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Links May 2024 (late)

VoltageDivide has an interesting article on Unconventional Uses of FPGAs [1]. Tagline – Every sensor is a temperature sensor, nearly everything is a resistor or a conductor if you try hard enough and anything is an antenna. Datasheets are just a suggestion, and finally, often we pretend things are ideal, when they often are not.

Interesting blog post about the way npm modules that depend on everything exposed flaws in the entire npm system [2]. The conclusion should have included “use a fake name for doing unusual tests”.

Krebs on Security has an interesting article about MFA bombing [3]. Looks like Apple has some flaws in their MFA system, other companies developing MFA should learn from this.

Joey wrote an informative blog post about the Vultr hosting company wanting to extract data from VMs run for clients to train ML [4]. If your email is stored on such a VM it could be “generated” by an AI system.

John Goerzen wrote an interesting post looking at the causes of the xz issue from a high level [5].

Interesting article about self proclaimed Autistic pro-natalists [6]. They seem somewhat abusive to their kids and are happy to associate with neo-Nazis. :(

Joey Hess wrote an interesting blog post about the possibility of further undiscovered attacks on xz [7]. Going back to an earlier version seems like a good idea.

The Guardian has an interesting article about Amazon’s 2 pizza rule and the way the company is structured [8]. It’s interesting how they did it, but we really need to have it broken up via anti-trust legislation.

John Goerzen wrote an informative post about Facebook censorship and why we should all move to Mastodon [9]. Facebook needs to be broken up under anti-trust laws.

Kobold Letters is an attack on HTML email that results in the visual representation of email changing when it is forwarded. [10]. You could have the original email hide some sections which are revealed with the recipient forwards it for a CEO impersonation attack.

Creating a Micro Users’ Group

Fosdem had a great lecture Building an Open Source Community One Friend at a Time [1]. I recommend that everyone who is involved in the FOSS community watches this lecture to get some ideas.

For some time I’ve been periodically inviting a few friends to visit for lunch, chat about Linux, maybe do some coding, and watch some anime between coding. It seems that I have accidentally created a micro users’ group.

LUGs were really big in the mid to late 90s and still quite vibrant in the early 2000’s. But they seem to have decreased in popularity even before Covid19 and since Covid19 a lot of people have stopped attending large meetings to avoid health risks. I think that a large part of the decline of users’ groups has been due to the success of YouTube. Being able to choose from thousands of hours of lectures about computers on YouTube is a disincentive to spending the time and effort needed to attend a meeting with content that’s probably not your first choice of topic. Attending a formal meeting where someone you don’t know has arranged a lecture might not have a topic that’s really interesting to you. Having lunch with a couple of friends and watching a YouTube video that one of your friends assures you is really good is something more people will find interesting.

In recent times homeschooling [2] has become more widely known. The same factors that allow learning about computers at home also make homeschooling easier. The difference between the traditional LUG model of having everyone meet at a fixed time for a lecture and a micro LUG of a small group of people having an informal meeting is similar to the difference between traditional schools and homeschooling.

I encourage everyone to create their own micro LUG. All you have to do is choose a suitable time and place and invite some people who are interested. Have a BBQ in a park if the weather is good, meet at a cafe or restaurant, or invite people to visit you for lunch on a weekend.

USB-A vs USB-C

USB-A is the original socket for USB at the PC end. There are 2 variants of it, the first is for USB 1.1 to USB 2 and the second is for USB 3 which adds extra pins in a plug and socket compatible manner – you can plug a USB-A device into a USB-A socket without worrying about the speeds of each end as long as you don’t need USB 3 speeds.

The differences between USB-A and USB-C are:

  1. USB-C has the same form factor as Thunderbolt and the Thunderbolt protocol can run over it if both ends support it.
  2. USB-C generally supports higher power modes for charging (like 130W for Dell laptops, monitors, and plugpacks) but there’s no technical reason why USB-A couldn’t do it. You can buy chargers that do 60W over USB-A which could power one of our laptops via a USB-A to USB-C cable. So high power USB-A is theoretically possible but generally you won’t see it.
  3. USB-C has “DisplayPort alternate mode” which means using some of the wires for DisplayPort.
  4. USB-C is more likely to support the highest speeds than USB-A sockets for “super speed” etc. This is not a difference in the standards just a choice made by manufacturers.

While USB-C tends to support higher power delivery modes in actual implementations for connecting to a PC the PC end seems to only support lower power modes regardless of port. I think it would be really good if workstations could connect to monitors via USB-C and provide power, DisplayPort, and keyboard, mouse, etc over the same connection. But unfortunately the PC and monitor ends don’t appear to support such things.

If you don’t need any of those benefits in the list above (IE you are using USB for almost anything we do other than connecting a laptop to a dock/monitor/charger) then USB-A will do the job just as well as USB-C. The choice of which type to use should be based on price and which ports are available, EG My laptop has 2*USB-C ports and 2*USB-A so given that one USB-C port is almost always used for the monitor or for charging I don’t really want to use USB-C for anything else to avoid running out of ports.

When buying USB devices you can’t always predict which systems you will need to connect them to. Currently there are a lot of systems without USB-C that are working well and have no need to be replaced. I haven’t yet seen a system where the majority of ports are USB-C but that will probably happen in the next few years. Maybe in 2027 there will be PCs on sale with only two USB-A sockets forcing people who don’t want to use a USB hub to save both of them for keyboard and mouse. Currently USB-C keyboards and mice are available on AliExpress but they are expensive and I haven’t seen them in Australian stores. Most computer users don’t wear out keyboards or mice so a lot of USB-A keyboard and mice will be in service for a long time. As an aside there are still many PCs with PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports in service so these things don’t go away for a long time.

There is one corner case where USB-C is convenient which is when you want to connect a mass storage device for system recovery or emergency backup, want a high speed, and don’t want to spend time figuring out which of the ports are “super speed” (which can be difficult at the back of a PC with poor lighting). With USB-C you can expect a speed of at least 5Gbit/s and don’t have to worry about accidentally connecting to a USB 2 port as is the situation with USB-A.

For my own use the only times that I prefer USB-C over USB-A are for devices to connect to phones. Eventually I’ll get a laptop that only has USB-C ports and this will change, but even then adaptors are possible.

For someone who doesn’t know the details of how things works it’s not unreasonable to just buy the newest stuff and assume it’s better as it usually is. But hopefully blog posts like this can help people make more informed decisions.

Respect and Children

I attended the school Yarra Valley Grammer (then Yarra Valley Anglican School which I will refer to as “YV”) and completed year 12 in 1990. The school is currently in the news for a spreadsheet some boys made rating girls where “unrapeable” was one of the ratings. The school’s PR team are now making claims like “Respect for each other is in the DNA of this school”. I’d like to know when this DNA change allegedly occurred because respect definitely wasn’t in the school DNA in 1990! Before I go any further I have to note that if the school threatens legal action against me for this post it will be clear evidence that they don’t believe in respect. The actions of that school have wronged me, several of my friends, many people who aren’t friends but who I wish they hadn’t had to suffer and I hadn’t had to witness it, and presumably countless others that I didn’t witness. If they have any decency they would not consider legal action but I have learned that as an institution they have no decency so I have to note that they should read the Wikipedia page about the Streisand Effect [1] and keep it in mind before deciding on a course of action.

I think it is possible to create a school where most kids enjoy being there and enjoy learning, where hardly any students find it a negative experience and almost no-one finds it traumatic. But it is not possible to do that with the way schools tend to be run.

When I was at high school there was a general culture that minor sex crimes committed by boys against boys weren’t a problem, this probably applied to all high schools. Things like ripping a boy’s pants off (known as “dakking”) were considered a big joke. If you accept that ripping the pants off an unwilling boy is a good thing (as was the case when I was at school) then that leads to thinking that describing girls as “unrapeable” is acceptable. The Wikipedia page for “Pantsing” [2] has a reference for this issue being raised as a serious problem by the British Secretary of State for Education and Skills Alan Johnson in 2007. So this has continued to be a widespread problem around the world. Has YV become better than other schools in dealing with it or is Dakking and Wedgies as well accepted now as it was when I attended? There is talk about schools preparing kids for the workforce, but grabbing someone’s underpants without consent will result in instant dismissal from almost all employment. There should be more tolerance for making mistakes at school than at work, but they shouldn’t tolerate what would be serious crimes in other contexts. For work environments there have been significant changes to what is accepted, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that schools can have a similar change in culture.

One would hope that spending 6 years wondering who’s going to grab your underpants next would teach boys the importance of consent and some sympathy for victims of other forms of sexual assault. But that doesn’t seem to happen, apparently it’s often the opposite.

When I was young Autism wasn’t diagnosed for anyone who was capable of having a normal life. Teachers noticed that I wasn’t like other kids, some were nice, but some encouraged other boys to attack me as a form of corporal punishment by proxy – not a punishment for doing anything wrong (detentions were adequate for that) but for being different. The lesson kids will take from that sort of thing is that if you are in a position of power you can mistreat other people and get away with it. There was a girl in my year level at YV who would probably be diagnosed as Autistic by today’s standards, the way I witnessed her being treated was considerably worse than what was described in the recent news reports – but it is quite likely that worse things have been done recently which haven’t made the news yet. If this issue is declared to be over after 4 boys were expelled then I’ll count that as evidence of a cover-up. These things don’t happen in a vacuum, there’s a culture that permits and encourages it.

The word “respect” has different meanings, it can mean “treat a superior as the master” or “treat someone as a human being”. The phrase “if you treat me with respect I’ll treat you with respect” usually means “if you treat me as the boss then I’ll treat you as a human being”. The distinction is very important when discussing respect in schools. If teachers are considered the ultimate bosses whose behaviour can never be questioned then many boys won’t need much help from Andrew Tate in developing the belief that they should be the boss of girls in the same way. Do any schools have a process for having students review teachers? Does YV have an ombudsman to take reports of misbehaving teachers in the way that corporations typically have an ombudsman to take reports about bad managers? Any time you have people whose behaviour is beyond scrutiny or oversight you will inevitably have bad people apply for jobs, then bad things will happen and it will create a culture of bad behaviour. If teachers can treat kids badly then kids will treat other kids badly, and this generally ends with girls being treated badly by boys.

My experience at YV was that kids barely had the status of people. It seemed that the school operated more as a caretaker of the property of parents than as an organisation that cares for people. The current YV website has a Whistleblower policy [3] that has only one occurrence of the word “student” and that is about issues that endanger the health or safety of students. Students are the people most vulnerable to reprisal for complaining and not being listed as an “eligible whistleblower” shows their status. The web site also has a flowchart for complaints and grievances [4] which doesn’t describe any policy for a complaint to be initiated by a student. One would hope that parents would advocate for their children but that often isn’t the case. When discussing the possibility of boys being bullied at school with parents I’ve had them say things like “my son wouldn’t be so weak that he would be bullied”, no boy will tell his parents about being bullied if that’s their attitude! I imagine that there are similar but different issues of parents victim-blaming when their daughter is bullied (presumably substituting immoral for weak) but don’t have direct knowledge of the topic. The experience of many kids is being disrespected by their parents, the school system, and often siblings too. A school can’t solve all the world’s problems but can ideally be a refuge for kids who have problems at home.

When I was at school the culture in the country and the school was homophobic. One teacher when discussing issues such as how students could tell him if they had psychological problems and no-one else to talk to said some things like “the Village People make really good music” which was the only time any teacher said anything like “It’s OK to be gay” (the Village People were the gayest pop group at the time). A lot of the bullying at school had a sexual component to it. In addition to the wedgies and dakking (which while not happening often was something you had to constantly be aware of) I routinely avoided PE classes where a shower was necessary because of a thug who hung around by the showers and looked hungrily at my penis, I don’t know if he had a particular liking to mine or if he stared at everyone that way. Flashing and perving was quite common in change rooms. Presumably as such boy-boy sexual misbehaviour was so accepted that led to boys mistreating girls.

I currently work for a company that is active in telling it’s employees about the possibility of free psychological assistance. Any employee can phone a psychologist to discuss problems (whether or not they are work related) free of charge and without their manager or colleagues knowing. The company is billed and is only given a breakdown of the number of people who used the service and roughly what the issue was (work stress, family, friends, grief, etc). When something noteworthy happens employees are given reminders about this such as “if you need help after seeing a homeless man try to steal a laptop from the office then feel free to call the assistance program”. Do schools offer something similar? With the school fees paid to a school like YV they should be able to afford plenty of psychologist time. Every day I was at YV I saw something considerably worse than laptop theft, most days something was done to me.

The problems with schools are part of larger problems with society. About half of the adults in Australia still support the Liberal party in spite of their support of Christian Porter, Cardinal Pell, and Bruce Lehrmann. It’s not logical to expect such parents to discourage their sons from mistreating girls or to encourage their daughters to complain when they are mistreated. The Anglican church has recently changed it’s policy to suggesting that victims of sexual abuse can contact the police instead of or in addition to the church, previously they had encouraged victims to only contact the church which facilitated cover-ups. One would hope that schools associated with the Anglican church have also changed their practices towards such things.

I approve of the “respect is in our DNA” concept, it’s like Google’s former slogan of “Don’t be evil” which is something that they can be bound to.

Here’s a list of questions that could be asked of schools (not just YV but all schools) by journalists when reporting on such things:

  1. Do you have a policy of not trying to silence past students who have been treated badly?
  2. Do you take all sexual assaults seriously including wedgies and dakking?
  3. Do you take all violence at school seriously? Even if there’s no blood? Even if the victim says they don’t want to make an issue of it?
  4. What are your procedures to deal with misbehaviour from teachers? Do the students all know how to file complaints? Do they know that they can file a complaint if they aren’t the victim?
  5. Does the school have policies against homophobia and transphobia and are they enforced?
  6. Does the school offer free psychological assistance to students and staff who need it? NB This only applies to private schools like YV that have huge amounts of money, public schools can’t afford that.
  7. Are serious incidents investigated by people who are independent of the school and who don’t have a vested interest in keeping things quiet?
  8. Do you encourage students to seek external help from organisations like the ones on the resources list of the Grace Tame Foundation [5]? Having your own list of recommended external organisations would be good too.

Counter Arguments

I’ve had practice debating such things, here’s some responses to common counter arguments.

  • Teachers are nice people how dare you criticise them. Teachers like any other large group of people includes good and bad people. The issue is how well the good people are supported in doing good things, how much effort is spent on tracking down and removing the bad people, and how much effort is spent training people to be the best version of themselves. Also my father worked as a teacher so I really don’t think that all teachers are bad.
  • Teachers are overworked and underpaid and you shouldn’t criticise them. When a school has 25 students in a class whose parents each pay $30,000 per annum the school can afford to pay as much as is necessary. Arguments about teachers being overworked and underpaid are a criticism of the organisation of private school and of government priorities for public schools not a counter argument to criticisms of the way schools operate.
  • When I went to school no bad things happened. Did you go to YV? If not then your experience isn’t relevant to this post.
  • I was a prefect at YV and didn’t see any bad things, if you saw bad things you should have reported it to me. I was not aware of any prefect who had a history of opposing bullying in previous years, I can think of some who had a history of encouraging it. Prefects were selected on the basis of supporting the system so anyone who would be expected to try to change things would have been rejected.
  • Children will make false and frivolous claims so we should ignore most of what they say, therefore complaints should only come from parents. Children have considerably less ability to lie than adults and the senior teachers are much better at detecting lies than most people. Sorting out accurate claims from false ones shouldn’t be difficult but if you reject all criticism as false claims then you will definitely miss reports of bad things and allow problems to continue.
  • I had a hard time at school and I turned out fine. If having bad things done to you doesn’t make you want to protect others from the same things then you didn’t turn out fine at all.
  • Kids need to toughen up to survive the real world. The “real world” that I live in doesn’t involve much violence at all, even having someone raise their voice at work is uncommon. Of the situations where being “tough” due to my experience at YV has been useful almost all of them involve me choosing to help someone I don’t know in a dangerous situation while other men pretend that they didn’t even notice it. The real solution is to create a world with less violence and a large part of that involves improving schools.

Conclusion

I don’t think that YV is necessarily worse than other schools, although I’m sure that representatives of other private schools are now working to assure parents of students and prospective students that they are.

I don’t think that all the people who were employed as teachers there when I attended were bad people, some of them were nice people who were competent teachers. But a few good people can’t turn around a bad system. I will note that when I attended all the sports teachers were decent people, it was the only department I could say such things about. But sports involves situations that can lead to a bad result, issues started at other times and places can lead to violence or harassment in PE classes regardless of how good the teachers are.

Teachers who know that there are problems need to be able to raise issues with the administration. When a teacher quits teaching to join the clergy and another teacher describes it as “a loss for the clergy but a gain for YV” it raises the question of why the bad teacher in question couldn’t have been encouraged to leave earlier.

A significant portion of the population will do whatever is permitted. If you say “no teacher would ever bully a student so we don’t need to look out for that” then some teacher will do exactly that.

I hope that this will lead to changes both in YV and in other schools. But if they declare this issue as resolved after expelling 4 students then something similar or worse will happen again. At least now students know that when this sort of thing happens they can send evidence to journalists to get some action.

Kogan 5120*2160 40″ Monitor

I’ve just got a new Kogan 5120*2160 40″ curved monitor. It cost $599 including shipping etc which is much cheaper than the Dell monitor with similar specs selling for about $2500. For monitors with better than 4K resolution (by which I don’t mean 5K*1440) this is the cheapest option. The nearest competitors are the 27″ monitors that do 5120*2880 from Apple and some companies copying Apple’s specs. While 5120*2880 is a significantly better resolution than what I got it’s probably not going to help me at 27″ size.

I’ve had a Dell 32″ 4K monitor since the 1st of July 2022 [1]. It is a really good monitor and I had no complaints at all about it. It was clearer than the Samsung 27″ 4K monitor I used before it and I’m not sure how much of that is due to better display technology (the Samsung was from 2017) and how much was due to larger size. But larger size was definitely a significant factor.

I briefly owned a Phillips 43″ 4K monitor [2] and determined that a 43″ flat screen was definitely too big. At the time I thought that about 35″ would have been ideal but after a couple of years using a flat 32″ screen I think that 32″ is about the upper limit for a flat screen. This is the first curved monitor I’ve used but I’m already thinking that maybe 40″ is too big for a 21:9 aspect ratio even with a curved screen. Maybe if it was 4:4 or even 16:9 that would be ok. Otherwise the ideal for a curved screen for me would be something between about 36″ and 38″. Also 43″ is awkward to move around my desk. But this is still quite close to ideal.

The first system I tested this on was a work laptop, a Dell Latitude 7400 2in1. On the Dell dock that did 4K resolution and on a HDMI cable it did 1440p which was a disappointment as that laptop has talked to many 4K monitors at native resolution on the HDMI port with the same cable. This isn’t an impossible problem, as I work in the IT department I can just go through all the laptops in the store room until I find one that supports it. But the 2in1 is a very nice laptop, so I might even just keep using it in 4K resolution when WFH. The laptop in question is deemed an “executive” laptop so I have to wait another 2 years for the executives to get new laptops before I can get a newer 2in1.

On my regular desktop I had the problem of the display going off for a few seconds every minute or so and also occasionally giving a white flicker. That was using 5120*2160 with a DisplayPort switch as described in the blog post about the Dell 32″ monitor. When I ran it in 4K resolution with the DisplayPort switch from my desktop it was fine. I then used the DisplayPort cable that came with the monitor directly connecting the video card to the display and it was fine at 5120*2160 with 75Hz.

The monitor has the joystick thing that seems to have become some sort of standard for controlling modern monitors. It’s annoying that pressing it in powers it off. I think there should be a separate button for that. Also the UI in general made me wonder if one of the vendors of expensive monitors had paid whoever designed it to make the UI suck.

The monitor had a single dead pixel in the center of the screen about 1/4 the way down from the top when I started writing this post. Now it’s gone away which is a concern as I don’t know which pixels might have problems next or if the number of stuck pixels will increase. Also it would be good if there was a “dark mode” for the WordPress editor. I use dark mode wherever possible so I didn’t notice the dead pixel for several hours until I started writing this blog post.

I watched a movie on Netflix and it took the entire screen area, I don’t know if they are storing movies in 64:27 ratio or if the clipped the top and bottom, it was probably clipped but still looked OK. The monitor has different screen modes which make it look different, I can’t see much benefit to the different modes. The “standard” mode is what I usually use and it’s brighter and the “movie” mode seems OK for the one movie I’ve watched so far.

In other news BenQ has just announced a 3840*2560 28″ monitor specifically designed for programming [3]. This is the first time I’ve heard of a monitor with 3:2 ratio with modern resolution, we still aren’t at the 4:3 type ratio that we were used to when 640*480 was high resolution but it’s a definite step in the right direction. It’s also the only time I recall ever seeing a monitor advertised as being designed for programming. In the 80s there were home computers advertised as being computers for kids to program, but at that time it was either TV sets for monitors or monitors sold with computers. It was only after the IBM PC compatible market took off that having a choice of different monitors for one computer was a thing. In recent years monitors advertised as being for office use (meaning bright and expensive) have become common as are monitors designed for gamer use (meaning high refresh rate). But BenQ seems to be the first to advertise a monitor for the purpose of programming. They have a “desktop partition” feature (which could be software or hardware – the article doesn’t make it clear) to give some of the benefits of a tiled window manager to people who use OSs that don’t support such things. The BenQ monitor is a bit small for my taste, I don’t know if my vision is good enough to take advantage of 3840*2560 in a 28″ monitor nowadays. I think at least 32″ would be better. Google seems to be really into buying good monitors for their programmers, if every Google programmer got one of those BenQ monitors then that would be enough sales to make it worth-while for them.

I had hoped that we would have 6K monitors become affordable this year and 8K become less expensive than most cars. Maybe that won’t happen and we will instead have a wider range of products like the ultra wide monitor I just bought and the BenQ programmer’s monitor. If so I don’t think that will be a bad result.

Now the question is whether I can use this monitor for 2 years before finding something else that makes me want to upgrade. I can afford to spend the equivalent of a bit under $1/day on monitor upgrades.

Links April 2024

Ron Garret wrote an insightful refutation to 2nd amendment arguments [1].

Interesting article from the UK about British Gas losing a civil suit about bill collecting techniques that are harassment [2]. This should be a criminal offence investigated by the police and prosecuted by the CPS.

David Brin wrote a new version of his essay about dealing with blackmail in the US political system [3].

Cory Doctorow gave an insightful lecture about Enshittification for the Transmediale festival in Berlin [4]. This link has video and a transcript, I read the transcript.

The Cut has an insightful article by a journalist who gave $50k in cash to a scammer and compares the scam to techniques used to extort false confessions [5].

Truth Dig has an informative article about how Nick Bostrom is racist and how his advocacy of eugenics influences Effective Altruism and a lot of Silicon Valley [6].

Bruce Scneier and Nathan Sanders wrote an insightful article about the problems with a frontier slogan for AI development [7].

Brian Krebs wrote an informative article about the links between Chinese APT companies and the Chinese government [8].

USB PSUs

I just bought a new USB PSU from AliExpress [1]. I got this to reduce the clutter in my bedroom, I charge my laptop, PineTime, and a few phones at the same time and a single PSU with lots of ports makes it easier. Also I bought a couple of really short USB-C cables as it’s been proven by both real life tests and mathematical modelling that shorter cables get tangled less. This power supply is based on Gallium Nitride (GaN) [2] technology which makes it efficient and cool.

One thing I only learned about after that purchase is the new USB PPS standard (see the USB Wikipedia page for details [3]). The PPS (Programmable Power Supply) standard allows (quoting Wikipedia) “allowing a voltage range of 3.3 to 21 V in 20 mV steps, and a current specified in 50 mA steps, to facilitate constant-voltage and constant-current charging”. What this means in practice (when phones support it which for me will probably be 2029 or something) is that the phone could receive power exactly matching the voltage needed for the battery and not have any voltage conversion inside the phone. Phones are designed to stop charging at a certain temperature, this probably doesn’t concern people in places like Northern Europe but in Australia it can be an issue. Removing the heat dissipation from inefficiencies in voltage change circuitry means the phone will be cooler when charging and can charge at a higher rate.

There is a “Certified USB Fast Charger” logo for chargers which do this, but it seems that at the moment they just include “PPS” in the feature list. So I highly recommend that GaN and PPS be on your feature list for your next USB PSU, but failing that the 240W PSU I bought for $36 was a good deal.

Galaxy Note 9 Droidian

Droidian Support for Note 9

Droidian only supported the version of this phone with the Exynos chipset. The GSM Arena specs page for the Note 9 shows that it’s the SM-N960F part number [1]. In Australia all Note 9 phones should have the Exynos but it doesn’t hurt to ask for the part number before buying.

The status of the Note9 in Droidian went from fully supported to totally unsupported in the time I was working on this blog post. Such a rapid change is disappointing, it would be good if they at least kept the old data online. It would also be good if they didn’t require a hash character in the URL for each phone which breaks the archive.org mirroring.

Installing Droidian

Firstly Power+VolumeDown will reboot in some situations where Power button on its own won’t. The Note 9 hardware keys are:

  • Power – Right side
  • Volume up/down – long button top of the left side
  • Bixby – key for Samsung assistant that’s below the volume on the left

The Droidian install document for the Galaxy Note 9 9 now deleted is a bit confusing and unclear. Here is the install process that worked for me.

  1. The doc says to start by installing “Android 10 (Q) stock firmware”, but apparently a version of Android 10 that’s already on the phone will do for that.
  2. Download the rescue.img file and the “Droidian’s image” files from the Droidian page and extract the “Droidian’s image” zip.
  3. Connect your phone to your workstation by USB, preferably USB 3 because it will take a few minutes to transfer the image at USB 2 speed. Install the Debian package adb on the workstation.
  4. To “Unlock the bootloader” you can apparently use a PC and the Samsung software but the unlock option in the Android settings gives the same result without proprietary software, here’s how to do it:
    1. Connect the phone to Wifi. Then in settings go to “Software update”, then click on “Download and install”. Refuse to install if it offers you a new version (the unlock menu item will never appear unless you do this, so you can’t unlock without Internet access).
    2. In settings go to “About phone”, then “Software information”, then tap on “Build number” repeatedly until “Developer mode” is enabled.
    3. In settings go to the new menu “Developer options” then turn on the “OEM unlocking” option, this does a factory reset of the phone.
  5. To flash the recovery.img you apparently use Odin on Windows. I used the heimdall-flash package on Debian. On your Linux workstation run the commands:
    adb reboot download
    heimdall flash --RECOVERY recovery.img

    Then press VOLUME-UP+BIXBY+POWER as soon as it reboots to get into the recovery image. If you don’t do it soon enough it will do a default Android boot which will wipe the recovery.img you installed and also do a factory reset which will disable “Developer mode” and you will need to go back to step 4.

  6. If the above step works correctly you will have a RECOVERY menu where the main menu has options “Reboot system now”, “Apply update”, “Factory reset”, and “Advanced” in a large font. If you failed to install recovery.img then you would get a similar menu but with a tiny font which is the Samsung recovery image which won’t work so reboot and try again.
  7. When at the main recovery menu select “Advanced” and then “Enter fastboot”. Note that this doesn’t run a different program or do anything obviously different, just gives a menu – that’s OK we want it at this menu.
  8. Run “./flash_all.sh” on your workstation.
  9. Then it should boot Droidian! This may take a bit of time.

First Tests

Battery

The battery and its charge and discharge rates are very important to me, it’s what made the PinePhonePro and Librem5 unusable as daily driver phones.

After running for about 100 minutes of which about 40 minutes were playing with various settings the phone was at 89% battery. The output of “upower -d” isn’t very accurate as it reported power use ranging from 0W to 25W! But this does suggest that the phone might last for 400 minutes of real use that’s not CPU intensive, such as reading email, document editing, and web browsing. I don’t think that 6.5 hours of doing such things non-stop without access to a power supply or portable battery is something I’m ever going to do. Samsung when advertising the phone claimed 17 hours of video playback which I don’t think I’m ever going to get – or want.

After running for 11 hours it was at 58% battery. Then after just over 21 hours of running it had 13% battery. Generally I don’t trust the upower output much but the fact that it ran for over 21 hours shows that its battery life is much better than the PinePhonePro and the Librem5. During that 21 hours I’ve had a ssh session open with the client set to send ssh keep-alive messages every minute. So it had to remain active. There is an option to suspend on Droidian but they recommend you don’t use it. There is no need for the “caffeine mode” that you have on Mobian. For comparison my previous tests suggested that when doing nothing a PinePhonePro might last for 30 hours on battery while the Liberem5 might only list 10 hours [2]. This test with Droidian was done with the phone within my reach for much of that time and subject to my desire to fiddle with new technology – so it wasn’t just sleeping all the time.

When charging from the USB port on my PC it went from 13% to 27% charge in half an hour and then after just over an hour it claimed to be at 33%. It ended up taking just over 7 hours to fully charge from empty that’s not great but not too bad for a PC USB port. This is the same USB port that my Librem5 couldn’t charge from. Also the discharge:charge ratio of 21:7 is better than I could get from the PinePhonePro with Caffeine mode enabled.

rndis0

The rndis0 interface used for IP over USB doesn’t work. Droidian bug #36 [3].

Other Hardware

The phone I bought for testing is the model with 6G of RAM and 128G of storage, has a minor screen crack and significant screen burn-in. It’s a good test system for $109. The screen burn-in is very obvious when running the default Android setup but when running the default Droidian GNOME setup set to the Dark theme (which is a significant power saving with an AMOLED screen) I can’t see it at all. Buying a cheap phone with screen burn-in is something I recommend.

The stylus doesn’t work, this isn’t listed on the Droidian web page. I’m not sure if I tested the stylus when the phone was running Android, I think I did.

D State Processes

I get a kernel panic early in the startup for unknown reasons and some D state kernel threads which may or may not be related to that. Droidian bug #37 [4].

Second Phone

The Phone

I ordered a second Note9 on ebay, it had been advertised at $240 for a month and the seller accepted my offer of $200. With postage that’s $215 for a Note9 in decent condition with 8G of RAM and 512G of storage. But Droidian dropped support for the Note9 before I got to install it. At the moment I’m not sure what I’ll do with this, maybe I’ll keep it on Android.

I also bought four phone cases for $16. I got spares because of the high price of postage relative to the case cost and the fact that they may be difficult to get in a few years.

The Tests

For the next phone my plan was to do more tests on Android before upgrading it to Debian. Here are the ones I can think of now, please suggest any others I should do.

  • Log output of “ps auxf” equivalent.
  • Make notes on what they are doing with SE Linux.
  • Test the stylus.
  • Test USB networking to my workstation and my laptop.
  • Make a copy of the dmesg output. Also look for D state processes and other signs of problems.

Droidian and Security

When I tell technical people about Droidian a common reaction is “great you can get a cheap powerful phone and have better security than Android”. This is wrong in several ways. Firstly Android has quite decent security. Android runs most things in containers and uses SE Linux. Droidian has the Debian approach for most software (IE it all runs under the same UID without any special protections) and the developers have no plans to use SE Linux. I’ve previously blogged about options for Sandboxing for Debian phone use, my blog post is NOT a solution to the problem but an analysis of the different potential ways of going about solving it [5].

The next issue is that Droidian has no way to update the kernel and the installation instructions often advise downgrading Android (running a less secure kernel) before the installation. The Android Generic Kernel Image project [6] addresses this by allowing a separation between drivers supplied by the hardware vendor and the kernel image supplied by Google. This also permits running the hardware vendor’s drivers with a GKI kernel released by Google after the hardware vendor dropped security support. But this only applies to Android 11 and later, so Android 10 devices (like the Note 9 image for Droidian) miss out on this.

Kitty and Mpv

6 months ago I switched to Kitty for terminal emulation [1]. So far there’s only been one thing that I couldn’t effectively do with Kitty that I did with Konsole in the past, that is watching a music video in 1/4 of the screen while using the rest for terminals. I could setup multiple Kitty windows taking up the rest of the screen but I wanted to keep using a single Kitty with multiple terminals and just have mpv go over one of them. Kitty supports it’s own graphical interface so “mpv –vo=kitty” works but took 6* the CPU power in my tests which isn’t good for a laptop.

For X11 there’s a –ontop option for mpv that does what you expect, but that doesn’t work on Wayland. Not working is mostly Wayland’s fault as there is a long tail of less commonly used graphical operations that work in X11 but aren’t yet implemented in Wayland. I have filed a Debian bug report about this, the mpv man page should note that it’s only going to work on X11 on Linux.

I have discovered a solution to that, in the KDE settings there’s a “Window Rules” section, I created an entry for “Window class” exactly matching “mpv” and then added a rule “Keep above other windows” and set it for “force” and “yes”.

After that I can just resize mpv to occlude just one terminal and keep using the rest. Also one noteworthy thing with this is that it makes mpv go on top of the KDE taskbar, which can be a feature.

Humane AI Pin

I wrote a blog post The Shape of Computers [1] exploring ideas of how computers might evolve and how we can use them. One of the devices I mentioned was the Humane AI Pin, which has just been the recipient of one of the biggest roast reviews I’ve ever seen [2], good work Marques Brownlee! As an aside I was once given a product to review which didn’t work nearly as well as I think it should have worked so I sent an email to the developers saying “sorry this product failed to work well so I can’t say anything good about it” and didn’t publish a review.

One of the first things that caught my attention in the review is the note that the AI Pin doesn’t connect to your phone. I think that everything should connect to everything else as a usability feature. For security we don’t want so much connecting and it’s quite reasonable to turn off various connections at appropriate times for security, the Librem5 is an example of how this can be done with hardware switches to disable Wifi etc. But to just not have connectivity is bad.

The next noteworthy thing is the external battery which also acts as a magnetic attachment from inside your shirt. So I guess it’s using wireless charging through your shirt. A magnetically attached external battery would be a great feature for a phone, you could quickly swap a discharged battery for a fresh one and keep using it. When I tried to make the PinePhonePro my daily driver [3] I gave up and charging was one of the main reasons. One thing I learned from my experiment with the PinePhonePro is that the ratio of charge time to discharge time is sometimes more important than battery life and being able to quickly swap batteries without rebooting is a way of solving that. The reviewer of the AI Pin complains later in the video about battery life which seems to be partly due to wireless charging from the detachable battery and partly due to being physically small. It seems the “phablet” form factor is the smallest viable personal computer at this time.

The review glosses over what could be the regarded as the 2 worst issues of the device. It does everything via the cloud (where “the cloud” means “a computer owned by someone I probably shouldn’t trust”) and it records everything. Strange that it’s not getting the hate the Google Glass got.

The user interface based on laser projection of menus on the palm of your hand is an interesting concept. I’d rather have a Bluetooth attached tablet or something for operations that can’t be conveniently done with voice. The reviewer harshly criticises the laser projection interface later in the video, maybe technology isn’t yet adequate to implement this properly.

The first criticism of the device in the “review” part of the video is of the time taken to answer questions, especially when Internet connectivity is poor. His question “who designed the Washington Monument” took 8 seconds to start answering it in his demonstration. I asked the Alpaca LLM the same question running on 4 cores of a E5-2696 and it took 10 seconds to start answering and then printed the words at about speaking speed. So if we had a free software based AI device for this purpose it shouldn’t be difficult to get local LLM computation with less delay than the Humane device by simply providing more compute power than 4 cores of a E5-2696v3. How does a 32 core 1.05GHz Mali G72 from 2017 (as used in the Galaxy Note 9) compare to 4 cores of a 2.3GHz Intel CPU from 2015? Passmark says that Intel CPU can do 48GFlop with all 18 cores so 4 cores can presumably do about 10GFlop which seems less than the claimed 20-32GFlop of the Mali G72. It seems that with the right software even older Android phones could give adequate performance for a local LLM. The Alpaca model I’m testing with takes 4.2G of RAM to run which is usable in a Note 9 with 8G of RAM or a Pixel 8 Pro with 12G. A Pixel 8 Pro could have 4.2G of RAM reserved for a LLM and still have as much RAM for other purposes as my main laptop as of a few months ago. I consider the speed of Alpaca on my workstation to be acceptable but not great. If we can get FOSS phones running a LLM at that speed then I think it would be great for a first version – we can always rely on newer and faster hardware becoming available.

Marques notes that the cause of some of the problems is likely due to a desire to make it a separate powerful product in the future and that if they gave it phone connectivity in the start they would have to remove that later on. I think that the real problem is that the profit motive is incompatible with good design. They want to have a product that’s stand-alone and justifies the purchase price plus subscription and that means not making it a “phone accessory”. While I think that the best thing for the user is to allow it to talk to a phone, a PC, a car, and anything else the user wants. He compares it to the Apple Vision Pro which has the same issue of trying to be a stand-alone computer but not being properly capable of it.

One of the benefits that Marques cites for the AI Pin is the ability to capture voice notes. Dictaphones have been around for over 100 years and very few people have bought them, not even in the 80s when they became cheap. While almost everyone can occasionally benefit from being able to make a note of an idea when it’s not convenient to write it down there are few people who need it enough to carry a separate device, not even if that device is tiny. But a phone as a general purpose computing device with microphone can easily be adapted to such things. One possibility would be to program a phone to start a voice note when the volume up and down buttons are pressed at the same time or when some other condition is met. Another possibility is to have a phone have a hotkey function that varies by what you are doing, EG if bushwalking have the hotkey be to take a photo or if on a flight have it be taking a voice note. On the Mobile Apps page on the Debian wiki I created a section for categories of apps that I think we need [4]. In that section I added the following list:

  1. Voice input for dictation
  2. Voice assistant like Google/Apple
  3. Voice output
  4. Full operation for visually impaired people

One thing I really like about the AI Pin is that it has the potential to become a really good computing and personal assistant device for visually impaired people funded by people with full vision who want to legally control a computer while driving etc. I have some concerns about the potential uses of the AI Pin while driving (as Marques stated an aim to do), but if it replaces the use of regular phones while driving it will make things less bad.

Marques concludes his video by warning against buying a product based on the promise of what it can be in future. I bought the Librem5 on exactly that promise, the difference is that I have the source and the ability to help make the promise come true. My aim is to spend thousands of dollars on test hardware and thousands of hours of development time to help make FOSS phones a product that most people can use at low price with little effort.

Another interesting review of the pin is by Mrwhostheboss [5], one of his examples is of asking the pin for advice about a chair but without him knowing the pin selected a different chair in the room. He compares this to using Google’s apps on a phone and seeing which item the app has selected. He also said that he doesn’t want to make an order based on speech he wants to review a page of information about it. I suspect that the design of the pin had too much input from people accustomed to asking a corporate travel office to find them a flight and not enough from people who look through the details of the results of flight booking services trying to save an extra $20. Some people might say “if you need to save $20 on a flight then a $24/month subscription computing service isn’t for you”, I reject that argument. I can afford lots of computing services because I try to get the best deal on every moderately expensive thing I pay for. Another point that Mrwhostheboss makes is regarding secret SMS, you probably wouldn’t want to speak a SMS you are sending to your SO while waiting for a train. He makes it clear that changing between phone and pin while sharing resources (IE not having a separate phone number and separate data store) is a desired feature.

The most insightful point Mrwhostheboss made was when he suggested that if the pin had come out before the smartphone then things might have all gone differently, but now anything that’s developed has to be based around the expectations of phone use. This is something we need to keep in mind when developing FOSS software, there’s lots of different ways that things could be done but we need to meet the expectations of users if we want our software to be used by many people.

I previously wrote a blog post titled Considering Convergence [6] about the possible ways of using a phone as a laptop. While I still believe what I wrote there I’m now considering the possibility of ease of movement of work in progress as a way of addressing some of the same issues. I’ve written a blog post about Convergence vs Transferrence [7].