Category Archives: Uncategorized

In Which COVID-19 Misinformation Leads To A Bunch of Graphs Made With Rust

A funny — and by funny, I mean sad — thing has happened. Recently the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) has been analyzing data from the patchwork implementation of mask requirements in Kansas. They came to a conclusion that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone: masks help. They published a chart showing this. A right-wing propaganda publication got ahold of this, and claimed the numbers were “doctored” because there were two-different Y-axes.

I set about to analyze the data myself from public sources, and produced graphs of various kinds using a single Y-axis and supporting the idea that the graphs were not, in fact, doctored. Here’s one graph that’s showing that:

In order to do that, I had imported COVID-19 data from various public sources. Many states in the US are large enough to have significant variation in COVID-19 conditions, and many of the source people look at don’t show county-level data over time. I wanted to do that.

Eventually, I wrote covid19db, which ingests data from a number of public sources and generates a SQLite database file. Using Github Actions, this file is automatically updated every morning and available for download. Or, you can download the code and generate a database yourself locally.

Then, I wrote covid19ks, which generates various pretty graphs covering the data. These graphs, incidentally, turn out to highlight just how poorly the United States is doing compared to the rest of the industrialized world.

I hope that these resources, and especially covid19db, might be useful to others that would like to analyze the data. The code isn’t the prettiest since it was done in a hurry, but I think that functionally this is useful.

COVID-19 is serious for all ages. Treat it like WWII

Today I’d like to post a few updates about COVID-19 which I have gathered from credible sources, as well as some advice also gathered from credible sources.

Summary

  1. Coronavirus causes health impacts requiring hospitalization in a significant percentage of all adult age groups.
  2. Coronavirus also can cause no symptoms at all in many, especially children.
  3. Be serious about social distancing.

COVID-19 is serious for young adults too

According to this report based on a CDC analysis, between 14% and 20% of people aged 20 to 44 require hospitalization due to COVID-19. That’s enough to be taken seriously. See also this CNN story.

Act as if you are a carrier because you may be infected and not even know it, even children

Information on this is somewhat preliminary, but it is certainly known that a certain set of cases is asymptomatic. This article discusses manifestations in children, while this summary of a summary (note: not original research) suggests that 17.9% of people may not even know they are infected.

How serious is this? Serious.

This excellent article by Daniel W. Johnson, MD, is a very good read. Among the points it makes:

  • Anyone that says it’s no big deal is wrong.
  • If we treat this like WWI or WWII and everyone does the right things, we will be harmed but OK. If many but not all people do the right things, we’ll be like Italy. If we blow it off, our health care system and life as we know it will be crippled.
  • If we don’t seriously work to flatten the curve, many lives will be needlessly lost

Advice

I’m going to just copy Dr. Johnson’s advice here:

  1. You and your kids should stay home. This includes not going to church, not going to the gym, not going anywhere.
  2. Do not travel for enjoyment until this is done. Do not travel for work unless your work truly requires it.
  3. Avoid groups of people. Not just crowds, groups. Just be around your immediate family. I think kids should just play with siblings at this point – no play dates, etc.
  4. When you must leave your home (to get groceries, to go to work), maintain a distance of six feet from people. REALLY stay away from people with a cough or who look sick.
  5. When you do get groceries, etc., buy twice as much as you normally do so that you can go to the store half as often. Use hand sanitizer immediately after your transaction, and immediately after you unload the groceries.

I’m not saying people should not go to work. Just don’t leave the house for anything unnecessary, and if you can work from home, do it.

Everyone on this email, besides Mom and Dad, are at low risk for severe disease if/when they contract COVID-19. While this is great, that is not the main point. When young, well people fail to do social distancing and hygiene, they pick up the virus and transmit it to older people who are at higher risk for critical illness or death. So everyone needs to stay home. Even young people.

Tell every person over 60, and every person with significant medical conditions, to avoid being around people. Please do not have your kids visit their grandparents if you can avoid it. FaceTime them.

Our nation is the strongest one in the world. We have been through other extreme challenges and succeeded many times before. We WILL return to normal life. Please take these measures now to flatten the curve, so that we can avoid catastrophe.

I’d also add that many supermarkets offer delivery or pickup options that allow you to get your groceries without entering the store. Some are also offering to let older people shop an hour before the store opens to the general public. These could help you minimize your exposure.

Other helpful links

Here is a Reddit megathread with state-specific unemployment resources.

Scammers are already trying to prey on people. Here are some important tips to avoid being a victim.

Although there are varying opinions, some are recommending avoiding ibuprofen when treating COVID-19.

Bill Gates had some useful advice. Here’s a summary emphasizing the need for good testing.

It Doesn’t Take Much to Make Someone’s Day

In times like these, it is natural to fear. Viruses, incompetent leadership, economic hardship, even death. But remember this:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

Fred Rogers

This is so true. The examples are everywhere. Here in the United States, our federal government has been weak responding to COVID-19 — but others have stepped up. Institutions big and small across the country are following the science and closing or taking other steps to slow the spread of coronavirus, even in areas it hasn’t yet been detected, because this is the right thing to do. People are helping their neighbors, or giving up their favorite activities to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19. I work for a company that’s publicly-traded on the NYSE, and it shut down all its offices globally. And kept paying the janitors and other office staff.

Some people are in a vulnerable place today. To them: remember the helpers. There are doctors and nurses, officials, neighbors the care, everywhere.

To those that are able: be a helper. It doesn’t take much to brighten someone’s day. Maybe a phone call or video call. Maybe delivering groceries to a neighbor that’s quarantined. Maybe acts of grace and understanding to the stressed people around you, trying their best to get by in the face of a lack of information and certainty. Maybe giving up some activities you enjoy, in order to help slow the spread of COVID-19, even if you personally aren’t especially vulnerable.

I am reminded of this quote, part of a story about a dying cancer patient:

“Don’t forget that it doesn’t take much to make someone’s day.”

A Mystery of Unix History

I wrote recently about buying a Digital (DEC) vt420 and hooking it up to Linux. Among my observations on the vt420, which apparently were among the most popular to use with Unix systems, are these:

  • DEC keyboards had no Esc key
  • DEC keyboards had no key that could be used as Alt or Meta

The two most popular historic editors on Unix, vi and emacs, both make heavy use of these features (Emacs using Esc when Alt or Meta is unavailable). Some of the later entries in the DEC terminal line, especially the vt510, supported key remapping or alternative keyboards, which can address the Esc issue, but not entirely.

According to the EmacsOnTerminal page and other research, at least the vt100 through the vt420 lacked Esc by default. Ctrl-3 and Ctrl-[ could send the character. However, this is downright terrible for both vi and Emacs (as this is the only way to trigger meta commands in Emacs).

What’s more, it seems almost none of these old serial terminal support hardware flow control, and flow control is an absolute necessity on many. That implies XON/XOFF, which use Ctrl-S and Ctrl-Q — both of which are commonly used in Emacs.

Both vi and Emacs trace their roots back to the 1970s and were widely used in the serial terminal era, running on hardware dominated by DEC and its serial terminals.

So my question is: why would both of these editors be developed in such a way that they are downright inconvenient to use on the hardware on which they most frequently ran?

Update 2019-11-20: It appears that the vt100 did have the Esc key, but it was dropped with the vt220. At least the vt420 and later, and possibly as far back as the vt220, let you map one of a few other keys to be Esc. This still leaves the Ctrl-S mystery in Emacs though.

Alas, Poor PGP

Over in The PGP Problem, there’s an extended critique of PGP (and also specifics of the GnuPG implementation) in a modern context. Robert J. Hansen, one of the core GnuPG developers, has an interesting response:

First, RFC4880bis06 (the latest version) does a pretty good job of bringing the crypto angle to a more modern level. There’s a massive installed base of clients that aren’t aware of bis06, and if you have to interoperate with them you’re kind of screwed: but there’s also absolutely nothing prohibiting you from saying “I’m going to only implement a subset of bis06, the good modern subset, and if you need older stuff then I’m just not going to comply.” Sequoia is more or less taking this route — more power to them.

Second, the author makes a couple of mistakes about the default ciphers. GnuPG has defaulted to AES for many years now: CAST5 is supported for legacy reasons (and I’d like to see it dropped entirely: see above, etc.).

Third, a couple of times the author conflates what the OpenPGP spec requires with what it permits, and with how GnuPG implements it. Cleaner delineation would’ve made the criticisms better, I think.

But all in all? It’s a good criticism.

The problem is, where does that leave us? I found the suggestions in the original author’s article (mainly around using IM apps such as Signal) to be unworkable in a number of situations.

The Problems With PGP

Before moving on, let’s tackle some of the problems identified.

The first is an assertion that email is inherently insecure and can’t be made secure. There are some fairly convincing arguments to be made on that score; as it currently stands, there is little ability to hide metadata from prying eyes. And any format that is capable of talking on the network — as HTML is — is just begging for vulnerabilities like EFAIL.

But PGP isn’t used just for this. In fact, one could argue that sending a binary PGP message as an attachment gets around a lot of that email clunkiness — and would be right, at the expense of potentially more clunkiness (and forgetfulness).

What about the web-of-trust issues? I’m in agreement. I have never really used WoT to authenticate a key, only in rare instances trusting an introducer I know personally and from personal experience understand how stringent they are in signing keys. But this is hardly a problem for PGP alone. Every encryption tool mentioned has the problem of validating keys. The author suggests Signal. Signal has some very strong encryption, but you have to have a phone number and a smartphone to use it. Signal’s strength when setting up a remote contact is as strong as SMS. Let that disheartening reality sink in for a bit. (A little social engineering could probably get many contacts to accept a hijacked SIM in Signal as well.)

How about forward secrecy? This is protection against a private key that gets compromised in the future, because an ephemeral session key (or more than one) is negotiated on each communication, and the secret key is never stored. This is a great plan, but it really requires synchronous communication (or something approaching it) between the sender and the recipient. It can’t be used if I want to, for instance, burn a backup onto a Bluray and give it to a friend for offsite storage without giving the friend access to its contents. There are many, many situations where synchronous key negotiation is impossible, so although forward secrecy is great and a nice enhancement, we should assume it to be always applicable.

The saltpack folks have a more targeted list of PGP message format problems. Both they, and the article I link above, complain about the gpg implementation of PGP. There is no doubt truth to these. Among them is a complaint that gpg can emit unverified data. Well sure, because it has a streaming mode. It exits with a proper error code and warnings if a verification fails at the end — just as gzcat does. This is a part of the API that the caller needs to be aware of. It sounds like some callers weren’t handling this properly, but it’s just a function of a streaming tool.

Suggested Solutions

The Signal suggestion is perfectly reasonable in a lot of cases. But the suggestion to use WhatsApp — a proprietary application from a corporation known to brazenly lie about privacy — is suspect. It may have great crypto, but if it uploads your address book to a suspicious company, is it a great app?

Magic Wormhole is a pretty neat program I hadn’t heard of before. But it should be noted it’s written in Python, so it’s probably unlikely to be using locked memory.

How about backup encryption? Backups are a lot more than just filesystem; maybe somebody has a 100GB MySQL or zfs send stream. How should this be encrypted?

My current estimate is that there’s no magic solution right now. The Sequoia PGP folks seem to have a good thing going, as does Saltpack. Both projects are early in development, so as a privacy-concerned person, should you trust them more than GPG with appropriate options? That’s really hard to say.

Additional Discussions

Beauty Breaks Through

IMG_8795_v1

Two years ago, I was in the middle of the forest in rural southern Indiana. It was a time of hope – of defeating racism, sexism, xenophobia. Hope for affordable health care, for peace, for care for the young and the old. Then I woke up, in that beautiful place, to the news that Donald Trump would be president. Trump. President.

A few days later, I wrote Morning In The Skies, which included, in part:

Not long after the election, I got in a plane, pushed in the throttle, and started the takeoff roll down a runway in the midst of an Indiana forest. The skies were the best kind of clear blue, and pretty soon I lifted off and could see for miles. Off in the distance, I could see the last cottony remnants of the morning’s fog, lying still in the valleys, surrounding the little farms and houses as if to give them a loving hug. Wow.

Sometimes the flight is bumpy. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate, and it doesn’t happen at all. Sometimes you can fly across four large states and it feels as smooth as glass the whole way.

Whatever happens, at the end of the day, the magic flying carpet machine gets locked up again. We go home, rest our heads on our soft pillows, and if we so choose, remember the beauty we experienced that day.

Really, this post is not about being a pilot. This post is a reminder to pay attention to all that is beautiful in this world. It surrounds us; the smell of pine trees in the forest, the delight in the faces of children, the gentle breeze in our hair, the kind word from a stranger, the very sunrise.

I hope that more of us will pay attention to the moments of clear skies and wind at our back. Even at those moments when we pull the hangar door shut.

For two years, I have often reflected on the bittersweet memories of that trip to Indiana. But for some reason, I hadn’t shared that photo until today. That beautiful valley-hugging fog is what you see above.

These last two years have been — well, full. Full of hate, even of death in the wake of several racist murders. But that’s not all. These years have also been full of an awakening, a swelling of people that care. People that care enough to do something. All across the country, people have risen up to send the message: “Trumpism is not American.” My own family did something we never had before: joined a protest, against families being separated. I and many others knocked on doors and made phone calls for the first time. Millions of Americans care and are doing something. We have seen the true colors of what the GOP has become, and it’s ugly, but people care. What’s more, we’ve won the first battle. Here in what the media often calls “deep-red Kansas”, we will have a Democratic governor. Racism and vote suppression has been sent packing, here in Kansas.

We have a powerful reminder that part of what makes this world beautiful is its people. People that go knock on doors in the cold. People that drive people to voting places. People that care about health care for others, about food for others, about education, intact families, refugees, and the earth itself. People that know the fight has just begun and are going to be there fighting for what is right and just for years to come. People that make the world beautiful.

Syncing with a memory: a unique use of tar –listed-incremental

I have a Nextcloud instance that various things automatically upload photos to. These automatic folders sync to a directory on my desktop. I wanted to pull things out of that directory without deleting them, and only once. (My wife might move them out of the directory on her computer, and I might arrange them into targets on my end.)

In other words, I wanted to copy a file from a source to a destination, but remember what had been copied before so it only ever copies once.

rsync doesn’t quite do this. But it turns out that tar’s listed-incremental feature can do exactly that. Ordinarily, it would delete files that were deleted on the source. But if we make the tar file with the incremental option, but extract it without, it doesn’t try to delete anything at extract time.

Here’s my synconce script:

#!/bin/bash

set -e

if [ -z "$3" ]; then
    echo "Syntax: $0 snapshotfile sourcedir destdir"
    exit 5
fi

SNAPFILE="$(realpath "$1")"
SRCDIR="$2"
DESTDIR="$(realpath "$3")"

cd "$SRCDIR"
if [ -e "$SNAPFILE" ]; then
    cp "$SNAPFILE" "${SNAPFILE}.new"
fi
tar "--listed-incremental=${SNAPFILE}.new" -cpf - . | \
    tar -xf - -C "$DESTDIR"
mv "${SNAPFILE}.new" "${SNAPFILE}"

Just have the snapshotfile be outside both the sourcedir and destdir and you’re good to go!

Running Digikam inside Docker

After my recent complaint about AppImage, I thought I’d describe how I solved my problem. I needed a small patch to Digikam, which was already in Debian’s 5.9.0 package, and the thought of rebuilding the AppImage was… unpleasant.

I thought – why not just run it inside Buster in Docker? There are various sources on the Internet for X11 apps in Docker. It took a little twiddling to make it work, but I did.

My Dockerfile was pretty simple:

FROM debian:buster
MAINTAINER John Goerzen 

RUN apt-get update && \
    apt-get -yu dist-upgrade && \
    apt-get --install-recommends -y install firefox-esr digikam digikam-doc \
         ffmpegthumbs imagemagick minidlna hugin enblend enfuse minidlna pulseaudio \
         strace xterm less breeze && \
    apt-get clean && rm -rf /var/lib/apt/lists/* /tmp/* /var/tmp/*
RUN adduser --disabled-password --uid 1000 --gecos "John Goerzen" jgoerzen && \
    rm -r /home/jgoerzen/.[a-z]*
RUN rm /etc/machine-id
CMD /usr/bin/docker

RUN mkdir -p /nfs/personalmedia /run/user/1000 && chown -R jgoerzen:jgoerzen /nfs /run/user/1000

I basically create the container and my account in it.

Then this script starts up Digikam:

#!/bin/bash

set -e

# This will be unnecessary with docker 18.04 theoretically....  --privileged see
# https://stackoverflow.com/questions/48995826/which-capabilities-are-needed-for-statx-to-stop-giving-eperm
# and https://bugs.launchpad.net/ubuntu/+source/docker.io/+bug/1755250

docker run -ti \
       -v /tmp/.X11-unix:/tmp/.X11-unix -v "/run/user/1000/pulse:/run/user/1000/pulse" -v /etc/machine-id:/etc/machine-id \
       -v /etc/localtime:/etc/localtime \
       -v /dev/shm:/dev/shm -v /var/lib/dbus:/var/lib/dbus -v /var/run/dbus:/var/run/dbus -v /run/user/1000/bus:/run/user/1000/bus  \
       -v "$HOME:$HOME" -v "/nfs/personalmedia/Pictures:/nfs/personalmedia/Pictures" \
     -e DISPLAY="$DISPLAY" \
     -e XDG_RUNTIME_DIR="$XDG_RUNTIME_DIR" \
     -e DBUS_SESSION_BUS_ADDRESS="$DBUS_SESSION_BUS_ADDRESS" \
     -e LANG="$LANG" \
     --user "$USER" \
     --hostname=digikam \
     --name=digikam \
     --privileged \
     --rm \
     jgoerzen/digikam "$@"  /usr/bin/digikam

The goal here was not total security isolation; if it had been, then all the dbus mounting and $HOME mounting was a poor idea. But as an alternative to AppImage — well, it worked perfectly. I could even get security updates if I wanted.

Remembering Tom Wallis, The System Administrator That Made The World Better

I never asked Tom why he hired me.

I was barely 17 at the time – already a Debian developer, full of more enthusiasm than experience, and Tom offered me a job. It was my first real sysadmin job, and to my delight, I got to work with Unix. For two years, I was the part-time assistant systems administrator for the Computer Science department at Wichita State University. And Tom was my boss, mentor, and old friend. Tom was walking proof that a system administrator can make the world a better place.

That amazing time was two decades ago now. And in the time since, every so often Tom and I would exchange emails. I enjoyed occasionally dropping by his office at work and surprising him.

So it was a shock to get an email this week that Tom had married for the first time at age 54, and passed away four days later due to a boating accident while on his honeymoon.

Tom was a man with a big laugh and an even bigger heart. When I started a Linux Users Group (LUG) on campus, there was Tom – helping to arrange a place to meet, Internet access when we needed it, and gave his evenings to simply be present and a supporter.

I had (and still have) a passion for Free/Open Source software. Linux was just new at the time, and was barely present in the department when I started. I was fortunate that CS was the “little dept. that could” back then, with wonderful people but not a lot of money, so a free operating system helped with a lot of problems. Tom supported me in my enthusiasm to introduce Debian all over the place. His trust meant much, and brought out the best in me.

I learned a lot from Tom, and more than just technology. A state university can be heavily bureaucratic place at times. Tom was friends with every “can-do” person on campus, it seemed, and they all managed to pull through and get things done – sometimes working around policies that were a challenge.

I have sometimes wondered if I am doing enough, making a big enough difference in the world. Does a programmer really make a difference in people’s lives?

Tom Wallis is proof that the answer is yes. From the stories I heard at his funeral today, I can only guess how many other lives he touched.

This week, Tom gave me one final gift: a powerful reminder that sysadmins and developers can make the world a better place, can touch people’s lives. I hope Tom knew how much I appreciated him. If I find a way to make a difference in someone’s life — maybe an intern I’ve hired, or someone I take flying — than I will have found a way to pass on Tom’s gift to another, and I hope I can.

tom-wallis-penguin

(This penguin was sitting out on the table of memorabilia from Tom today. I remember it from a shelf in his office.)

The Eclipse

Highway US-81 in northern Kansas and southern Nebraska is normally a pleasant, sleepy sort of drive. It was upgraded to a 4-lane road not too long ago, but as far as 4-lane roads go, its traffic is typically light. For drives from Kansas to South Dakota, it makes a pleasant route.

Yesterday was eclipse day. I strongly suspect that highway 81 had more traffic that day than it ever has before, or ever will again. For nearly the entire 3-hour drive to Geneva, NE, it was packed — though mostly still moving at a good speed. And for our entire drive back, highway 81 and every other southbound road we used was so full it felt like rush hour in Dallas. (Well, not quite. Traffic was still moving.) I believe scenes like this were played out across the continent.

I’ve been taking a lot of photos, and writing about our new baby Martha lately. Now it’s time to write a bit about some more adventures with Jacob and Oliver – they’re now in third and fifth grades in school.

We had been planning to fly, and airports I called were either full, or were planning to park planes in the grass, or even shut down some runways to use for parking. The airport in the little town of Beatrice, NE (which I had visited twice before) was even going to have a temporary FAA control tower. At the last minute, due to some storm activity near home at departure time, we unloaded the plane and drove instead.

The atmosphere at the fairgrounds in Geneva was festive. One family had brought bubbles for their kids — and extras to share.

IMG_20170821_113229

I had bought the boys a book about the eclipse, which they were reading before and during the event. They were both great, safe users of their eclipse glasses.

IMG_20170821_124809

Jacob caught a toad, and played with it for awhile. He wanted to bring it home with us, but I convinced him to let me take a picture of him with his toad friend instead.

IMG_20170821_124553

While we were waiting for totality, a number of buses from the local school district arrived. So by the time the big moment arrived, we could hear the distant roar of delight and applause from the school children gathered at the far end of the field, plus all the excitement nearby. Both boys were absolutely ecstatic to be witnessing it (and so was I!) “Wow!” “Awesome!” And simple cackles of delight were heard. On the drive home, they both kept talking about how amazing it was, and it was “once in a lifetime.”

We enjoyed our “eclipse neighbors” – the woman from San Antonio next to us, the surprise discovery of another family from just a few miles from us parked two cars down, even running into relatives at a restaurant on the way home. The applause from all around when it started – and when it ended. And the feeling, which is hard to describe, of awe and amazement at the wonders of our world and our universe.

There are many problems with the world right now, but somehow there’s something right about people coming together from all over to enjoy it.