Are Men the Victims?

A very famous blog post is Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi [1]. In that post he clearly describes that life isn’t great for straight white men, but that there are many more opportunities for them.

Causes of Death

When this post is mentioned there are often objections, one common objection is that men have a lower life expectancy. The CIA World factbook (which I consider a very reliable source about such matters) says that the US life expectancy is 77.8 for males and 82.3 for females [2]. The country with the highest life expectancy is Monaco with 85.5 for males and 93.4 years for females [3]. The CDC in the US has a page with links to many summaries about causes of death [4]. The causes where men have higher rates in 2015 are heart disease (by 2.1%), cancer (by 1.7%), unintentional injuries (by 2.8%), and diabetes (by 0.4%). The difference in the death toll for heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, and diabetes accounts for 7% of total male deaths. The male top 10 lists of causes of death also includes suicide (2.5%) and chronic liver disease (1.9%) which aren’t even in the top 10 list for females (which means that they would each comprise less than 1.6% of the female death toll).

So the difference in life expectancy would be partly due to heart problems (which are related to stress and choices about healthy eating etc), unintentional injuries (risk seeking behaviour and work safety), cancer (the CDC reports that smoking is more popular among men than women [5] by 17.5% vs 13.5%), diabetes (linked to unhealthy food), chronic liver disease (alcohol), and suicide. Largely the difference seems to be due to psychological and sociological issues.

The American Psychological Association has for the first time published guidelines for treating men and boys [6]. It’s noteworthy that the APA states that in the past “psychology focused on men (particularly white men), to the exclusion of all others” and goes on to describe how men dominate the powerful and well paid jobs. But then states that “men commit 90 percent of homicides in the United States and represent 77 percent of homicide victims”. They then go on to say “thirteen years in the making, they draw on more than 40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly”. The article then goes on to mention use of alcohol, tobacco, and unhealthy eating as correlated with “traditional” ideas about masculinity. One significant statement is “mental health professionals must also understand how power, privilege and sexism work both by conferring benefits to men and by trapping them in narrow roles”.

The news about the new APA guidelines focuses on the conservative reaction, the NYT has an article about this [7].

I think that there is clear evidence that more flexible ideas about gender etc are good for men’s health and directly connect to some of the major factors that affect male life expectancy. Such ideas are opposed by conservatives.

Risky Jobs

Another point that is raised is the higher rate of work accidents for men than women. In Australia it was illegal for women to work in underground mines (one of the more dangerous work environments) until the late 80’s (here’s an article about this and other issues related to women in the mining industry [8]).

I believe that people should be allowed to work at any job they are qualified for. I also believe that we need more occupational health and safety legislation to reduce the injuries and deaths at work. I don’t think that the fact that a group of (mostly male) politicians created laws to exclude women from jobs that are dangerous and well-paid while also not creating laws to mitigate the danger is my fault. I’ll vote against such politicians at every opportunity.

Military Service

Another point that is often raised is that men die in wars.

In WW1 women were only allowed to serve in the battlefield as nurses. Many women died doing that. Deaths in war has never been an exclusively male thing. Women in many countries are campaigning to be allowed to serve equally in the military (including in combat roles).

As far as I am aware the last war where developed countries had conscription was the Vietnam war. Since then military technology has developed to increasingly complex and powerful weapons systems with an increasing number of civilians and non-combat military personnel supporting each soldier who is directly involved in combat. So it doesn’t seem likely that conscription will be required for any developed country in the near future.

But not being directly involved in combat doesn’t make people safe. NPR has an interesting article about the psychological problems (potentially leading up to suicide) that drone operators and intelligence staff experience [9]. As an aside the article reference two women doing that work.

Who Is Ignoring These Things?

I’ve been accused of ignoring these problems, it’s a general pattern on the right to accuse people of ignoring these straight white male problems whenever there’s a discussion of problems that are related to not being a straight white man. I don’t think that I’m ignoring anything by failing to mention death rates due to unsafe workplaces in a discussion about the treatment of trans people. I try to stay on topic.

The New York Times article I cited shows that conservatives are the ones trying to ignore these problems. When the American Psychological Association gives guidelines on how to help men who suffer psychological problems (which presumably would reduce the suicide rate and bring male life expectancy closer to female life expectancy) they are attacked by Fox etc.

My electronic communication (blog posts, mailing list messages, etc) is mostly connected to the free software community, which is mostly male. The majority of people who read what I write are male. But it seems that the majority of positive feedback when I write about such issues is from women. I don’t think there is a problem of women or left wing commentators failing men. I think there is a problem of men and conservatives failing men.

What Can We Do?

I’m sure that there are many straight white men who see these things as problems but just don’t say anything about it. If you don’t want to go to the effort of writing a blog post then please consider signing your name to someone else’s. If you are known for your work (EG by being a well known programmer in the Linux community) then you could just comment “I agree” on a post like this and that makes a difference while also being really easy to do.

Another thing that would be good is if we could change the hard drinking culture that seems connected to computer conferences etc. Kara has an insightful article on Model View Culture about drinking and the IT industry [10]. I decided that drinking at Linux conferences had got out of hand when about 1/3 of the guys at my table at a conference dinner vomited.

Linux Conf Au (the most prestigious Linux conference) often has a Depression BoF which is really good. I hope they have one this year. As an aside I have problems with depression, anyone who needs someone to talk to about such things and would rather speak to me than attend a BoF is welcome to contact me by email (please take a failure to reply immediately as a sign that I’m behind on checking my email not anything else) or social media.

If you have any other ideas on how to improve things please make a comment here, or even better write a blog post and link to it in a comment.

Photograph Your Work

One thing I should have learned before (but didn’t) and hope I’ve learned now is to photograph sysadmin work.

If you work as a sysadmin you probably have a good phone, if you are going to run ssh from a phone or use a phone to read docs while in a server room with connectivity problems you need a phone with a good screen. You will also want a phone that has current security support. Such a phone will have a reasonable amount of storage space, I doubt that you can get a phone with less than 32G of storage that has a decent screen and Android security support. Admittedly Apple has longer security support for iPhones than Google does for Nexus/Pixel phones so it might be possible to get an older iPhone with a decent screen and hardly any space (but that’s not the point here).

If you have 32G of storage on your phone then there’s no real possibility of using up your storage space by photographing a day’s work. You could probably take an unreasonable number of photos of a week’s work as well as a few videos and not use up much of that.

The first time I needed photos recently was about 9 months ago when I was replacing some network gear (new DSL modem and switch for a client). The network sockets in the rack weren’t labelled and I found it unreasonably difficult to discover where everything was (the tangle of cables made tracking them impossible). What I should have done is to photograph the cables before I started and then I would have known where to connect everything. A 12MP camera allows zooming in on photos to get details, so a couple of quick shots of that rack would have saved me a lot of time – and in the case where everything goes as planned taking a couple of photos isn’t going to delay things.

Last night there was a power failure in a server room that hosts a couple of my machines. When power came back on the air-conditioner didn’t start up and the end result was a server with one of it’s disks totally dead (maybe due to heat, maybe power failures, maybe it just wore out). For unknown reasons BTRFS wouldn’t allow me to replace the disk in the RAID-1 array so I needed to copy the data to a new disk and create a new mirror (taking a lot of my time and also giving downtime). While I was working on this the filesystem would only mount read-only so no records of the kernel errors were stored. If I had taken photos of the screen I would have records of this which might allow me to reproduce the problem and file a bug report. Now I have no records, I can’t reproduce it, and I have a risk that next time a disk dies in a BTRFS RAID-1 I’ll have the same problem. Also presumably random people all over the world will suffer needless pain because of this while lacking the skills to file a good bug report because I didn’t make good enough records to reproduce it.

Hopefully next time I’m in a situation like this I’ll think to take some photos instead of just rebooting and wiping the evidence.

As an aside I’ve been finding my phone camera useful for zooming in on serial numbers that I can’t read otherwise. I’ve got new glasses on order that will hopefully address this, but in the mean time it’s the only way I can read the fine print. Another good use of a phone camera is recording error messages that scroll past too quickly to read and aren’t logged. Some phones support slow motion video capture (up to 120fps or more) and even for phones that don’t you can use slow play (my favourite Android video player MX Player works well at 5% normal speed) to capture most messages that are too quick to read.

Words Have Meanings

As a follow-up to my post with Suggestions for Trump Supporters [1] I notice that many people seem to have private definitions of words that they like to use.

There are some situations where the use of a word is contentious and different groups of people have different meanings. One example that is known to most people involved with computers is “hacker”. That means “criminal” according to mainstream media and often “someone who experiments with computers” to those of us who like experimenting with computers. There is ongoing discussion about whether we should try and reclaim the word for it’s original use or whether we should just accept that’s a lost cause. But generally based on context it’s clear which meaning is intended. There is also some overlap between the definitions, some people who like to experiment with computers conduct experiments with computers they aren’t permitted to use. Some people who are career computer criminals started out experimenting with computers for fun.

But some times words are misused in ways that fail to convey any useful ideas and just obscure the real issues. One example is the people who claim to be left-wing Libertarians. Murray Rothbard (AKA “Mr Libertarian”) boasted about “stealing” the word Libertarian from the left [2]. Murray won that battle, they should get over it and move on. When anyone talks about “Libertarianism” nowadays they are talking about the extreme right. Claiming to be a left-wing Libertarian doesn’t add any value to any discussion apart from demonstrating the fact that the person who makes such a claim is one who gives hipsters a bad name. The first time penny-farthings were fashionable the word “libertarian” was associated with left-wing politics. Trying to have a sensible discussion about politics while using a word in the opposite way to almost everyone else is about as productive as trying to actually travel somewhere by penny-farthing.

Another example is the word “communist” which according to many Americans seems to mean “any person or country I don’t like”. It’s often invoked as a magical incantation that’s supposed to automatically win an argument. One recent example I saw was someone claiming that “Russia has always been communist” and rejecting any evidence to the contrary. If someone was to say “Russia has always been a shit country” then there’s plenty of evidence to support that claim (Tsarist, communist, and fascist Russia have all been shit in various ways). But no definition of “communism” seems to have any correlation with modern Russia. I never discovered what that person meant by claiming that Russia is communist, they refused to make any comment about Russian politics and just kept repeating that it’s communist. If they said “Russia has always been shit” then it would be a clear statement, people can agree or disagree with that but everyone knows what is meant.

The standard response to pointing out that someone is using a definition of a word that is either significantly different to most of the world (or simply inexplicable) is to say “that’s just semantics”. If someone’s “contribution” to a political discussion is restricted to criticising people who confuse “their” and “there” then it might be reasonable to say “that’s just semantics”. But pointing out that someone’s writing has no meaning because they choose not to use words in the way others will understand them is not just semantics. When someone claims that Russia is communist and Americans should reject the Republican party because of their Russian connection it’s not even wrong. The same applies when someone claims that Nazis are “leftist”.

Generally the aim of a political debate is to convince people that your cause is better than other causes. To achieve that aim you have to state your cause in language that can be understood by everyone in the discussion. Would the person who called Russia “communist” be more or less happy if Russia had common ownership of the means of production and an absence of social classes? I guess I’ll never know, and that’s their failure at debating politics.

Thinkpad X1 Carbon Gen 6

In February I reviewed a Thinkpad X1 Carbon Gen 1 [1] that I bought on Ebay.

I have just been supplied the 6th Generation of the Thinkpad X1 Carbon for work, which would have cost about $1500 more than I want to pay for my own gear. ;)

The first thing to note is that it has USB-C for charging. The charger continues the trend towards smaller and lighter chargers and also allows me to charge my phone from the same charger so it’s one less charger to carry. The X1 Carbon comes with a 65W charger, but when I got a second charger it was only 45W but was also smaller and lighter.

The laptop itself is also slightly smaller in every dimension than my Gen 1 version as well as being noticeably lighter.

One thing I noticed is that the KDE power applet disappears when battery is full – maybe due to my history of buying refurbished laptops I haven’t had a battery report itself as full before.

Disabling the touch pad in the BIOS doesn’t work. This is annoying, there are 2 devices for mouse type input so I need to configure Xorg to only read from the Trackpoint.

The labels on the lid are upside down from the perspective of the person using it (but right way up for people sitting opposite them). This looks nice for observers, but means that you tend to put your laptop the wrong way around on your desk a lot before you get used to it. It is also fancier than the older model, the red LED on the cover for the dot in the I in Thinkpad is one of the minor fancy features.

As the new case is thinner than the old one (which was thin compared to most other laptops) it’s difficult to open. You can’t easily get your fingers under the lid to lift it up.

One really annoying design choice was to have a proprietary Ethernet socket with a special dongle. If the dongle is lost or damaged it will probably be expensive to replace. An extra USB socket and a USB Ethernet device would be much more useful.

The next deficiency is that it has one USB-C/DisplayPort/Thunderbolt port and 2 USB 3.1 ports. USB-C is going to be used for everything in the near future and a laptop with only a single USB-C port will be as annoying then as one with a single USB 2/3 port would be right now. Making a small laptop requires some engineering trade-offs and I can understand them limiting the number of USB 3.1 ports to save space. But having two or more USB-C ports wouldn’t have taken much space – it would take no extra space to have a USB-C port in place of the proprietary Ethernet port. It also has only a HDMI port for display, the USB-C/Thunderbolt/DisplayPort port is likely to be used for some USB-C device when you want an external display. The Lenovo advertising says “So you get Thunderbolt, USB-C, and DisplayPort all rolled into one”, but really you get “a choice of one of Thunderbolt, USB-C, or DisplayPort at any time”. How annoying would it be to disconnect your monitor because you want to read a USB-C storage device?

As an aside this might work out OK if you can have a DisplayPort monitor that also acts as a USB-C hub on the same cable. But if so requiring a monitor that isn’t even on sale now to make my laptop work properly isn’t a good strategy.

One problem I have is that resume from suspend requires holding down power button. I’m not sure if it’s hardware or software issue. But suspend on lid close works correctly and also suspend on inactivity when running on battery power. The X1 Carbon Gen 1 that I own doesn’t suspend on lid close or inactivity (due to a Linux configuration issue). So I have one laptop that won’t suspend correctly and one that won’t resume correctly.

The CPU is an i5-8250U which rates 7,678 according to cpubenchmark.net [2]. That’s 92% faster than the i7 in my personal Thinkpad and more importantly I’m likely to actually get that performance without having the CPU overheat and slow down, that said I got a thermal warning during the Debian install process which is a bad sign. It’s also only 114% faster than the CPU in the Thinkpad T420 I bought in 2013. The model I got doesn’t have the fastest possible CPU, but I think that the T420 didn’t either. A 114% increase in CPU speed over 5 years is a long way from the factor of 4 or more that Moore’s law would have predicted.

The keyboard has the stupid positions for the PgUp and PgDn keys I noted on my last review. It’s still annoying and slows me down, but I am starting to get used to it.

The display is FullHD, it’s nice to have a laptop with the same resolution as my phone. It also has a slider to cover the built in camera which MIGHT also cause the microphone to be disconnected. It’s nice that hardware manufacturers are noticing that some customers care about privacy.

The storage is NVMe. That’s a nice feature, although being only 240G may be a problem for some uses.

Conclusion

Definitely a nice laptop if someone else is paying.

The fact that it had cooling issues from the first install is a concern. Laptops have always had problems with cooling and when a laptop has cooling problems before getting any dust inside it’s probably going to perform poorly in a few years.

Lenovo has gone too far trying to make it thin and light. I’d rather have the same laptop but slightly thicker, with a built-in Ethernet port, more USB ports, and a larger battery.

Fail2ban

I’ve recently setup fail2ban [1] on a bunch of my servers. It’s purpose is to ban IP addresses associated with password guessing – or whatever other criteria for badness you configure. It supports Linux, OpenBSD [2] and probably most Unix type OSs too. I run Debian so I’ve been using the Debian packages of fail2ban.

The first thing to note is that it is very easy to install and configure (for the common cases at least). For a long time installing it had been on my todo list but I didn’t make the time to do it, after installing it I realised that I should have done it years ago, it was so easy.

Generally to configure it you just create a file under /etc/fail2ban/jail.d with the settings you want, any settings that are different from the defaults will override them. For example if you have a system running dovecot on the default ports and sshd on port 999 then you could put the following in /etc/fail2ban/jail.d/local.conf:

[dovecot]
enabled = true

[sshd]
port = 999

By default the Debian package of fail2ban only protects sshd.

When fail2ban is running on Linux the command “iptables -L -n -v|grep f2b” will show the rules that match inbound traffic and the names of the chains they direct traffic to. To see if fail2ban has acted to protect a service you can run a command like “iptables -L f2b-sshd -n” to see the iptables rules.

The fail2ban entries in the INPUT table go before other rules, so it should work with any custom iptables rules you have configured as long as either fail2ban is the last thing to be started or your custom rules don’t flush old entries.

There are hooks for sending email notifications etc, that seems excessive to me but it’s always good to have options to extend a program.

In the past I’ve tried using kernel rate limiting to minimise hostile activity. That didn’t work well as there are legitimate end users who do strange things (like a user who setup their web-cam to email them every time it took a photo).

Conclusion

Fail2ban has some good features. I don’t think it will do much good at stopping account compromise as anything that is easily guessed could be guessed using many IP addresses and anything that has a good password can’t be guessed without taking many years of brute-force attacks while also causing enough noise in the logs to be noticed. What it does do is get rid of some of the noise in log files which makes it easier to find and fix problems. To me the main benefit is to improve the signal to noise ratio of my log files.

Google and Certbot (Letsencrypt)

Like most people I use Certbot AKA Letsencrypt to create SSL certificates for my sites. It’s a great service, very easy to use and it generally works well.

Recently the server running www.coker.com.au among other domains couldn’t get a certbot certificate renewed, here’s the error message:

Failed authorization procedure. mail.gw90.de (http-01): urn:acme:error:unauthorized :: The client lacks sufficient authorization :: "mail.gw90.de" was considered an unsafe domain by a third-party API, listen.gw90.de (http-01): urn:acme:error:unauthorized :: The client lacks sufficient authorization :: "listen.gw90.de" was considered an unsafe domain by a third-party API

IMPORTANT NOTES:
 - The following errors were reported by the server:

   Domain: mail.gw90.de
   Type:   unauthorized
   Detail: "mail.gw90.de" was considered an unsafe domain by a third-
   party API

   Domain: listen.gw90.de
   Type:   unauthorized
   Detail: "listen.gw90.de" was considered an unsafe domain by a
   third-party API

It turns out that Google Safebrowsing had listed those two sites. Visit https://listen.gw90.de/ or https://mail.gw90.de/ today (and maybe for some weeks or months in the future) using Google Chrome (or any other browser that uses the Google Safebrowsing database) and it will tell you the site is “Dangerous” and probably refuse to let you in.

One thing to note is that neither of those sites has any real content, I only set them up in Apache to get SSL certificates that are used for other purposes (like mail transfer as the name suggests). If Google had listed my blog as a “Dangerous” site I wouldn’t be so surprised, WordPress has had more than a few security issues in the past and it’s not implausible that someone could have compromised it and made it serve up hostile content without me noticing. But the two sites in question have a DocumentRoot that is owned by root and was (until a few days ago) entirely empty, now they have a index.html that just says “This site is empty”. It’s theoretically possible that someone could have exploited a RCE bug in Apache to make it serve up content that isn’t in the DocumentRoot, but that seems unlikely (why waste an Apache 0day on one of the less important of my personal sites). It is possible that the virtual machine in question was compromised (a VM on that server has been compromised before [1]) but it seems unlikely that they would host bad things on those web sites if they did.

Now it could be that some other hostname under that domain had something inappropriate (I haven’t yet investigated all possibilities). But if so Google’s algorithm has a couple of significant problems, firstly if they are blacklisting sites related to one that had an issue then it would probably make more sense to blacklist by IP address (which means including some coker.com.au entries on the same IP). In the case of a compromised server it seems more likely to have multiple bad sites on one IP than multiple bad subdomains on different IPs (given that none of the hostnames in question have changed IP address recently and Google of course knows this). The next issue is that extending blacklisting doesn’t make sense unless there is evidence of hostile intent. I’m pretty sure that Google won’t blacklist all of ibm.com when (not if) a server in that domain gets compromised. I guess they have different policies for sites of different scale.

Both I and a friend have reported the sites in question to Google as not being harmful, but that hasn’t changed anything yet. I’m very disappointed in Google, listing sites, not providing any reason why (it could be a hostname under that domain was compromised and if so it’s not fixed yet BECAUSE GOOGLE DIDN’T REPORT A PROBLEM), and not removing the listing when it’s totally obvious there’s no basis for it.

While it makes sense for certbot to not issue SSL certificates to bad sites. It seems that they haven’t chosen a great service for determining which sites are bad.

Anyway the end result was that some of my sites had an expired SSL certificate for a day. I decided not to renew certificates before they expired to give Google a better chance of noticing their mistake and then I was busy at the time they expired. Now presumably as the sites in question have an invalid SSL certificate it will be even harder to convince anyone that they are not hostile.

Suggestions for Trump Supporters

I’ve had some discussions with Trump supporters recently. Here are some suggestions for anyone who wants to have an actual debate about political issues. Note that this may seem harsh to Trump supporters. But it seems harsh to me when Trump supporters use a social event to try and push their beliefs without knowing any of the things I list in this post. If you are a Trump supporter who doesn’t do these things then please try to educate your fellow travellers, they are more likely to listen to you than to me.

Facts

For a discussion to be useful there has to be a basis in facts. When one party rejects facts there isn’t much point. Anyone who only takes their news from an ideological echo chamber is going to end up rejecting facts. The best thing to do is use fact checking sites of which Snopes [1] is the best known. If you are involved in political discussions you should regularly correct people who agree with you when you see them sharing news that is false or even merely unsupported by facts. If you aren’t correcting mistaken people on your own side then you do your own cause a disservice by allowing your people to discredit their own arguments. If you aren’t regularly seeking verification of news you read then you are going to be misled. I correct people on my side regularly, at least once a week. How often do you correct your side?

The next thing is that some background knowledge of politics is necessary. Politics is not something that you can just discover by yourself from first principles. If you aren’t aware of things like Dog Whistle Politics [2] then you aren’t prepared to have a political debate. Note that I’m not suggesting that you should just learn about Dog Whistle Politics and think you are ready to have a debate, it’s one of many things that you need to know.

Dog whistle politics is nothing new or hidden, if you don’t know about such basics you can’t really participate in a discussion of politics. If you don’t know such basics and think you can discuss politics then you are demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger effect [3].

The Southern Strategy [4] is well known by everyone who knows anything about US politics. You can think it’s a good thing if you wish and you can debate the extent to which it still operates, but you can’t deny it happened. If you are unaware of such things then you can’t debate US politics.

The Civil rights act of 1964 [5] is one of the most historic pieces of legislation ever passed in the US. If you don’t know about it then you just don’t know much about US politics. You may think that it is a bad thing, but you can’t deny that it happened, or that it happened because of the Democratic party. This was the time in US politics when the Republicans became the party of the South and the Democrats became the centrist (possibly left) party that they are today. It is ridiculous to claim that Republicans are against racism because Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. Ridiculous claims might work in an ideological echo chamber but they won’t convince anyone else.

Words Have Meanings

To communicate we need to have similar ideas of what words mean. If you use words in vastly different ways to other people then you can’t communicate with them. Some people in the extreme right claim that because the Nazi party in Germany was the
“Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei” (“NSDAP”) which translates to English as “National Socialist German Workers Party” that means that they were “socialists”. Then they claim that “socialists” are “leftist” so therefore people on the left are Nazis. That claim requires using words like “left” and “socialism” in vastly different ways to most people.

Snopes has a great article about this issue [6], I recommend that everyone read it, even those who already know that Nazis weren’t (and aren’t) on the left side of politics.

The Wikipedia page of the Unite the Right rally [7] (referenced in the Snopes article) has a photo of people carrying Nazi flags and Confederate flags. Those people are definitely convinced that Nazis were not left wing! They are also definitely convinced that people on the right side of politics (which in the US means the Republican party) support the Confederacy and oppose equal rights for Afro-American people. If you want to argue that the Republican party is the one opposed to racism then you need to come up with an explanation for how so many people who declare themselves on the right of politics got it wrong.

Here’s a local US news article about the neo-Nazi who had “commie killer” written on his helmet while beating a black man almost to death [8]. Another data point showing that Nazis don’t like people on the left.

In other news East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) was not a
democracy. North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is not a democracy either. The use of “socialism” by the original Nazis shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than the recent claims by the governments of East Germany and North Korea.

Left vs right is a poor summary of political positions, the Political Compass [9] is better. While Hitler and Stalin have different positions on economics I think that citizens of those countries didn’t have very different experiences, one extremely authoritarian government is much like another. I recommend that you do the quiz on the Political Compass site and see if the people it places in similar graph positions to you are ones who you admire.

Sources of Information

If you are only using news sources that only have material you agree with then you are in an ideological echo chamber. When I recommend that someone look for other news sources what I don’t expect in response is an email analysing a single article as justification for rejecting that entire news site. I recommend sites like the New York Times as having good articles, but they don’t only have articles I agree with and they sometimes publish things I think are silly.

A news source that makes ridiculous claims such as that Nazis are “leftist” is ridiculous and should be disregarded. A news source that merely has some articles you disagree with might be worth using.

Also if you want to convince people outside your group of anything related to politics then it’s worth reading sites that might convince them. I often read The National Review [10], not because I agree with their articles (that is a rare occurrence) but because they write for rational conservatives and I hope that some of the extreme right wing people will find their ideas appealing and come back to a place where we can have useful discussions.

When evaluating news articles and news sources one thing to consider is Occam’s Razor [11]. If an article has a complex and implausible theory when a simpler theory can explain it then you should be sceptical of that article. There are conspiracies but they aren’t as common as some people believe and they are generally of limited complexity due to the difficulty people have in keeping secrets. An example of this is some of the various conspiracy theories about storage of politicians’ email. The simplest explanation (for politicians of all parties) is that they tell someone like me to “just make the email work” and if their IT staff doesn’t push back and refuse to do it without all issues being considered then it’s the IT staff at fault. Stupidity explains many things better than conspiracies. Regardless of the party affiliation, any time a politician is accused of poor computer security I’ll ask whether someone like me did their job properly.

Covering for Nazis

Decent people have to oppose Nazis. The Nazi belief system is based on the mass murder of people based on race and the murder of people who disagree with them. In Germany in the 1930s there were some people who could claim not to know about the bad things that Nazis were doing and they could claim to only support Nazis for other reasons. Neo-Nazis are not about creating car companies like VolksWagen all they are about is hatred. The crimes of the original Nazis are well known and well documented, it’s not plausible that anyone could be unaware of them.

Mitch McConnell has clearly stated “There are no good neo-Nazis” [12] in clear opposition to Trump. While I disagree with Mitch on many issues, this is one thing we can agree on. This is what decent people do, they work together with people they usually disagree with to oppose evil. Anyone who will support Nazis out of tribal loyalty has demonstrated the type of person they are.

Here is an article about the alt-right meeting to celebrate Trump’s victory where Richard Spencer said “hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory” while many audience members give the Nazi salute [13]. You can skip to 42 seconds in if you just want to see that part. Trump supporters try to claim it’s the “Roman salute”, but that’s not plausible given that there’s no evidence of Romans using such a salute and it was first popularised in Fascist Italy [14]. The Wikipedia page for the Nazi Salute [15] notes that saying “hail Hitler” or “hail victory” was standard practice while giving the salute. I think that it’s ridiculous to claim that a group of people offering the Hitler salute while someone says “hail Trump” and “hail victory” are anything but Nazis. I also think it’s ridiculous to claim to not know of any correlation between the alt-right and Nazis and then immediately know about the “Roman Salute” defence.

The Americans used to have a salute that was essentially the same as the Nazi Salute, the Bellamy Salute was officially replaced by the hand over heart salute in 1942 [16]. They don’t want anything close to a Nazi salute, and no-one did until very recently when neo-Nazis stopped wearing Klan outfits in the US.

Every time someone makes claims about a supposed “Roman salute” explanation for Richard Spencer’s fans I wonder if they are a closet Nazi.

Anti-Semitism

One final note, I don’t debate people who are open about neo-Nazi beliefs. When someone starts talking about a “Jewish Conspiracy” or use other Nazi phrases then the conversation is over. Nazis should be shunned. One recent conversation with a Trump supported ended quickly after he started talking about a “Jewish conspiracy”. He tried to get me back into the debate by claiming “there are non-Jews in the conspiracy too” but I was already done with him.

Decent Trump Supporters

If you want me to believe that you are one of the decent Trump supporters a good way to start is to disclaim the horrible ideas that other Trump supporters endorse. If you can say “I believe that black people and Jews are my equal and I will not stand next to or be friends with anyone who carries a Nazi flag” then we can have a friendly discussion about politics. I’m happy to declare “I have never supported a Bolshevik revolution or the USSR and will never support such things” if there is any confusion about my ideas in that regard. While I don’t think any reasonable person would think that I supported the USSR I’m happy to make my position clear.

I’ve had people refuse to disclaim racism when asked. If you can’t clearly say that you consider people of other races to be your equal then everyone will think that you are racist.

Passwords Used by Daemons

There’s a lot of advice about how to create and manage user passwords, and some of it is even good. But there doesn’t seem to be much advice about passwords for daemons, scripts, and other system processes.

I’m writing this post with some rough ideas about the topic, please let me know if you have any better ideas. Also I’m considering passwords and keys in a fairly broad sense, a private key for a HTTPS certificate has more in common with a password to access another server than most other data that a server might use. This also applies to SSH host secret keys, keys that are in ssh authorized_keys files, and other services too.

Passwords in Memory

When SSL support for Apache was first released the standard practice was to have the SSL private key encrypted and require the sysadmin enter a password to start the daemon. This practice has mostly gone away, I would hope that would be due to people realising that it offers little value but it’s more likely that it’s just because it’s really annoying and doesn’t scale for cloud deployments.

If there was a benefit to having the password only in RAM (IE no readable file on disk) then there are options such as granting read access to the private key file only during startup. I have seen a web page recommending running “chmod 0” on the private key file after the daemon starts up.

I don’t believe that there is a real benefit to having a password only existing in RAM. Many exploits target the address space of the server process, Heartbleed is one well known bug that is still shipping in new products today which reads server memory for encryption keys. If you run a program that is vulnerable to Heartbleed then it’s SSL private key (and probably a lot of other application data) are vulnerable to attackers regardless of whether you needed to enter a password at daemon startup.

If you have an application or daemon that might need a password at any time then there’s usually no way of securely storing that password such that a compromise of that application or daemon can’t get the password. In theory you could have a proxy for the service in question which runs as a different user and manages the passwords.

Password Lifecycle

Ideally you would be able to replace passwords at any time. Any time a password is suspected to have been leaked then it should be replaced. That requires that you know where the password is used (both which applications and which configuration files used by those applications) and that you are able to change all programs that use it in a reasonable amount of time.

The first thing to do to achieve this is to have one password per application not one per use. For example if you have a database storing accounts used for a mail server then you would be tempted to have an outbound mail server such as Postfix and an IMAP server such as Dovecot both use the same password to access the database. The correct thing to do is to have one database account for the Dovecot and another for Postfix so if you need to change the password for one of them you don’t need to change passwords in two locations and restart two daemons at the same time. Another good option is to have Postfix talk to Dovecot for authenticating outbound mail, that means you only have a single configuration location for storing the password and also means that a security flaw in Postfix (or more likely a misconfiguration) couldn’t give access to the database server.

Passwords Used By Web Services

It’s very common to run web sites on Apache backed by database servers, so common that the acronym LAMP is widely used for Linux, Apache, Mysql, and PHP. In a typical LAMP installation you have multiple web sites running as the same user which by default can read each other’s configuration files. There are some solutions to this.

There is an Apache module mod_apparmor to use the Apparmor security system [1]. This allows changing to a specified Apparmor “hat” based on the URI or a specified hat for the virtual server. Each Apparmor hat is granted access to different files and therefore files that contain passwords for MySQL (or any other service) can be restricted on a per vhost basis. This only works with the prefork MPM.

There is also an Apache module mpm-itk which runs each vhost under a specified UID and GID [2]. This also allows protecting sites on the same server from each other. The ITK MPM is also based on the prefork MPM.

I’ve been thinking of writing a SE Linux MPM for Apache to do similar things. It would have to be based on prefork too. Maybe a change to mpm-itk to support SE Linux context as well as UID and GID.

Managing It All

Once the passwords are separated such that each service runs with minimum privileges you need to track and manage it all. At the simplest that needs a document listing where all of the passwords are used and how to change them. If you use a configuration management tool then that could manage the passwords. Here’s a list of tools to manage service passwords in tools like Ansible [3].

Cooperative Learning

This post is about my latest idea for learning about computers. I posted it to my local LUG mailing list and received no responses. But I still think it’s a great idea and that I just need to find the right way to launch it.

I think it would be good to try cooperative learning about Computer Science online. The idea is that everyone would join an IRC channel at a suitable time with virtual machine software configured and try out new FOSS software at the same time and exchange ideas about it via IRC. It would be fairly informal and people could come and go as they wish, the session would probably go for about 4 hours but if people want to go on longer then no-one would stop them.

I’ve got some under-utilised KVM servers that I could use to provide test VMs for network software, my original idea was to use those for members of my local LUG. But that doesn’t scale well. If a larger group people are to be involved they would have to run their own virtual machines, use physical hardware, or use trial accounts from VM companies.

The general idea would be for two broad categories of sessions, ones where an expert provides a training session (assigning tasks to students and providing suggestions when they get stuck) and ones where the coordinator has no particular expertise and everyone just learns together (like “let’s all download a random BSD Unix and see how it compares to Linux”).

As this would be IRC based there would be no impediment for people from other regions being involved apart from the fact that it might start at 1AM their time (IE 6PM in the east coast of Australia is 1AM on the west coast of the US). For most people the best times for such education would be evenings on week nights which greatly limits the geographic spread.

While the aims of this would mostly be things that relate to Linux, I would be happy to coordinate a session on ReactOS as well. I’m thinking of running training sessions on etbemon, DNS, Postfix, BTRFS, ZFS, and SE Linux.

I’m thinking of coordinating learning sessions about DragonflyBSD (particularly HAMMER2), ReactOS, Haiku, and Ceph. If people are interested in DragonflyBSD then we should do that one first as in a week or so I’ll probably have learned what I want to learn and moved on (but not become enough of an expert to run a training session).

One of the benefits of this idea is to help in motivation. If you are on your own playing with something new like a different Unix OS in a VM you will be tempted to take a break and watch YouTube or something when you get stuck. If there are a dozen other people also working on it then you will have help in solving problems and an incentive to keep at it while help is available.

So the issues to be discussed are:

  1. What communication method to use? IRC? What server?
  2. What time/date for the first session?
  3. What topic for the first session? DragonflyBSD?
  4. How do we announce recurring meetings? A mailing list?
  5. What else should we setup to facilitate training? A wiki for notes?

Finally while I list things I’m interested in learning and teaching this isn’t just about me. If this becomes successful then I expect that there will be some topics that don’t interest me and some sessions at times when I am have other things to do (like work). I’m sure people can have fun without me. If anyone has already established something like this then I’d be happy to join that instead of starting my own, my aim is not to run another hobbyist/professional group but to learn things and teach things.

There is a Wikipedia page about Cooperative Learning. While that’s interesting I don’t think it has much relevance on what I’m trying to do. The Wikipedia article has some good information on the benefits of cooperative education and situations where it doesn’t work well. My idea is to have a self-selecting people who choose it because of their own personal goals in terms of fun and learning. So it doesn’t have to work for everyone, just for enough people to have a good group.

BTRFS and SE Linux

I’ve had problems with systems running SE Linux on BTRFS losing the XATTRs used for storing the SE Linux file labels after a power outage.

Here is the link to the patch that fixes this [1]. Thanks to Hans van Kranenburg and Holger Hoffstätte for the information about this patch which was already included in kernel 4.16.11. That was uploaded to Debian on the 27th of May and got into testing about the time that my message about this issue got to the SE Linux list (which was a couple of days before I sent it to the BTRFS developers).

The kernel from Debian/Stable still has the issue. So using a testing kernel might be a good option to deal with this problem at the moment.

Below is the information on reproducing this problem. It may be useful for people who want to reproduce similar problems. Also all sysadmins should know about “reboot -nffd”, if something really goes wrong with your kernel you may need to do that immediately to prevent corrupted data being written to your disks.

The command “reboot -nffd” (kernel reboot without flushing kernel buffers or writing status) when run on a BTRFS system with SE Linux will often result in /var/log/audit/audit.log being unlabeled. It also results in some systemd-journald files like /var/log/journal/c195779d29154ed8bcb4e8444c4a1728/system.journal being unlabeled but that is rarer. I think that the same
problem afflicts both systemd-journald and auditd but it’s a race condition that on my systems (both production and test) is more likely to affect auditd.

root@stretch:/# xattr -l /var/log/audit/audit.log 
security.selinux: 
0000   73 79 73 74 65 6D 5F 75 3A 6F 62 6A 65 63 74 5F    system_u:object_ 
0010   72 3A 61 75 64 69 74 64 5F 6C 6F 67 5F 74 3A 73    r:auditd_log_t:s 
0020   30 00                                              0.

SE Linux uses the xattr “security.selinux”, you can see what it’s doing with xattr(1) but generally using “ls -Z” is easiest.

If this issue just affected “reboot -nffd” then a solution might be to just not run that command. However this affects systems after a power outage.

I have reproduced this bug with kernel 4.9.0-6-amd64 (the latest security update for Debian/Stretch which is the latest supported release of Debian). I have also reproduced it in an identical manner with kernel 4.16.0-1-amd64 (the latest from Debian/Unstable). For testing I reproduced this with a 4G filesystem in a VM, but in production it has happened on BTRFS RAID-1 arrays, both SSD and HDD.

#!/bin/bash 
set -e 
COUNT=$(ps aux|grep [s]bin/auditd|wc -l) 
date 
if [ "$COUNT" = "1" ]; then 
 echo "all good" 
else 
 echo "failed" 
 exit 1 
fi

Firstly the above is the script /usr/local/sbin/testit, I test for auditd running because it aborts if the context on it’s log file is wrong. When SE Linux is in enforcing mode an incorrect/missing label on the audit.log file causes auditd to abort.

root@stretch:~# ls -liZ /var/log/audit/audit.log 
37952 -rw-------. 1 root root system_u:object_r:auditd_log_t:s0 4385230 Jun  1 
12:23 /var/log/audit/audit.log

Above is before I do the tests.

while ssh stretch /usr/local/sbin/testit ; do 
 ssh stretch "reboot -nffd" > /dev/null 2>&1 & 
 sleep 20 
done

Above is the shell code I run to do the tests. Note that the VM in question runs on SSD storage which is why it can consistently boot in less than 20 seconds.

Fri  1 Jun 12:26:13 UTC 2018 
all good 
Fri  1 Jun 12:26:33 UTC 2018 
failed

Above is the output from the shell code in question. After the first reboot it fails. The probability of failure on my test system is greater than 50%.

root@stretch:~# ls -liZ /var/log/audit/audit.log  
37952 -rw-------. 1 root root system_u:object_r:unlabeled_t:s0 4396803 Jun  1 12:26 /var/log/audit/audit.log

Now the result. Note that the Inode has not changed. I could understand a newly created file missing an xattr, but this is an existing file which shouldn’t have had it’s xattr changed. But somehow it gets corrupted.

The first possibility I considered was that SE Linux code might be at fault. I asked on the SE Linux mailing list (I haven’t been involved in SE Linux kernel code for about 15 years) and was informed that this isn’t likely at
all. There have been no problems like this reported with other filesystems.