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Category: Technology (Page 1 of 4)

Tech tips, howto’s and other writings mostly concerning with Linux and Open Source or Free Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS)

Vacuum cleaner engineering breakdown – but it’s not really about engineering

Today my son came to me to tell me the vacuum cleaner stopped working. Uff, another thing broken! I’ll take a look – or rather I’ll take it apart. Haha. That’s an engineering joke.

Anyway, it turns out that the switch has a wire that came loose. It’s interesting, because due to the nature of the design, by putting the power switch at the end of the suction hose, they have created a problem whereby tension on the hose puts tension on the wires. They’ve included snap slots to secure the wires, but the wires worked themselves loose and separated at the connector.

Normally a vacuum has the power switch near the motor. You have to bend down to turn it on. Isn’t it SOOOO much easier to bend down, pick up the suction hose, and then turn it on? Sarcasm.

Anyway, checking out how they designed the pathways and connectors for the wires, I was struck that none of heat shrink fittings were actually on top of the connections nor do they seem to be shrunk. Hmmm, what happens if I slide the tubing down and properly secure it?

It turns out that with the heat shrink fittings in place, there is not enough slack in the wires to press them into their snap slots. The tubing blocks them, not to mention with the fitting in place, the snap slots won’t accept the wire.

Where am I going with this?

I’m imagining the factory worker assembling the vacuum hose. They are frustrated by the fact that the wires aren’t of proper length and that the snap slots aren’t big enough to accommodate the wire with shrink tube. You could make a modification in the factory, but that’s above their authorization level. You could make a suggestion to the engineering staff to alter the design, but they are in another country. And besides, you’re doing it as requested. Just do it like it’s drawn.

Here are the specifications. We don’t pay you to think.

The bright engineer(s) who put this all together, drew it out, who selected the materials and everything, missed something, but they can’t see it in assembly because it’s in another country. If the company valued quality, they would visit the manufacturing plant and solicit advice from the workers and plant managers about problems they have had.

But they didn’t. The worker isn’t paid to care and probably doesn’t work for the company contracting them to assemble these plastic things in the first place. The engineer is smart and experienced, but doesn’t have enough professional humility to accept there might be other sources of knowledge other than their fabulous engineering experience/degree.

In the end, you get a vacuum that works okay, but after some normal use has a tendency to break.

Lessons learned?

Design and engineering should have a closer relationship with manufacturing. Is it possible when your manufacturing plant is oh so far away? I’m not saying every company that produces a widget needs to own their own manufacturing plant, but they need to make in-person visits more often. Walk the floor.

Caveat: This is all contingent upon the premise that each entity actually wants to make a quality product. The manufacturing plant wants to do good work, and the design firm wants to put out a quality product. I know it’s possible there’s some short term thinking involved whereby you build for planned breakage/obsolescence.

The Open Internet is Back. The Fediverse is Here

When Facebook/Twitter/Google+ et al, showed up they published open interchange formats. Facebook’s messenger chat was XMPP, which meant you could use your own IM client to communicate with your contacts.

A company or individual could publish directly to their Facebook page from their website. Then, little by little they closed off all that 3rd party functionality. You now could only publish from their platform. Your own website could no longer be the hub of your communications. You can pull data from social media sites, but you can’t push. These social media sites wanted you engaged on their platform only. And why wouldn’t they. They can’t monetize you if you’re not there, can they?

Now, Mastodon (and others) come along with #ActivityPub. Public utilities, FEMA, weather service, local services etc, could publish to a regional mastodon instance, funded perhaps by the local municipality or province. This interchange format isn’t beholden to one company, and your channel of communications could be funded with public money and be maintained as part of jurisdiction’s emergency response.

I hated that Twitter was the default for important public services.

It’s ready right now. All that is required is some forward thinking agency to set up their own instance.

But it gets even better. There’s even an #ActivityPub plugin for #Wordpress?

WordPress runs 44% of the web. Every single one of those websites could publish on the #Fediverse right now.

What does it mean? It means your website right now could publish to the public Fediverse and be found and followed by any user on any instance in the world without having to repost your information to a private company’s website.

This brings a few benefits. A decentralized platform is infinitely more resilient to censorship and bad behavior by a private corporation. You cannot be monetized of manipulated by corporations and their algorithm.

Are Google/Facebook/Twitter good stewards of privacy? Do they protect the identities of dissidents when their governments come for them? Do they protect you?

I’m telling you, Elon’s meltdown may be the best thing for re-exposing people to what an open internet looks like. Let’s not screw this up again, okay?

Vaccine Spam and Bad Actors

If anyone has any doubt about the veracity of these anti-vaccine conspiracies going around, I can assure you they are pure unadulterated lies. These are not well meaning, but misinformed, people who really believe these things and just “want to help.” These are malevolent forces, bad actors actively trying to sow discord in the US. Probably other places as well, but I can tell you definitively about what I see in the US.

My day to day job is running communications and web infrastructure for a wide variety of clients – email, web, messaging. This means that I am privy to the attacks that happen, the attempts to sell pharmaceuticals, scam you out of bitcoin, steal money, phish identities – you name it, I’ve seen it for going on 25 years now.

Currently, there is a concerted effort to undermine people’s faith in government, public health, and society. I will share one example here in image form, because I do not want to give it any visibility to search engines.

excerpt of the body of a website comment form spam

The rest of the body contains various links to a google drive account with hundreds of meme-ready images to share on social media professing to the myth that the Covid-19 vaccines somehow shed live viruses to other people, something called vaccine shedding. If you want a quick history of this and to see if there is any truth at all, read the wikipedia article.

In short, there are no modern live virus vaccines in use. So virus shedding is not a thing, okay? It was only partially a thing with the oral version of the polio vaccine in the 1950s.

Why are they posting this stuff, you might ask. Why work so hard to hunt down and post contact form, email, website spam?

Why would someone anyone do this?

Let me be clear, these are not concerned citizens “trying to get the word out.” These people, organizations, state actors are paid to spread this misinformation. Based on the webserver logs, I show that between 50% and 85% of all traffic to websites that I host and maintain is coming from China, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and Belarus.

There is no content I host that would interest any individuals in those places. The only interesting bit to them is that these sites are hosted using WordPress, the single most popular content management software in the world. It’s popular and predictable, so it draws in bad actors trying to foment discord and steal money.

This the reason that captchas exist, folks, in addition to all the behind the scenes stuff – mitigation techniques that attempt to weed out automated spam posts. Sometimes, however, it’s just people being paid to post stuff.

And someone is getting paid to do this.

If you are disposed to believe these sorts of posts, please understand that these people are not your friends. They are not aligned with you politically or spiritually. They are manipulating you for nefarious ends. They are attempting to undermine your faith in the rule of law, public health, science. What they gain is a divided country, hobbled both politically and economically.

It’s Not Just Virtue Signaling

There is an interesting debate currently going on in the world of information technology. Along with de-gendered pronouns and inclusive language, we too have our own internal debates. Currently on the table are the terms master/slave, used to designate among other things the centralized control of communications, a hub configuration. The master controls who may speak in this arrangement.

Soon, the terms blacklist and whitelist came to the chopping block. Isn’t ban list better? Permit list?

Anyway, it’s a conversation that people are having, and the voices of the status quo promptly accused them of being social justice warriors, virtue signaling, creating controversy where there was none.

They’re just words, you’re ruining our history. It’s always been this way. It’s fine. You’re just a liberal snowflake!

It’s funny how, like a fractal, the larger conversations happening in society repeat themselves in other smaller sub-communities, but maybe that’s a topic for another day.

First, words are important.

The words we use have an impact on the way we think and the way we think has an impact on the words we use. Language is recursive in society. If we make the effort to change it, it will in turn shape how we interact with the world. Remember fireman, policeman, and mailman? We changed those, because we wanted a social construct that didn’t default to “man.” There was no reason to gender type those professions. When we realized how archaic it was, that it didn’t reflect our values, we modified those terms and now they sound weird. Congressperson, congressional representative, not congressman. Chairman… chairperson, or just chair.

The master/slave terminology outside of just the obvious ugliness of the relationship, can have a pervasive effect on how we perceive interaction of things. If one thing is always subservient to another, it shapes us. We expect to see this subservience in all things. Bosses have to be on top. Employees at the bottom. There’s got to be this rigid hierarchy in all things, ’cause that’s just the way things are. We see it, we replicate it, we again say that’s how it should be.

What if bosses were just team members or coordinators? They are resource wranglers, interference runners, rather than mandate bringers. The team structure is flat now, all members have a role, and we start to get away from “I’m more important than you are” because I’m the boss. We now see the “boss” as just another resource in the chain. Maybe their task requires more training and education, so they get paid more, but they are not certainly “above” anyone.

Maybe the master/slave language masks other truths when we consider it as part of a system. If we consider one thing as always subservient to the other, perhaps it causes us to not consider that perhaps their communication can flow in two directions sometimes the “slave” taking control. Master/slave just doesn’t cut it anymore and what’s worse it can obscure real truths.

Anyway, it’s a lot, I know, but this stuff isn’t just “libs” virtue signaling. The words we use can have a dramatic effect on how we interact with the world, what structures “make sense,” and how we can make better systems not hindered by outdated ways of thinking.

Wow – this article came out today

It’s like Richard Stallman is reading my blog! 🙂 Haha, is joke.

Finally, don’t forget the software in your own computer. If it is the non-free software of Apple, Google or Microsoft, it spies on you regularly. That’s because it is controlled by a company that won’t hesitate to spy on you. Companies tend to lose their scruples when that is profitable. By contrast, free (libre) software is controlled by its users. That user community keeps the software honest.

Read more

This is pretty much why I use only software libre. I can’t write it all myself, but I have more trust in groups that don’t hold profit as a motive when I entrust to them my data. These non-profit companies develop software that allows me to see and manipulate the source code. I can do anything I want with it, except close it up.

Open Source serves the user – Closed source serves the company

Just wanted to jot down another frustrating example of how closed source software serves the creator company before it serves the user and why particular choices are made at the point of development.

I have been doing some research and have come across hundreds of PDFs of doctoral dissertations written by smart people about extremely interesting topics, but surprisingly nearly all the papers begin with “Microsoft Word – …” as the prefix to the paper’s title field embedded in the PDFs property data and dutifully indexed by Google as such. In none of the cases is “Microsoft Word” relevant to the topic discussed.

Curious, no?

So let’s ask ourselves why might Microsoft Word appear as a default prefix to the topic title of the work you are producing. Maybe it’s the particular manner of the chain of custody between Word and the PDF renderer (I don’t use Windows, so I have no idea how it works in that world). Maybe it’s Microsoft Word itself. I have no real idea. But the problem exists – your work, your data, your investigation has Microsoft branding barfed all over it.


Microsoft wants more search engine traction. By making all PDFs produced with Microsoft Word embed the string “Microsoft Word” into your work’s title, they ensure that every search for your work will also yield a boost for them. Microsoft is piggybacking on your hard work.

Microsoft just wants everybody everywhere to know that there is only one way to write an academic paper. Using the same motivation as the search engine, Microsoft hopes that for every paper published or read, people will continue to regard the string “Microsoft Word” as the only manner in which people may produce textual works. It becomes so conditioned into our expectations that when it doesn’t appear we think, something must be wrong.

I mean, it’s no secret that Microsoft, a for profit company, seeks its own ends, that these decisions are made to benefit them and no one else. Why else would they helpfully embed their brand into your document? Does that help you?

There’s a better way, however. Contrast Microsoft’s tack with that of the Document Foundation, whose values favor and empower the user rather than the organization. Among others, here’s a particularly nice gem from their core values: We commit ourselves to allow users of office productivity software to retain the intellectual property in the documents they create, by use of open document formats and open standards.

And we find that when you output a PDF from Libreoffice it doesn’t alter your title. Cool.

Facebook Cookie Tracking Nonsense

Two Congressmen have written a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking the FTC to investigate certain websites’ use of “supercookies” to track the activities of website visitors after they have left the website and without their knowledge.

Which begs the question, who says you left the website? In today’s interconnected web/Facebook API you essentially never leave Facebook. If a website has Facebook’s API installed, you know, that innocuous little “like” and “share” buttons, you are on Facebook.  Of course Facebook tracks you, you never left their site.

The web, in its most essential form, is just an interconnected series of HTTP calls via GET, HEAD, POST, PUT, DELETE. Any webpage can have resources linked to any other site. We have crammed a bunch of functionality into our venerable HTTP specification, but it’s essentially just that simple.

When you visit a website, you are not visiting a destination, you are visiting a virtual representation of resources fetched from all over the world, some of which are Facebook. Since you are using Facebook, they know what pages are using their resources, because the site operators opted in to their API. If you wish to avoid this, you will need to delete your cookies from Facebook and deny them the ability to place them. If you are a site owner and you are worried about your visitors’ privacy, you should remove the Facebook API calls from your site.

On Steve Jobs and People Like Him

I have to admit, I’m a little ambivalent about the death of Steve Jobs.  If I am honest though, it hurts a little.  It hurts a little when great people pass on, never to conqueror again what they had conquered, never to achieve again what they had achieved.  For us, the peons, never to witness that level of greatness again is a bit bitter.

In my case, it’s strange, because I don’t use Apple products.  I don’t like them.  I don’t like Steve Jobs.  I don’t like his company.  I don’t like his business practices or caged computing environment. I personally have stayed away from Apple and Microsoft products completely. I don’t have any grand hatred toward either, but I do value the freedom to tinker, and to control where and how I create what I create. Way back in 1999, I swore it was the last time that I would have some proprietary piece of software tell me where and when I could install it and what I could do with it. And that was that.

So why feel even a twinge of sadness at the passing of Steve Jobs?  He fabricated products I don’t use and restricted people’s freedom to create pushing them more toward mindless consumption.  Perhaps, it’s our little monkey brains, terrified and mesmerized by the strength of one of our own, a brutal conqueror who was able to accomplish something no one else had.  Steve Jobs was ruthless, driven, ambitious, and intelligent.  He did not suffer fools, nor anyone.  His company conquered a particular consumer computing space thoroughly and completely.

Alexander the Great?  Great because he killed a whole bunch of people?  Yoda: Wars not make one great.  Genghis Khan, Gen Patton.  We worship them, revere them simply for their ability to ruthlessly conqueror and lay waste with efficiency in a way no one else has done before.

Sure, let’s not get carried away.  Steve Jobs is no Genghis Khan, but his greatness is familiar in that sense.  He had a vision for a part of this world that he felt he owned, and he shaped it, and nothing got in his way, not people, not money, not technology.

So, props, Steve.  You did it your way.  You were great in what you did.  I know why people worship you, but just shake my head.  I don’t think, in the end, your vision was the right vision.  Sure you and Apple made a lot of money, but I think you missed the point of the future envisioned by your 1984 self.

Be Careful What You Wish For

A lot of the work I do is bascially phone/email corporate tech support.   I get the IT managers and their assistants calling me for advice and troubleshooting on network, security, email spam, filtering, and on and on.  I’m sort of the go to guy for corporate IT managers in my little circle in Puerto Rico.

Here’s the thing, I used to get annoyed by the fact that I couldn’t get ANYONE to use email.  Email is my trouble ticket system.  It’s allows me to assign a date to the incident, make a to do list, and have a record in case my clients forget that they called me.

Here’s the problem:

Everyone wanted to call.  Everyone wanted to leave voice mail messages that said, “Give me a call.”  There was no mention of the problem, a description anything.  If they did send an email it would say something like, “I have a problem with the server.”    I would sigh, pull out my crystal ball and divine up the problem with a series of repetitive questions…  all of which we’ve been through before.  If there’s a problem with an email, instead of emailing me the bounce, error or whatever, they’d call and say that someone (top secret identity?) was having problems with their mail.  Sending? Receiving?  Was anyone else having this problem?  Was it with only a particular recipient?  Was it a network problem?  Can I see a copy of the email bounce in question?  And on and on.   Wouldn’t it just be easier for them to click forward and send me the email?  They already know what I’m going to ask.

But they didn’t, and for many moons, I felt like an automated question engine running through my script, yes, no, no yes, okay BING here’s your problem.  But recently, perhaps in the past year or two, something has changed, and I suspect it has something to do with social media and SMS.

People have stopped using the phone to make voice calls.  I’ve noticed it in personal relationships.  Talking has become passé.  People are now practiced in asynchronous communications.   We can now dispense with the “Hi, how are you, how’s your family,” salutations and pleasantries that used to bind our social network of personal interaction.  Now it’s all asynchronous and me-centered.  I have information I want to send you, here it is.  Read it when you wish, but I don’t really want to talk to you.  We post on our facebook, twitter, whatever and just throw it out there.  It requires NO interaction.  People will take that and use it for what it’s worth.  We are detached from our communications.  Everything is a discrete packet self-contained and autonomous – automated.

It’s a shame to admit it, but it makes my job easier.  I can knock things out with minimal stupidity.  Simple bug report, simple fix.  It seems social media and SMS has trained my clients to send it and forget it.   I have become an automaton, a problem solving engine dependent on rich precise input.

But is this is healthy for society at large outside of specific business contexts?  What are your thoughts?

History Channel Explanations

I was watching the History Channel yesterday, you know, the channel with nothing actually historic, only speculative.  Haha, it used to be the channel about stuff that happened during the years 1938 through 1945.  Now it’s the channel about stuff that might have happened.  Some shows (After Humans), are about stuff that could happen someday.  Is it the Speculative Future Channel?  Maybe they are turning into the vacancy left by the SyFy *snicker* Channel.

But I digress.

So I was watching this show about the ancient pyramids, ruins in Peru (Machu Picchu, etc), and manna in the Bible, all these mysterious and wondrous artifacts (except manna), and how they were all achieved by alien tech.  Yeah, that’s right, aliens gave us advanced technology to play with thousands of years ago.  I don’t make this stuff up, that’s what the history channel was saying.  It’s a fun speculative show and everybody’s all deep and mysterious.

“These tolerances are impossible, even with modern technology.”

“If someone came to me and said I wanted a stone cut like that, I wouldn’t do it for any price.”

Ooo, spooky.

And it goes on, one breathless expert after another speaking at length about how such feats, difficult to achieve today, would have been impossible thousands of years ago – unless they had help.  Help from aliens.

Yeah, that makes sense, I think.  Just because something seems impossible or difficult you’ve got to pull out the aliens card.  I’m more a fan of Occam’s Razor.  There’s a simpler explanation, one that actually has plenty of evidence in existence today.

It goes a little something like this:  Engineers are not particularly good at documentation.  You can actually stop reading here, because that’s it.

Even in our time, clever engineers fail to document stuff that has to be rediscovered as little as ten years later.  Engineers are so enamored of their works, so convinced at their own brilliance of cleverness, that the construction or solutions are believed to be, by them, self evident.  How could you not know what it does, it’s so simple, they say. There’s an old gripe about how clever programmers always think their solutions are self documenting because they are so elegant and perfect.   The pyramids?  Whatever their purpose, I’m sure engineers of the era couldn’t possibly conceive of someone NOT KNOWING what they do.  It’s obvious.  It’s always obvious to someone, except when that someone has been dead for 4500 years.

Without fail we must rediscover these “simple” solutions over and over again.  Remember, concrete?  The ancient Romans used it all over the place, but its secret was lost for 13 centuries until 1756. “Bah, write it down!?  You must be an idiot.  It’s so simple.  No way is anybody going to forget this.  Oh, shit, the Visigoths!  They weren’t covered in our disaster recovery plan.”

I suppose there’s also the problem that people just don’t have a multi-generation mindset when it comes to passing information forward.  We might think of our kids, but beyond that, it’s all a hazy blur of “somebody else’s problem.”

And bam! You forget how to make concrete.

So, it wasn’t the aliens that gave us awesomely advanced technology to make mind bogglingly beautiful and intricate structures.  We just forgot to write it down and back it up.  “That’s the next contractor’s problem,” they said.

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