The same ingredients could have produced a finale as compelling as those, if better handled and at the end of a better book. Here it just feels like a bunch of failed story ingredients lying around while the plot happens between them.

Lededje doesn't even kill Veppers, not really; her sentient tattoo, which was provided for her by a Mind (one of the fabulously smart artificial intelligences that more or less run the Culture) does it when she can't, because she's just too damn decent and of course not at all inclined to, or trained for, argy-bargy. If she were actually to kill him, there may - God forbid - be some strand of complexity introduced into her character. We know this because Banks-as-narrator and then Banks-through-the-voice-of-a-Mind, tells us about it, explicitly. Awkwardly. The Mind explains that it's doing the killing for her, via the tattoo, so she can live with a clear can we, as we get to rejoice in the death of Veppers without our avatar, Lededje, having actually done the evil deed. Well, whoop-de-freaking-do. In fact, it turns out at the conclusion of the book that Lededje has been essentially a passenger all along, just a game piece being played by various ship Minds who have been entirely in control of her actions the whole time (like several other characters in the book). This could almost be a clever ending, with the apparent grand revenge narrative of the book subtly undercut - if only Banks left it implied, as he would have done in vastly more elegant works like Inversions, and didn't beat us over the head with it by having the Mind in question explain everything in explicit detail. Well, in fact, even if he had, it wouldn't have worked, because he uses the same idea extensively in another section of the book, in a much more ham-fisted way. Other characters spend most of the book being carted around the galaxy by various ship Minds (stop me if you've heard this one before) as helpless cargo. Just in case this isn't obvious to the reader, both the Minds in question and Banks-as-narrator remind us of it. Repeatedly. In one particularly ham-fisted sequence, one character is in a Mind-ship as it fights a big space battle; for several pages the character in question tries to make sense of the vastly simplified (Banks makes extra-specially-sure we know it's vastly simplified) summary of the battle the Mind provides for them. In the end - ho, ho! - it becomes clear (well, it doesn't become clear, the Mind tells us so straight out) that the battle actually happened in half a picosecond or something, and the character is actually watching an action replay, on a timescale which is almost incomprehensibly fast to them but painfully slow to the Mind. We get it, already. Minds are massively superior to people and see them as something between toys and pets. The idea isn't even new to the series; it's been brought into play more elegantly, especially in Excession, before. Previously Banks imaginatively engineered situations in which (pan) humans could still be influential and important, to make the books more involving and, more cleverly, to examine the things that might still be unique to humanity after our raw intellectual power is overtaken by the artificial intelligences we initiate - again a fairly common sf trope, but one that's very fruitful and which Banks has previously been a master of. In SD, he doesn't bother. He just sees the idea of humans being vastly inferior to Minds and essentially useless to them as some sort of joke, and/or some kind of vastly insightful point of its own, and brings it into play repeatedly, unsubtly, and inelegantly.

The vehicle Banks used to navigate this tricky Mind/human interface in previous books was SC - Special Circumstances - a sort of formally-informal covert action group for the Culture. In SD he appears to have got bored of Special Circumstances and invents a bunch of new agencies. One deals with the inhabitants of artificial afterlives. One deals with post-physical (Sublimed, in Banksian terms) civilizations. One deals with semi-intelligent Von Neumann-type artificial life, another creaky plot device I won't go into in any detail. All of these new agencies just sort of sit there, not doing very much. They are introduced in more creaky early exposition. One of the allegedly-main characters, who really does very little and whose personal arc (well, it's more of a very short and almost-straight line) we are supremely uninterested in, is supposedly a member of the first of these, but at the very end of the book, turns out to be an SC plant - only she doesn't know this. Banks apparently thinks this is a shock twist on the level of the utterly stunning shock twist that ends Use of Weapons; in fact it's a dead letter, a twist that exists simply to be a twist. The fact that she actually did join SC, and then had her memory wiped to become an unknowing plant in Restoria - rather than being offered a post in SC and turning it down to join Restoria, simply to make a point to SC, as she believes - is indeed a twist you probably don't see coming, but so what? It means nothing. It doesn't spin your perception of the whole story on its axis as Weapons' twist does. It's just a twist that tries to make you think the author's being clever. Ultimately, the new agencies could have never existed at all and the character could have been a member of SC and nothing significant to the plot or the points Banks is trying to make would be changed in the slightest. Agents of the other two new agencies show up very briefly, to similarly minimal effect.

There's other stuff I meant to write about, but this very messy review is getting terribly long. Ultimately there's flashes of something good in here. Buried mostly in the Vatueil, Prin and Chay sequences there's the potential for one of Banks' beautifully dream-like and narratively elegant books featuring multi-faceted and interestingly flawed characters, a Use of Weapons or a Song of Stone or a Walking on Glass. This is emphatically not that book, though. It's a flabby, poorly-constructed, deeply flawed, poorly plotted mess populated by badly drawn characters, which ultimately signifies very little. I very much hope it proves to be a one-off aberration.

Any other Banks fans out there reading this? Think I'm on crack? Do let loose in the comments.

(oh, the super-shock-twist ending, in the 'epilogue'? Felt trite and tacked on. Same problem as the other shock twist: it doesn't mean much. So Vatueil isn't who he thought he was. So what? Again, it doesn't change our understanding of the story. Vatueil as a new character without this twist does the same work as Vatueil-as-secret-guest-star-reappearance; the fact that he's someone else doesn't shed any particular light on his actions or change the overall meaning of anything in the story. It almost cheapens it, by making his part in the story the result of our long-time friend toying about, almost, with his own personal issues.)

I believe in beginner's luck

I've been interested in poker for a while, though I've never played; I watch quite a lot of it on TV, it's a fascinating intersection between scary math and psychology. So I figured I'd give one of those online sites a shot, the play-money ones. You get $1,000 of fake money to start with; I think the idea is to start out on the limit tables, but no-limit always seemed more interesting to me - so many more variables. From the look of the play it's not a great idea to try and play the no-limit games, even the low-blind ones, starting at $1,000 as you don't have enough money to scare anyone, but I got lucky - folded a ton of hands and lost four hundred fake dollars on a busted draw, then ran from $400 to over $6,000 in about five hands with an all-in flush on a pot where everyone played, a straight, and a couple of two pairs. Hey, this game's easy. Next stop, Vegas! =)

Raaaaaaawwwhide! (rolling rolling rolling)

A couple of days back I decided a week was plenty long enough to be running a boring, stable OS like Fedora 14 on my desktop and decided to upgrade it to Rawhide instead. I've never gone to Rawhide this early in a Fedora cycle before (though I used to run Cooker permanently when I ran Mandriva), so it's been an interesting ride. I've spent the last couple of days poking at various little issues and fixing some small things. Now I've got a pretty usable system going, at least for my purposes.

Before I could upgrade at all, I patched xchat-gnome to build against libnotify 0.7 and sent the patch upstream. Don't be too impressed; it's not exactly a complicated patch. There's quite a lot of apps that haven't been patched and rebuilt against libnotify 0.7 yet in Rawhide, but xchat-gnome was the only one I actually need.

When I first upgraded, the desktop wouldn't start. This was pretty easy to track down to GNOME Shell not running (at least with my particular graphics card), whereas it had in F14. So I poked it over to use old-school metacity instead and my desktop came back. Most stuff was working, but gedit was broken; Dan Williams kindly came up with a fix for that one. I also noticed that Firefox Sync, which as I mentioned recently I've come to rely on quite a lot, wasn't working in the Firefox 4 Beta 6 build Rawhide currently has; I tracked this down to a couple of issues that are known upstream and will go away when we have Beta 7 in Rawhide (which would have been today except the maintainer obviously sent the build through and went home, but they forgot a change to the file list and the build failed). Yesterday, Evolution started misbehaving; the top-right hand pane wouldn't render correctly. Matthew Barnes found the fix for that, and we'll get it with the next GTK+ build; for now I just built myself a patched GTK+.

One that proved pretty tricky was sound not working. I figured this was due to PulseAudio not being able to detect any cards via udev, and with help from Harald and Lennart, determined that udev wasn't providing the correct information on sound cards when queried; eventually I managed to figure out this was because of a permissions problem, /dev/.udev and /dev/.udev/db were not readable by regular users. I couldn't figure out why, but Harald worked out that it was dracut's fault; it was creating /dev/.udev/rules.d using mkdir -p, which resulted in /dev/.udev being created with the wrong umask. Subtle. So we got that one fixed this morning.

Even with Pulse working, the volume control panel applet wasn't coming up; this was a bug in its code, which was somewhat complicated by the fact that with the release of GNOME 2.91.2, which is still getting pushed out to Rawhide, it moved from gnome-media to control-center. Today a set of updates to control-center, gnome-media and libgnome-media-profiles showed up which sort this out. I noticed that the sound preferences module of control-center was failing, though, and pulled an upstream patch to fix that.

So now I have a pretty functional Rawhide desktop going; it does everything I need, though I wish I could get GNOME Shell running already - I came to rather like it in F14 and I'd like to see how it looks now. (It's kind of nice to have my weather applet and stock ticker back, though.) The remaining issues aside from the Shell thing are smaller. An odd one is that any running gnome-terminal instances will suddenly crash some time after login, after which I can't run it again until I reboot; I can use Terminal just fine, though, so that's not a problem really. Startup is much slower than it ought to be with systemd; Harald is looking at that (a lot of it seems to be time spent in udev). Evo still has some rendering issues. In general, though, it's working pretty nicely for a pre-Alpha.

I thought it'd be cool to get the nightlies building again, so I did a bit of work on that today; the packages that are listed in the logs as breaking the desktop compose lately are pino and deja-dup, so I fixed and rebuilt those; we'll see how the next attempt to build a nightly goes, I guess.

It's fun to spend a bit of time on super-bleeding edge stuff once in a while. =)

Web 0.1 (or, How to Stop Worrying and Keep All Your Data)

So I was just reading Jono's Unity commercial^H^H^H^H^Hpost about his desktop :), and it reminded me of a post I wanted to write.

I run a lot of the same stuff on my desktop as Jono does - particularly Evolution (like Jono, I think Evo has got a very unfair bad rap, but I think it rather depends on the exact configuration you use it in), Rhythmbox and gedit. The big differences are that I don't tweet (it just feels like a waste of time to me) and I don't use Empathy, which leads me into what I really wanted to write about...

I've talked about various bits and pieces of my setup before, but looking at it overall the other day I was struck by the extent to which my systems are now really just fat clients. They run all their apps locally, but almost none of my data is localized to any computer any more. I can switch from my laptop to my desktop with virtually no loss of my usual workflow.

So, my typical work environment includes Evolution, xchat-gnome, a terminal, Firefox, and Revelation for password management.

Evolution on all my systems connects to my mail server, which aggregates mail from six or seven accounts and does all the filtering server-side with procmail. It also acts as an SMTP relay, mainly so I can send mail from my cellphone. So whatever system I'm using, I have the same mail in the same folders with the same read/unread status...but Google doesn't own it all. (I was reading the other day that Hotmail didn't even do end-to-end SSL encryption until recently, and still doesn't do it for non-web connections. I mean, yeesh.) Evo is also connected to my contacts and calendar...which I do keep on Google, unfortunately, because I can't get eGroupWare to sync with my cellphone yet. This means I have access to my contacts and calendar from any system and also from my phone, and I can add a contact or event on any system (or phone) and it's there on all of them.

xchat-gnome connects to my IRC bounce server, which runs bip as an IRC bouncer and bitlbee as an IM gateway; all my IRC and IM traffic goes through this setup, so I can connect from any machine and I'll get any traffic since the last time I connected from any machine, I can connect with multiple machines at once, and the logs are stored on my big-lumps-o-data disk (actually a 1TB RAID-5 array which lives in my HTPC because it's the only machine with the space for all the disks, and is mounted on all my machines via NFS).

On Firefox I have Firefox Sync set up on all the machines. I love Sync. It synchronizes your history and bookmarks (I don't use bookmarks, but hey) and passwords (again I don't use 'em, but it's there if you do) and most other personal data to a master server; again, it pretty much means that whichever system I'm running on (even if I'm running in Windows to play a game or something) my Firefox is pretty much the same, with access to the same browsing history and stored form data and so on.

The first tab in Firefox is always open at the tt-rss installation running on my web server machine (which also hosts this blog); tt-rss is just an RSS feed reader implemented as a web app. So again, whatever machine I'm logged in from, I have all my feeds available, with the correct read/unread status - it's such a silly little thing, but I can get up from my desktop, grab my laptop, go sit out on the deck (or, er, in the little boys' room) and carry right on reading the news wherever I left off on the desktop. The only awkward thing with tt-rss is that its mobile interface doesn't render very well on my creaky Windows Mobile phone's Opera browser, so I can't use it too well from the phone.

Then there's the awkward little bits: I use revelation for password management, as I mentioned, and for that I simply copy the database between machines every so often. It'd be nice to have a client/server password manager (anyone know of such a thing?), or perhaps someone could write a password manager independent of Firefox which can store its data via Firefox Sync. That'd be nice. For music, there's lots of newfangled technologies like DAAP and UPnP, but I have a stuck-in-the-1980s approach: all my music files are on the RAID-5 drive on the HTPC and it's NFS mounted on the other systems where I play music. It may not be 2010 buzzword-compliant, but it works fine. For documents and pictures, I use the rather neat unison; it's just a directory synchronization tool, but a good one. I have pairs set up so I can sync my Documents and Pictures directories across desktop, HTPC and both laptops, and every few days I just run unison and run those sync operations (I could schedule this but haven't really felt it necessary yet). I could just store them on the RAID and NFS mount from the other systems, but then they'd be unavailable on my laptops when I'm outside the network. I suppose the next step is to implement them as git repos stored on the RAID, or something. That'd be interesting. Yes, I know I'd basically be doing dropbox the manual way. :)

So, why Web 0.1? Well, this setup has most of the flexibility of The Cloud (oooh, cloud!) but has the (to me, at least) rather distinct advantage that it doesn't involve handing off control my data and the server end of things to some random giant corporation for its own benefit. The only exceptions here are calendar/contacts (and I'm trying to make eGroupWare work for that) and Firefox Sync, which I trust just fine because they have an excellent privacy policy and implementation (all the data is encrypted, and Mozilla cannot actually decrypt it; there's literally no way for them to access your data, only you can). It makes for a really enjoyable experience, for me: everything is very streamlined and I don't have to worry too much about any of my systems failing (all the important data is backed up between the server machines via cron jobs). If a Rawhide update screws up my desktop I just grab the laptop instead. If I get a new system or do a re-install I pretty much just install a few apps, set up Evo, Firefox and xchat to connect to the right servers, grab my Revelation database, and I've got my setup right there.

I just wish setting things up this way wasn't so arcane; I gradually threw all these bits together over several years and I'm sure many of you reading this have similar stuff with your own personal twists set up for your systems, but it is something you need a bit of enthusiasm and technical knowledge to do. It may be inevitable that for most people the only way to get this effect is to rely on some company to do the server end in exchange for access to all your data, but it's a bit of a shame, really. It'd be nice if we'd somehow managed to make these kinds of setup more accessible. I think it might be interesting if Firefox Sync really takes off, and the Weave protocols prove to be robust enough to handle other types of data from non-Mozilla applications; that could be a really interesting space for app developers to play around in, with a really big potential user base. And it's a system that's done right, with privacy built in right from the start and a good commitment to interoperability and the ability to run entirely independent from Mozilla's own implementation.

on glorious leaders

So, some meta-thoughts on the whole Wayland-Ubuntu thing.

On one level, I think it's all rather silly. It's funny how many blog posts and even news articles on reasonably respected sites pop up praising Mark's 'courage' and 'vision' - this for, remember, an announcement that the distribution sponsored by his company wants to use a certain bit of technology in future. Mark didn't do any work on Wayland. No-one at Canonical did, either. Implicit in this is that Mark's vision of 'let's use this neat thing' is a lot duller than Kristian's vision of 'let's write this thing that will be neat' (Kristian Høgsberg being the guy who mostly writes Wayland).

Yet, here's the thing. Wayland's been around for years. Anyone who's moderately involved in Linux graphics stuff - even just an interested observer like me, hell, like anyone who reads Phoronix - knew about it already. The vision was out there for anyone who cared. Yet still, Mark saying 'oh hey this looks neat' becomes a huge splash. Why? I don't know, really. Because Mark is Mark, I suppose.

I'd get much more excited about a blog post from an engineer - oh happy day if it were a Canonical engineer - saying 'hey, look at all this neat work I'm doing to make GTK+ work with Wayland' or 'hey, look at these improvements I'm making in nouveau to support Wayland use' and then noting 'this is because we want to take Wayland to the desktop'. But maybe that's just my prejudice. I think it's kind of sad that it seems like you need a Glorious Leader to have the world sit up and take notice of something, but especially in software, it seems like it's the case. For some reason, the tech press and a lot of people interested in tech like to hang off the grand pronouncements of a Glorious Leader; a charismatic guy (it's always a guy) who's happy to make grand pronouncements and co-opt whole reams of trench work by others into his own Glorious Vision. The archetype is Jobs, of course, but Silicon Valley is littered with Gateses and Ballmers and Ellisons and so on. When they stand up and say something, the world apparently takes notice - even if it's something that people actually doing the grunt work have been talking about and have known about for a long time. Maybe it's good for us to have our very own Glorious Leader in this mould. It seems to work, in some way - apparently, contributions to Wayland have been up since Mark's Grand Pronouncement hit the wires. I wonder if that'll continue.

Public Service Announcement

Well, something like this could always do with more publicity.

EDIT: the link doesn't seem to work right for at least me and one other reader, but it's definitely the right link: I think there's something wrong on Noirin's end, sorry about that. If it doesn't work for you - if it takes you to the About Me page instead of a blog entry - go to the front page of her site and you can see the entry, for now at least.

So, here's the thing. Here are the circumstances under which you - whoever you are - are allowed to make sexual contact with another person:

  • When that person has explicitly granted you permission to do so

That's it. There are no others. 'S/he is wearing revealing clothing' does not qualify. 'I kind of thought s/he was up for it based on ways I interpreted his/her behaviour' does not cut it either. 'S/he is drunk' (and/or 'I am drunk') DEFINITELY do not cut it. Sexual touching in any circumstance but the above is both deeply morally reprehensible and also a crime just about everywhere, and no, you don't get to complain if you get named in public. Or arrested.

If you think you're going to have trouble with the above rules, you may want to consider not drinking, not attending conferences, and/or patching yourself to be less of a scummy human being.

While I think it's deeply messed up that conferences would need to have an explicit 'hey, don't sexually assault other conference members, kay?' guideline, naturally I support the idea of having one at all community conferences 100%, since it seems like it's actually needed. Who's organizing FUDCon Tempe? Can we get this on the agenda, if it's not there already?

Message ends.

Not running for the Board any more

So, I took my name back out of the Board hat :). Sorry if that disappoints anyone. I talked to a few people about it, some who thought it was a good idea and some who thought it wasn't the best way to move forward; so now at least one other person up for election has put reviewing the release process in their platform (and there are awesome non-RH people up for election!), I decided to let my deep laziness act as the casting vote: being on the Board sounds like hard work and involves phone meetings, of which I am decidedly not a fan. So I'm chickening out and will vote for someone who'll doubtless do a better job than I would :)

Once the election's sorted, I'll talk to a few people and try and come up with a plan to look at reviewing the release process. More details here when I have 'em.


So I've given up on getting OpenID login working again; the straight-up Wordpress OpenID plugin has never worked for me (currently if I enable it it's in a state where it'll send you out to your OpenID provider, then when you complete that side it sends you straight back to my login page, un-logged-in) and the RPXNow plugin I used to use has turned into Janrain Engage and doesn't seem to work any more either. So I've turned them both off and re-enabled Wordpress user registrations, only adding a plugin that makes them protected by a recaptcha. Hopefully that'll stop the flood of spam registrations. Let me know (IRC or email) if you have any problems. Thanks!

Seeing the light

I couldn't help but smile when I saw Mark Shuttleworth's latest blog post. In particular, this line near the end:

“In general, this will all be fine – actually great – for folks who have good open source drivers for their graphics hardware.”

To be clear - I think this is great. Wayland's a neat technology and it's good to see someone push ahead with seeing if it can be used on a practical scale; it's great to see Canonical being the ones doing it. I just find it funny in the context of all those posts I read every day about how Fedora is silly for banging on about software freedom all the time and not shipping proprietary graphics drivers, and how Ubuntu gets it right by shipping proprietary drivers (and not caring about those silly open source drivers that don't work right). I know Mark's never said anything like that - it's the more short-termist Ubuntu fans I'm thinking of. This will be a nice post to link them to in future...

(I do hope this means Canonical is going to increase its contributions to work on those 'good open source drivers'. I know the team would welcome more hands on the code.)

Craig Ferguson

Craig Ferguson's been on fire lately.

Last night, on noticing that it was National Vegan Day, he had the audience nicely trained for a call-and-response bit...

"What do we want?" "Vegetables!" "When do we want them?" "All the &^%ing time!"

Tonight, on Christine O'Donnell: "In a pre-taped concession speech, she said 'I'm melting! I'm melting!'"