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Posts Tagged ‘Personal

Liberty and justice for all, but not in equal measure

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As Americans we might like to believe that the US legal system is intended to protect all of our citizens.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t protect us all equally, and in fact disproportionately fails to protect the most vulnerable. We’re surrounded by instances of injustice related to gender, race and other axes of social privilege, and the machinations of law are not exempt. The state of Florida has recently provided an especially stark example in the application of its self-defense laws in two cases: Marissa Alexander and George Zimmerman. This example is notable because although there were many similarities between the cases, the outcomes were very different.

Alexander’s case was tried in May 2012 , Zimmerman’s in July 2013, both prosecuted by Florida state’s attorney Angela Corey. Both cases involved the use of firearms which were legally purchased and carried, and their owners were trained in their use. Both prosecutions cast the defendant as the aggressor, who could have avoided the confrontation. Both of the encounters were with unarmed persons. Both defenses were based on Florida self-defense laws, which include “stand your ground” laws justifying the use of deadly force without the obligation to retreat. Both shooters admitted to firing a single shot with the intent of defending themselves.

Beyond those similarities, each case had its own unique circumstances.

The events of Alexander’s case took place in her home. Her altercation was with her husband, Rico Gray Sr., who was under a restraining order following a conviction for domestic battery which put Alexander in the hospital.  After Gray threatened to kill her, Alexander retrieved a handgun from her car, returned to confront him, firing once. She was arrested and charged the same day. She had had no prior criminal record. A jury deliberated for just 12 minutes before convicting her. A judge sentenced her to 20 years in prison, in accord with mandatory minimums specified by law.  Gray, previously sentenced to probation for his earlier conviction, remains free.

Zimmerman,_George_-_Seminole_County_MugZimmerman’s shot was fired in his neighborhood, in an altercation with a teenager, Trayvon Martin, who was a guest in the community and walking by himself. The two were not acquainted. Zimmerman called police from his car, claiming that Martin appeared suspicious, and began to follow him. Some of the facts of their encounter remain in dispute, but that Zimmerman fired his gun is not in question. Afterward, Zimmerman was detained by police, questioned and released the same night without being arrested or charged. Following a public outcry, a new investigation was launched and two months later he was arrested and charged. He had been previously arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer, but the charges were later dropped. After 16 hours of deliberation, the jury found Zimmerman not guilty, and he is free today.

The most striking difference between the two cases is where each defendant aimed their gun: George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in the chest and killed him, while Marissa Alexander fired at a wall and injured no one. Alexander, a black woman, is in prison for scaring her abusive husband away, while Zimmerman, who killed a young black man, walks free. Alexander and Martin’s families have lost a mother and a son. The outcomes for the people involved in these cases could not be more different. Regardless of the merits of the relevant laws themselves, their radically unequal application is deeply troubling. What does this tell us about the relative value of these human lives, as weighed by the judicial system?

“The Florida criminal justice system has sent two clear messages today. One is that if women who are victims of domestic violence try to protect themselves, the `Stand Your Ground Law’ will not apply to them. […] The second message is that if you are black, the system will treat you differently.” – U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

References

Written by Matt Zimmerman

July 14, 2013 at 13:56

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Why I’m excited about joining Singly

This summer, I’ll be taking a bit of time off, moving back to San Francisco and starting a new job. I can’t wait to get back to work. Here’s why.

Me and my data


I have a singular relationship with my data. I have a copy of every email I’ve sent since I first got an Internet email address in 1994 (82,000 messages and counting). I have even older files downloaded from BBSes, and passed between friends on floppy disks. Chat logs, text messages, voicemail…I hold onto them all. Anything which is relevant to me personally, I tend to save.

This must seem banal to people who are first getting online today. In the age of Gmail and Flickr, it’s easy to assume that all of your data will be preserved indefinitely, with little or no effort on your part. But for me, it has been hard work over the years, because I’ve done it myself. I’ve carried my data with me to countless new computers, operating systems, storage technologies, file formats and cities over the years. Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve brought it with me. Physically.

Really?

Why do I do this? Why have I gone to such trouble for a collection of bits? Especially now, why is most of my data still at home?

One pragmatic answer is that I can simply do more with my data when I have a copy. I can work with it using any software I want, including software that I write myself. I don’t have to worry about whether I can transfer it from one web service to another. I’m never stuck using yesterday’s services because my data is never trapped in them. My personal data is always available to me me, always raw, ready and waiting for the next wave of software to come along. When it does, I can load my data into it and keep going. The fact that Facebook and Google disagree over sharing their users’ data doesn’t bother me in the least.

Another reason is that I want to be in control of it. I decide who to share my data with, and when. Some of it, I prefer not to share at all, with any person or company, and I have that choice. Even if a powerful government wants to access my data, I am afforded certain protection under the law, at least in the countries where I’ve lived. If I turned over my data to service providers, my choices and protection would likely be much more limited.

I have a deeper emotional attachment to my data as well. Enfolded within that vast pattern of bits is some part of my self. By sharing my personal data with other people, I show them something of who I am. Increasingly, my personal data is part of my identity. This is more than just a state of mind: it’s been shown that even our “non-identifying” personal data can reveal who we are.

In other words, it’s not just “my data”—it’s me data”.

Singly

I’m joining Singly because I want to take this concept much further, and combine people, data and software into a different shape with people at the center.

Today, we are creating vastly greater amounts of personal data, and it’s stored in many more places. We leave our trail on the Internet in the form of activity streams, messages and content, spread across different web sites, each with their own inscrutable terms of service and (if we’re lucky) their own API. These disconnected silos prevent us from using all of this information effectively.

Meanwhile, we want—and need—to connect with each other in more ways than ever before. We need applications which can connect us, through our personal data, to the services we need.

Singly is building the technology to make this possible. It will be designed with the deepest respect for the relationship that we have with our personal data, and with a vision for truly personal computing.

Singly is…

  • A team of passionate people, dedicated to a vision for personal data
  • Building an open source data locker, which aggregates and stores your personal data from around the web and ensures that it’s always available to you
  • Enabling developers to create powerful distributed applications based on this data, without having to deal with the complexity of multiple web services APIs
  • Providing secure hosting services for personal data lockers
  • Hiring! We’re looking for people with deep experience in security and cryptography, cloud infrastructure and user experience, as well as software engineering generalists

This opportunity is a great fit for my interests and experience. Singly aims to be the commercial part of a vibrant open source community, and I’m looking forward to building on what I’ve learned in Debian, Canonical and Ubuntu to help make it a success.

I’ll have lots more to say about it as time goes on. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in following what we’re doing, here’s where:

Written by Matt Zimmerman

May 27, 2011 at 17:13

Moving on from Canonical (but not from Ubuntu)

This June, soon after my seventh anniversary with Canonical, I will finish my job as Ubuntu CTO at Canonical. You can read my official announcement on the Canonical blog.

It’s sometimes hard to believe that it’s been that long since we first envisioned a Linux desktop “for human beings”. When I look at how far we’ve come, at the difference we’ve made to so many people, it’s easy to see how the time passed so quickly.

It’s been an incredible experience for me to play a part in building Ubuntu and Canonical. Whether building a decentralized company of hundreds of people, to a global community project of tens of thousands of members, I’m grateful for all of the learning opportunities along the way. It has been a privilege to work with so many brilliant, passionate and thoughtful people under such auspicious circumstances. There is much I will miss, and I have many memories to enjoy, from all-night global hacking sessions driving toward a ship date, to casual singing and playing music at our many face-to-face events

Nonetheless, it is time for me to seek out new challenges and stretch myself in new ways. I’ll be moving back to the US, closer to old friends and family, and starting a new job with a different type of company. I am leaving behind a capable and dedicated team at Canonical, who I am confident will achieve even greater things in the years to come.

I will remain active in the free software community as a volunteer. I intend to continue to participate in Ubuntu, and to serve on the Technical Board. I will also be continuing my work with Debian and the DEX project. This year, I’ve accepted advisory positions with the Ada Initiative and the Freedom Box Foundation, and will continue to support those organizations and their missions.

I’ll be in Budapest at the Ubuntu Developer Summit for the next week, and look forward to seeing my friends in Canonical and the Ubuntu community.

I’ll have more to say soon about what I’ll be doing next professionally. Watch this space for updates!

Written by Matt Zimmerman

May 6, 2011 at 07:51

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Rejoining Debian

A couple of months ago, Debian project membership voted, after extensive discussion, to implement a fundamental change in the Debian community: to welcome as members people who make a valuable contribution to the project, even if they are contributing something other than source code.

This was a tremendous milestone for Debian, and one which made me feel proud to have been a part of the project. Historically, only developers had been eligible for membership, including voting and other formal privileges. Although other kinds of contributions were welcome, this disparity gave the impression that they were less valued than code contributions. It seemed to me at the time that Debian’s mission was to package all of the free software in the world, and if one’s efforts didn’t go directly to improving packages, they just weren’t as important.

I don’t remember when I first installed Debian, but I made my first contributions to the project in 1999, and officially joined as a developer in 2000. After several fun and rewarding years of packaging and development, I started a very demanding day job, and spent more and more of my energy into that, and less and less coding for Debian as a volunteer. However, my job with Canonical involved working with Debian, and that was a primary reason why it was interesting to me. It was an opportunity to introduce a whole new population of people to the things I loved about Debian.

The reality, of course, was more complicated. Following the launch in 2004, Ubuntu grew quickly in popularity and scope, diverged from Debian in significant ways, and relations between Debian and Ubuntu became strained. Canonical grew quickly as well, and the combination of a growing community, a growing company and growing user adoption was a challenge for everyone concerned. As a Canonical manager and a Debian developer, I felt the strain as much as anyone.

Meanwhile, and I felt more and more alienated from Debian. Debian developers who had been friendly in the past became suspicious of Ubuntu—and me—and I quickly became an outsider. My code contributions to Debian continued to decline, and I was no longer maintaining any packages. In Debian at the time, that meant that I didn’t exist. I saw it as an important part of my job to work with my counterparts in Debian, in a coordinating role, but found this increasingly impractical. In 2007, I received an inquiry from the Debian Account Manager, who had noticed I wasn’t actively involved in packaging, and wished to disable my account for security reasons if I wasn’t using it. Although I wanted to remain active in the Debian community, I had to agree that it wasn’t good security practice for me to hold onto my developer privileges. I relinquished my upload rights, with the option to come back if I resumed my development work, and officially became a nobody: I lost the right to vote, my email address and mailing list subscriptions, and all other official ties with Debian, except for the record of my GPG key in a special “emeritus” keyring for informational purposes.

Last month, Enrico Zini announced instructions for contributors to apply for membership under the new guidelines, which recognize many kinds of contributions, not only code. Today, after a three year hiatus, I am proud to be the first Debian member to be accepted through this new process. I expect to continue to submit the occasional patch, but my primary interest is in healing the rift which still exists between Debian and Ubuntu by contributing in a more personal way. Please feel free to contact me if you’d like to work together on this. You can reach me as mdz at either debian.org or ubuntu.com, or on IRC.

I would like to thank Stefano Zacchiroli, for proposing the General Resolution which enabled Debian to make this transition, and for all of his other work as Debian Project Leader to help Debian grow and improve. I also appreciate Enrico Zini, Jonathan McDowell and Martin Zobel-Helas for expediently processing me and working through the technical changes needed to implement the resolution correctly.

It’s good to be back.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

December 23, 2010 at 19:41

Breathing information

I’ve written previously about my reading habits, online and offline, and the patterns I extrapolate to content consumption in general. I’ve been talking with other people about this as well, and am beginning to develop a model to apply to my daily life.

There are plenty of unsatisfactory metaphors circulating in this area: we eat the “information diet”, drink from the “fire hose”, endure the “information explosion”, and so on. None of them describe the richness of my experience: the profound variations in style, texture, speed, depth and movement are lost in this kind of dry imagery.

Instead, I think of it like respiration.

We inhale information, and we also exhale it transformed. We do this, consciously or unconsciously, every moment of our lives. Sometimes we do it quickly, other times slowly, and it can be relaxing or stimulating. We only retain a small amount of what we take in, but it becomes a part of us. We can immerse ourselves deeply, meditatively, in a series of breaths, or fail to notice as we breathe shallowly or pause altogether. One breath may be virtually silent, the next filled with a song or a question or a piercing whistle.

We maintain a balance in our breathing, and I aspire to do the same with information: reading and writing, listening and speaking, seeing and being seen. I don’t mean this simplistically, that I should do both in equal proportion (imagine trying to write as many words as you read!), but doing both consistently. It is often only when I share an idea that I come to understand it deeply, no matter how much I have read about it. By writing it down, or telling someone about it, I naturally fill in the gaps in my understanding and create mental structures which help me recall and apply what I’ve learned.

My input and output should be balanced appropriately for my circumstances. Rapid-fire email is like hyperventilation: I can do it for a while, reading and replying in quick succession, and even feel energized by it, but if I go on for too long, I get dizzy. Running might call for a certain breathing ratio, and Yoga quite a different one. Both can be healthy practices, but they are different, and each requires focus and consistency.

Another key lesson from breathing is to let go. A friend recently told me about his daily online news routine, which included closing any unread tabs at the end of the session. I will sometimes hang onto an article or a video for days or weeks before I find the opportunity to take it in. I eventually get around to most of them, but meanwhile they are taking up space and causing a continuous low level of anxiety or guilt. This information isn’t going anywhere, and if it’s truly significant for me, it will most likely turn up again. If it doesn’t, that’s OK too.

Similarly, it’s not wise to breathe stale, indoor air for too long. I will try to step outside regularly, and engage with people and media from outside my usual sphere. When the weather is tolerable, I’ll open up the house and let plenty of fresh air circulate. This will help me avoid getting stuck in the “echo chamber” of my own ideas, or in groupthink.

Perhaps most significantly, I will try to remember that information exchange, like breathing, is not an end in itself. It is a means to action. This will remind me to get out of my head regularly, and do something significant with what I’ve learned.

Ready? Breathe.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

December 2, 2010 at 15:44

Tips for frequent international travel

I travel pretty regularly, about 35% so far in 2010. When it goes wrong, travel can be exhausting, frustrating, complicated, stressful and even debilitating. I’m always looking for ways to make my trips run more smoothly. On a recent flight to Taipei, I wrote down a few of the techniques which I’ve successfully put into practice and found helpful. This is not an exhaustive list; I’ve omitted a lot of the common and obvious tips I’ve seen elsewhere.

  1. Make a packing list. This one may be obvious, but a lot of people neglect it. Perhaps they think making lists is boring and fussy, but really, it isn’t. Without a packing list, it’s easy to forget to do the things which will make your trip better. Use it every time, and bring a copy with you (or store it online) so you can add the things you wish you had brought or done. A simple, ever-improving packing list is the most effective technique I have found for making travel less stressful and more enjoyable.
  2. Carry a water bottle with a tight-fitting lid. I use a 32oz Nalgene bottle, which fits nicely into the seat next to me or under an armrest, and gives me enough water for even the longest flights. I fill it up after passing through security, at a cafe, bar or lounge, and generally decline the beverages offered by the cabin crew. Staying hydrated helps me feel better during the flight, and leaves me with less malaise when I arrive. I don’t need to manage a tray table or armrest full of cups and other debris, so I can sit more comfortably, with the tray table folded away.
  3. Consolidate essential items using multipurpose equipment. For example, invest in a power adapter which has USB sockets onboard, and carry USB cables instead of wall chargers. Versatile items like this save on space and weight. I can charge two devices this way, but the equipment is smaller and lighter than even a single wall charger.
  4. Learn how to sleep on an airplane. Getting some sleep on a long flight really helps to offset the effects of traveling. There are several resources out there with practical advice on how to do it. One thing which really helped me was to buy a high quality eye mask which blocks out all of the light in the cabin. The one I use looks a little funny and is not cheap, but is very comfortable and effective. It’s made of memory foam with a soft, washable cover and works much better than the ones the airlines give away for free. I no longer bother with a neck pillow, and use the flaps built into the seat to lean my head against. I’m surprised at how many people don’t know about this common aricraft feature: virtually every long-haul seat has something like this, even in economy, though it may not be obvious how to use it.
  5. Buy duplicates of things like toiletries, and keep them in your travel kit so you don’t need to pack your everyday items (and risk forgetting them) each time. The less packing you need to do, the less time it will take, and the less opportunity there is for mistakes. This also saves time unpacking when you get home, and lets you buy a smaller size of the item where available.
  6. Optimize border crossings Carry the forms you’ll need for customs, immigration, etc. in your carry-on. They don’t always provide them at the counter or on board the plane, and it’s a hassle to rush to fill in the form at the last minute. If you have a few of them with you, you can fill them out early (perhaps even before you fly) and then hustle to the front of the queue. For countries you enter frequently (especially your home country), programs like Global Entry (US) and IRIS (UK) will save you a lot of time by allowing you to use an automated kiosk to cross the border.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

October 3, 2010 at 17:33

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Traveling at home

For me, the most enjoyable part of traveling is the inspiration that I derive from visiting different places, talking to people, and generally being outside of my normal environment. This bank holiday weekend, when so many Londoners visit faraway lands, my partner and I stayed in London instead, and my sought inspiration closer to home. The city has been delightfully quiet, and in contrast to the preceding week, the weather was mostly pleasant, apart from the sudden downpours the BBC described as “squally showers”.

Photo of deer in Richmond Park

Photo credit: Márcio Cabral de Moura


We spent Saturday afternoon in Richmond Park, a 2500-acre nature preserve easily accessible via public transport from London. The plentiful oak trees, fallow deer, and various species of water fowl made it easy to forget the city for a while. Having visited a few times on foot, I think it would be fun to cycle next time, and see different areas of the park.

Afterward, we had dinner at a tapas restaurant in Parsons Green which offered notably excellent service as well as good food. By this time, it was nearly 7:00pm, and we took a chance on getting last-minute theatre tickets to see Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl in Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue. We arrived at the theatre just in time for the show, which was not sold out, and in fact had quite reasonable seats available. The show had several good laughs, holding up fairly well after nearly 40 years since the original Broadway production.

Photo of the exhibition at the Design Museum

Photo credit: Gary Bembridge


On Sunday, we visited the Design Museum for the first time. Having been disappointed by the nearby Fashion and Textile Museum, our expectations were not too high, but it turned out to be very worthwhile. The Brit Insurance Designs of the Year exhibition showcased designs from architecture, fashion, furniture, transport and more. Some of my favorites were:

  • Pachube, a system for sharing real-time sensor data and fostering a community around its uses
  • Grassworks, a line of flat-pack, self-assembled furniture constructed entirely from bamboo, without glue or fasteners
  • The Gocycle, a lightweight (16kg) electric bicycle for city dwellers
  • The Eyewriter, a low-cost eye tracking system powered by open source software
  • The Land Glider, a small (1×3 meters), enclosed electric vehicle which maintains stability by leaning into turns
  • Analog Digital, a clock which is operated by a person covering and revealing segments using paint
  • BMW GINA, a fabric-skinned shape-shifting car concept

I was delighted to see that there were a half dozen or so exhibits which related to open source software.

Even including the theatre tickets, it was a very inexpensive holiday compared to traveling overseas, and generated a lot less CO2. I was more than satisfied with the inspiration available within a relatively small radius. I don’t think I’ll give up traveling, as I really enjoy seeing friends who live far away, but I think I’ll be more inclined to stay home during peak travel times and enjoy local activities.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

August 30, 2010 at 13:17

DebConf 10: Last day and retrospective

DebConf continued until Saturday, but Friday the 6th was my last day as I left New York that evening. I’m a bit late in getting this summary written up.

Making Debian Rule, Again (Margarita Manterola)

Marga took a bold look at the challenges facing Debian today. She says that Debian is perceived to be less innovative, out of date, difficult to use, and shrinking as a community. She called out Ubuntu as the “elephant in the room”, which is “‘taking away’ from Debian.” She insists that she is not opposed to Ubuntu, but that nonetheless Ubuntu is to some extent displacing Debian as a focal point for newcomers (both users and contributors).

Marga points out that Debian’s work is still meaningful, because many users still prefer Debian, and it is perceived to be of higher quality, as well as being the essential basis for derivatives like Ubuntu.

She conducted a survey (about 40 respondents) to ask what Debian’s problems are, and grouped them into categories like “motivation” and “communication” (tied for the #1 spot), “visibility” (#3, meaning public awareness and perception of Debian) and so on. She went on to make some suggestions about how to address these problems.

On the topic of communication, she proposed changing Debian culture by:

  • Spreading positive messages, celebrating success
  • Thanking contributors for their work
  • Avoiding escalation by staying away from email and IRC when angry
  • Treating every contributor with respect, “no matter how wrong they are”

This stimulated a lot of discussion, and most of the remaining time was taken up by comments from the audience. The video has been published, and offers a lot of insight into how Debian developers perceive each other and the project. She also made suggestions for the problems of visibility and motivation. These are crucial issues for Debian devotees to be considering, and I applaud Marga for her fortitude in drawing attention to them. This session was one of the highlights of this DebConf, and catalyzed a lot of discussion of vital issues in Debian.

Following her talk, there was a further discussion in the hallway which included many of the people who commented during the session, mostly about how to deal with problematic behavior in Debian. Although I agreed with much of what was said, I found it a bit painful to watch, because (ironically) this discussion displayed several of the characteristic “people problems” that Debian seems to have:

  • Many people had opinions, and although they agreed on many things, agreement was rarely expressed openly. Sometimes it helps a lot to simply say “I agree with you” and leave it at that. Lending support, rather than adding a new voice, helps to build consensus.
  • People waited for their turn to talk rather than listening to the person speaking, so the discussion didn’t build momentum toward a conclusion.
  • The conversation got louder and more dense over time, making it difficult to enter. It wasn’t argumentative; it was simply loud and fast-paced. This drowned out people who weren’t as vocal or willful.
  • Even where agreement was apparent, there was often no clear action agreed. No one had responsibility for changing the situation.

These same patterns are easily observed on Debian mailing lists for the past 10+ years. I exhibited them myself when I was active on these lists. This kind of cultural norm, once established, is difficult to intentionally change. It requires a fairly radical approach, which will inevitably mean coping with loss. In the case of a community, this can mean losing volunteer contributors cannot let go of this norm, and that is an emotionally difficult experience. However, it is nonetheless necessary to move forward, and I think that Debian as a community is capable of moving beyond it.

Juxtaposition

Given my history with both Debian and Ubuntu, I couldn’t help but take a comparative view of some of this. These problems are not new to Debian, and indeed they inspired many of the key decisions we made when founding the Ubuntu project in 2004. We particularly wanted to foster a culture which was supportive, encouraging and welcoming to potential contributors, something Debian has struggled with. Ubuntu has been, quite deliberately, an experiment in finding solutions to problems such as these. We’ve learned a lot from this experiment, and I’ve always hoped that this would help to find solutions for Debian as well.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Debian has benefited from these Ubuntu experiments as much as we might have hoped. A common example of this is the Ubuntu Code of Conduct. The idea of a project code of conduct predates Ubuntu, of course, but we did help to popularize it within the free software community, and this is now a common (and successful) practice used by many free software projects. The idea of behavioral standards for Debian has been raised in various forms for years now, but never seems to get traction. Hearing people talk about it at DebConf, it sometimes seemed almost as if the idea was dismissed out of hand because it was too closely associated with Ubuntu.

I learned from Marga’s talk that Enrico Zini drafted a set of Debian Community Guidelines over four years ago in 2006. It is perhaps a bit longand structured, but is basically excellent. Enrico has done a great job of compiling best practices for participating in an open community project. However, his document seems to be purely informational, without any official standing in the Debian project, and Debian community leaders have hesitated to make it something more.

Perhaps Ubuntu leaders (myself included) could have done more to nurture these ideas in Debian. At least in my experience, though, I found that my affiliation with Ubuntu almost immediately labeled me an “outsider” in Debian, even when I was still active as a developer, and this made it very difficult to make such proposals. Perhaps this is because Debian is proud of its independence, and does not want to be unduly influenced by external forces. Perhaps the initial “growing pains” of the Debian/Ubuntu relationship got in the way. Nonetheless, I think that Debian could be stronger by learning from Ubuntu, just as Ubuntu has learned so much from Debian.

Closing thoughts

I enjoyed this DebConf very much. This was the first DebConf to be hosted in the US, and there were many familiar faces that I hadn’t seen in some time. Columbia University offered an excellent location, and the presentation content was thought-provoking. There seemed to be a positive attitude toward Ubuntu, which was very good to see. Although there is always more work to do, it feels like we’re making progress in improving cooperation between Debian and Ubuntu.

I was a bit sad to leave, but was fortunate enough to meet up with Debian folk during my subsequent stay in the Boston area as well. It felt good to reconnect with this circle of friends again, and I hope to see you again soon.

Looking forward to next year’s DebConf in Bosnia

Written by Matt Zimmerman

August 25, 2010 at 16:57

Read, listen, or comprehend: choose two

I have noticed that when I am reading, I cannot simultaneously understand spoken words. If someone speaks to me while I am reading, I can pay attention to their voice, or to the text, but not both. It’s as if these two functions share the same cognitive facility, and this facility can only handle one task at a time. If someone is talking on the phone nearby, I find it very difficult to focus on reading (or writing). If I’m having a conversation with someone about a document, I sometimes have to ask them to pause the conversation for a moment while I read.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to me. In Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care what Other People Think?, there is a chapter entitled “It’s as Simple as One, Two, Three…” where he describes his experiments with keeping time in his head. He practiced counting at a steady rate while simultaneously performing various actions, such as running up and down the stairs, reading, writing, even counting objects. He discovered that he “could do anything while counting to [himself]—except talk out loud”.

What’s interesting is that the pattern varies from person to person. Feynman shared his discovery with a group of people, one of whom (John Tukey) had a curiously different experience: while counting steadily, he could easily speak aloud, but could not read. Through experimenting and comparing their experiences, it seemed to them that they were using different cognitive processes to accomplish the task of counting time. Feynman was “hearing” the numbers in his head, while Tukey was “seeing” the numbers go by.

Analogously, I’ve met people who seem to be able to read and listen to speech at the same time. I attributed this to a similar cognitive effect: presumably some people “speak” the words to themselves, while others “watch” them. Feynman found that, although he could write and count at the same time, his counting would be interrupted when he had to stop and search for the right word. Perhaps he used a different mental faculty for that. Some people seem to be able to listen to more than one person talking at the same time, and I wonder if that’s related.

I was reminded of this years later, when I came across this video on speed reading. In it, the speaker explains that most people read by silently voicing words, which they can do at a rate of only 120-250 words per minute. However, people can learn to read visually instead, and thereby read much more quickly. He describes a training technique which involves reading while continuously voicing arbitrary sounds, like the vowels A-E-I-O-U.

The interesting part, for me, was the possibility of learning. I realized that different people read in different ways, but hadn’t thought much about whether one could change this. Having learned a cognitive skill, like reading or counting time, apparently one can re-learn it a different way. Visual reading would seem, at first glance, to be superior: not only is it faster, but I have to use my eyes to read anyway, so why tie up my listening facility as well? Perhaps I could use it for something else at the same time.

So, I tried the simple technique in the video, and it had a definite effect. I could “feel” that I wasn’t reading in the same way that I had been before. I didn’t measure whether I was going any faster or slower, because I quickly noticed something more significant: my reading comprehension was completely shot. I couldn’t remember what I had read, as the memory of it faded within seconds. Before reaching the end of a paragraph, I would forget the beginning. It was as if my ability to comprehend the meaning of the text was linked to my reading technique. I found this very unsettling, and it ruined my enjoyment of the book I was reading.

I’ll probably need to separate this practice from my pleasure reading in order to stick with it. Presumably, over time, my comprehension will improve. I’m curious about what net effect this will have, though. Will I still comprehend it in “the same” way? Will it mean the same thing to me? Will I still feel the same way about it? The many levels of meaning are connected to our senses as well, and “the same” idea, depending on whether it was read or heard, may not have “the same” meaning to an individual. Even our tactile senses can influence our judgments and decisions.

I also wonder whether, if I learn to read visually, I’ll lose the ability to read any other way. When I retrained myself to type using a Dvorak keyboard layout, rather than QWERTY, I lost the ability to type on QWERTY at high speed. I think this has been a good tradeoff for me, but raises interesting questions about how my mind works: Why did this happen? What else changed in the process that might have been less obvious?

Have you tried re-training yourself in this way? What kind of cognitive side effects did you notice, if any? If you lost something, do you still miss it?

(As a sidenote, I am impressed by Feynman’s exuberance and persistence in his personal experiments, as described in his books for laypeople. Although I consider myself a very curious person, I rarely invest that kind of physical and intellectual energy in first-hand experiments. I’m much more likely to research what other people have done, and skim the surface of the subject.)

Written by Matt Zimmerman

July 12, 2010 at 12:57

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

Navigating the PolicyKit maze

I’ve written a simple application which will automatically extract media from CDs and DVDs when they are inserted into the drive attached to my server. This makes it easy for me to compile all of my media in one place and access it anytime I like. The application uses the modern udisks API, formerly known as DeviceKit-disks, and I wrote it in part to learn get some experience working with udisks (which, it turns out, is rather nice indeed).

Naturally, I wanted to grant this application the privileges necessary to mount, unmount and eject removable media. The server is headless, and the application runs as a daemon, so this would require explicit configuration. udisks uses PolicyKit for authorization, so I expected this to be very simple to do. In fact, it is very simple, but finding out exactly how to do it wasn’t quite so easy.

The Internet is full of web pages which recommend editing /etc/PolicyKit/PolicyKit.conf. As far as I can tell, nothing pays attention to this file anymore, and all of these instructions have been rendered meaningless. My system was also full of tools like polkit-auth, from the apparently-obsolete policykit package, which kept their configuration in some other ignored place, i.e. /var/lib/PolicyKit. It seems the configuration system has been through a revolution or two recently.

In Ubuntu 10.04, the right place to configure these things seems to be /var/lib/polkit-1/localauthority, and this is documented in pklocalauthority(8). Authorization can be tested using pkcheck(1), and the default policy can be examined using pkaction(1).

I solved my problem by creating a file in /var/lib/polkit-1/localauthority/50-local.d with a .pkla extension with the following contents:

[Access to removable media for the media group]
Identity=unix-group:media
Action=org.freedesktop.udisks.drive-eject;org.freedesktop.udisks.filesystem-mount
ResultAny=yes

This took effect immediately and did exactly what I needed. I lost quite some time trying to figure out why the other methods weren’t working, so perhaps this post will save the next person a bit of time. It may also inspire some gratitude for the infrastructure which makes all of this work automatically for more typical usage scenarios, so that most people don’t need to worry about any of this.

Along the way, I whipped up a patch to add a --eject option to the handy udisks(1) tool, which made it easier for me to test along the way.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 27, 2010 at 14:38