Other writing: August 2023

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Duck Alignment Academy

Docker

  • Protecting secrets with Docker — Keeping your secrets secret is an ongoing process, but it’s worth the effort. Learn about Docker features you can use to help prevent leaking secrets.

Other writing: July 2023

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Duck Alignment academy

Fedora

Does open source matter?

Matt Asay’s article “The Open Source Licensing War is Over” has been making the rounds this week, as text and subtext. While his position is certainly spicy, I don’t think it’s entirely wrong. “It’s not that open source doesn’t matter, but rather it has never mattered in the way some hoped or believed,” Asay writes. I think that’s true, and it’s our fault.

To the average person, and even to many developers, the freeness or openness of the software doesn’t matter. They want to be able to solve their problem in the easiest (and cheapest) way. Often that’s open source software. Sometimes it isn’t. But they’re not sitting there thinking about the societal impact of their software choices. They’re trying to get a job done.

Free and open source software (FOSS) advocates often tout the ethical benefits of FOSS. We talk about the “four essential freedoms“. And while those should matter to people, they often don’t. I’ve said before — and I still believe it — FOSS is not the end goal. Any time we end with “and thus: FOSS!”, we’re doing it wrong.

FOSS advocacy — and I suspect this is true of other advocacy efforts as well — tends to try to meet people where we want them to be. The problem, of course, is that people are not where we want them to be. They’re where they are. We have to meet them there, with language that resonates with them, addressing the problems they currently face instead of hypothetical future problems. This is all easier said than done, of course.

Open source licenses don’t matter — they’ve never mattered — except as an implementation detail for the goal we’re trying to achieve.

Barbenheimer

Over the weekend, I took part in the Barbenheimer Experience. We saw “Barbie” and — after a break to feed my sister’s dogs and also myself — “Oppenheimer”. I’ll be honest: I mostly did it because it felt like a silly Internet thing to do. But I’m glad I did it.

Barbie

Not since “Citizen Kane” has a movie about a beloved childhood possession made such good Art™. I wasn’t prepared for how much I enjoyed it. It was fun in a silly, self-aware way. Credit to the folks at Mattel who approved this, because it addresses some of Barbie’s problems.

It’s not just a fun movie, though. The movie addresses serious themes, sometimes satirically and sometimes earnestly. The message gets a little ham-handed in a few spots, but it quickly reels back in. Overall, it provokes thought in a fun way.

One thought it provoked in me: how many times did they have to shoot the beach off scene before they got a usable take?

Oppenheimer

“Oppenheimer” is not a fun movie, but it was interesting. I didn’t know much about Robert Oppenheimer before the movie, and I’m not sure how much I can claim to know now. While not fawning, the movie’s portrayal of Oppenheimer is complimentary. It doesn’t ignore his personal failings, but it also doesn’t explore them. They are just facts in the story.

I spent the rest of the evening thinking about atomic weapons. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan may be the ultimate Trolley Problem. An American invasion of mainland Japan would have cost many military and civilian lives. But that didn’t happen. The death of a few hundred thousand civilians did happen. No matter what the outcome of the road not traveled, we can’t ignore what did happen.

Was Oppenheimer’s opposition to Teller’s hydrogen bomb principled or was it petty? I either case, was it hypocritical? Was it ethical? What lessons should we take for the things we invent today?

Barbenheimer

Both movies are about the end of the world as the characters know it. Both grapple with what that means for the future. They are very different movies, but they compliment each other quite nicely. They’re good on their own, but I’m glad I saw them together.

Booth Tarkington on “The Golden Bachelor”

This weekend, it came to my attention that ABC is making a change in its long-running dating show The Bachelor. A 71 year old man will be the first “golden bachelor” in the upcoming 28th season. I don’t have much of an opinion on the show generally or the new season particularly, but I couldn’t help but think of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Magnificent Ambersons.

Youth cannot imagine romance apart from youth. That is why the roles of the heroes and heroines of plays are given by the managers to the most youthful actors they can find among the competent. Both middle-aged people and young people enjoy a play about young lovers; but only middle-aged people will tolerate a play about middle-aged lovers; young people will not come to see such a play, because, for them, middle-aged lovers are a joke—not a very funny one. Therefore, to bring both the middle-aged people and the young people into his house, the manager makes his romance as young as he can. Youth will indeed be served, and its profound instinct is to be not only scornfully amused but vaguely angered by middle-age romance.

Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons

In an interesting coincidence, both Tarkington and the “Golden Bachelor” are from Indiana. At any rate, I suppose ratings will tell if Tarkington was right or not.

Ended, the clone wars have?

I have done my damnedest to avoid posting publicly about Red Hat’s decision to stop publishing RHEL srpms. For one, the Discourse around it has been largely stupid. I didn’t want any part of the mess. For another, I didn’t have anything particularly novel to add. I’m breaking my silence now because the dust seems to have settled in a very beneficial way that I haven’t seen widely discussed. (To be fair, since I’ve been trying to avoid the discussion, I probably just missed it.)

Full disclosure: as you may know, my role at Red Hat was eliminated earlier this year. This does not make me particularly inclined to give Red Hat as a company the benefit of the doubt, but I try to be fair. Also: during my time at Red Hat, I was the program manager for the creation of CentOS Stream. However, I did not make business decisions about it, nor did I have any say on the termination of CentOS Linux or the recent sprm change.

My take on the situation

I won’t get into the entire history or Red Hat Enterprise Linux, clones, or competitors here. Joe Brockmeier’s ongoing “Clone Wars” series covers the long-term history in detail. I do think it’s worth providing my take on the last few years, though, so you understand my take on the future.

First of all, I don’t think Red Hat (or IBM, if you’d rather) acted with evil intent. That doesn’t mean I think the decision was correct, but I do think it was a legitimate business choice. I disagree with the decision, but as much as they didn’t ask me before, they sure as hell don’t ask me now.

If RHEL development started out with a CentOS Stream model, I’m not sure CentOS Linux (and the other RHEL clones) would have existed in the first place. But we don’t live in that timeline, so RHEL clones exist.

There are plenty of valid reasons for wanting RHEL but not wanting to pay for the subscription. It’s not just that people are being cheap. Until 2018, users of Spot instances on Amazon Web Services couldn’t use RHEL. In a former role, we had RHEL customers who used CentOS Linux in AWS precisely because they wanted to use Spot instances. Others used CentOS Linux in AWS because they didn’t want to deal with subscription management for environments that might come and go. (I understand that subscription-manager is much easier to work with now.)

So while Red Hat may be right to say that RHEL clones don’t add value to Red Hat (and I disagree there, too), RHEL clones clearly add value for their users, which include Red Hat customers. It’s fair to say that, for some people, the perceived value of a RHEL subscription does not match what Red Hat charges for it. How to solve that mismatch is not a problem i’m concerned with.

So what now?

Two community-driven clones popped up in the immediate aftermath of the death of CentOS Linux: Rocky Linux and AlmaLinux. Both of these aimed to fill the role formerly held by CentOS Linux: a bug-for-bug clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. I never quite understood what differentiated them in practice.

But now duplicated effort becomes differentiated effort. Rocky Linux will continue to provide a bug-for-bug clone. AlmaLinux, meanwhile, will shift to making an ABI-compatible distribution — one where “software that runs on RHEL will run the same on AlmaLinux.” This differentiated effort allows those communities to serve different use cases. They now have their own niche to succeed or fail in.

Time will tell, but I think Alma’s approach is a better fit for most clone users. I suspect that most people don’t need bug-for-bug compatibility (except in the XKCD #1172 scenario). For many use cases, CentOS Stream is suitable. Of course, people make decisions based on what they think they need, not what they actually need. Third-party software vendors may end up being the deciding factor.

Given the different approaches Rocky and Alma are taking, I think Red Hat’s decision ended up being beneficial to the broader ecosystem. I don’t think it was done with that intent, and I am not arguing that the ends justify the means, but the practical result seems positive on the whole.

Buy autographed copies of my book for Flock to Fedora

Note: this commercial post was approved by the Fedora Council

If you’ll be attending Flock to Fedora — Fedora’s annual contributor conference — in Cork, Ireland this August then I want to sign a copy of Program Management for Open Source Projects for you. Use the online order form before 22 June (and use promo code FLOCK2023 for a $5 discount).

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Other writing: May 2023

Where have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Duck Alignment Academy

Fedora

Book review: If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal

I recently read Justin Gregg’s If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity. As humans, we tend to assume that our intelligence sets us apart and that our exceptional cognitive abilities are good. There’s no doubt that we’re exceptional, but it’s not clear that we’re good. As Gregg wrote:

Our many intellectual accomplishments are currently on track to produce our own extinction, which is exactly how evolution gets rid of adaptations that suck.

Unique among Earth’s animals, humans have bent our environment to our will. This, of course, has resulted in some undesirable side effects. Despite all of our supposed advancement, we are biologically predisposed to prioritize immediate needs over long-term needs. We get benefit from burning fossil fuels now and assume that we’ll be able to deal with the long-term impacts later. But will we?

Gregg studies animal cognition, so this book is steeped in facts. Indeed, the reader will probably learn more about animals than people. And after reaching the end, the reader may find it’s hard to disagree with Gregg’s assertion that Nietzche — and the rest of the species — would have been happier as a narwhal.

Evolution has many dead ends. It could be that what makes us special actually makes us less happy. Humans have a relatively short time on Earth, so it’s folly to assume that our unique adaptations aren’t maladaptive. It reminds me of the joke where an angel is talking to God about creating humans and says “you’ve ruined a perfectly good monkey. Look, it has anxiety!”

I didn’t come away from this book convinced that human cognition is a bad thing on balance. But as a philosophical starting point, I see a case for Gregg’s argument that “human intelligence may just be the stupidest thing that ever happened.”

Suggestions for Netflix profile improvements

As you may have heard, Netflix is beginning to crack down on password sharing. You may have already received the email inviting you to pay an extra eight dollars per month for additional households on your account. Even though Netflix tacitly (or even actively in some cases) encouraged password sharing for many years, I don’t hold this against them. On the other hand, they could definitely make life a lot easier by making profiles shareable.

Sharing profiles

The prime (heh) example comes from my house. I share my account with my ex wife because we have joint custody of the kids. This allows them to keep track of where they are in a show no matter which house they happen to be watching at. If I could share the profile, then I’d have no reason to share the account.

But I thought of another idea as I tried to describe this to the customer support representative. Profile sharing would make it much easier to travel or visit a friend’s house. If you could temporarily share your profile with another account, then it’s easy to use your profile at someone else’s place. This is less of a hassle, in theory, than logging out the owner, logging yourself in, and hoping you remember to log yourself out when you’re done.

Combining accounts

Another frustration is that you can’t move a profile to an existing account. When Netfix says “People move. Families grow. Relationships end. But throughout these life changes, your Netflix experience should stay the same.” what they mean is “you can always move a profile to a new account, you can never combine accounts.” Did you move in with someone who already had an account and you want to combine them? Too bad! One or both of you need to lose your profile.

I get why they have this ratchet. More accounts means more money. Combining accounts means they get less money. But also it’s kind of shitty. When Netflix was the only(-ish) game in town, it didn’t really matter. But now there are many streaming choices and people are starting to think “hey, maybe I don’t need to subscribe to all of them!” Content choices matter the most, of course, but customer experience matters, too.

The lesson

If you want to please your customers and your product has personalization, you have to consider all of the ways that the personalization might need to be portable. Making it easy to create a new account is important, and can help you get more money. But making it easy to manage profiles in a way that fits how people’s lives actually work is an investment in long-term customer satisfaction.