Grub 2 and the Law of Software Envelopment

I was reading a bit about Grub 2’s modules, including this page for gfxterm, a reimplementation of VGA console mode for Grub 2 — VGA console mode isn’t good enough because it cannot display Arabic, simplified Chineese, nor Inuit glyphs. And, let’s face it, the kinds of Inuits frobbing their boot loaders can’t possibly be expected to only get along with Latin-1 characters, right?

This reminded me of Zawinkski’s Law of Software Envelopment:

Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can.

Way to go Grub 2! You’re almost there! (I assume a TCP stack and SSH already exist…)

I’m not one to talk, of course, because I was looking into the possibility of writing a Grub 2 module that can read the GPIO pins on an Alix board in order to use the SW1 switch to decide to boot an alternative root. But, in my defense, my feature is a little closer to the type of thing you’d expect a boot loader to be able to handle than say, Inuit letters.

Of words, arms, and freedom

I’m sick, and back in England. Not that the two are related… no, not at all. But the fact that I was irritable and chanting “I hate England” in my head all morning as I made my way in to work doing various errands on the way, might be due to one or the other thing… or both.

While I was chanting my not-too-Buddhist chant to calm myself, I was thinking about all the differences between jolly old England and Switzerland. I realized at least part of it comes down to the freedom that comes from a durable social contract… a sense of solidarity and interdependence springing from deep down in the Swiss culture.

So imagine my happy surprise when my buddy Curtis pointed me at this blog posting: one to look after the other. In England, we have neither freedom of speech, nor the right to carry guns. This makes it diametrically opposed to the theoretical United States. In the United States, we have pretty good freedom of speech and we are continually losing our right to carry firearms. The author of the post I linked says:

Few politicians trust their citizens unconditionally with either (the right to free speech or the right to carry firearms). The more they allow the free use of one, the more they clamp down on the free use of the other, depending on political denomination. Almost no politician is comfortable with a citizen having unrestricted rights to both.

And it occurred to me, after thinking about Switzerland on the bus this morning, that Switzerland is a place with freedom of speech and the right to carry firearms. In fact, the Swiss have a power even stronger and more dangerous right than free speech: the right to direct democracy. And almost every Swiss man has an assault weapon in his house.

All of this is theoretical of course. I do not personally believe in the “armed society is a polite society”*, nor in the “guns/words dichotomy”. None of this musing really has a thing to do with my personal thoughts on the issue, which are my normal muddled mélange of socialist, capitalist, libertarian and utopian/progressive tendencies. My personal thoughts on guns are something along the lines of, “Well, there’s no real problem with guns, and I don’t want them in my life, and I don’t mind other people having them, except that wouldn’t it be nice if we were building a society where they didn’t want them?”

Perhaps you can see why virtually everyone who discusses politics with me eventually gets frustrated and gives up… I don’t really fit into boxes very well.

* The first image that comes to mind when I think of “an armed society is a polite society” is a sunny morning in Chad, hunkered in a safe room, hoping that stray (or even targeted) gunfire didn’t kill any of my colleagues. Armed societies need not be polite… and the alternative is not completely welcome.

Why I work for MSF…

Here’s someone else who has taken control of his life and chosen exactly what he’s doing and why. That’s part of why I work for MSF. It occurred to me about the time Silicon Valley was getting ready for another lap (which came to be called Web 2.0) that I didn’t want to make the lap with them. And that if I was going to do something, that it should matter.

There’s another reason too, and it’s more personal and makes me sound like a wing-nut when I try to explain it. So if you really want to know, come to Leeds and visit me and buy me some beer and I’ll try to explain it in person.

The New Yorker on Aid Work

There is a really excellent article on aid work in The New Yorker.

Though this is pretty much a write-only blog at this point, and I don’t really know if anyone cares, here are my reactions to the article:

  • It is remarkably candid, but…
  • it is too hopeless…
  • because it focuses too much on the UN and not enough on independent actors.

Of course, any reader of mine know my biases: I am a cynical humanist capitalist from Silicon Valley (engaged to be married to a practical humanist socialist from Switzerland), who chose to work with MSF due to it’s independence. Because this article speaks to the core of my identity, of course my biases are going to be the key to my understanding of it.

First, above all, it is remarkably candid about the reality of our work. There’s a funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad explanation of how UNHCR field people are reduced to writing reports about reports, and how in N’Djamena, they are compiled into reports about reports about reports and sent to Geneva. He found someone candid enough to tell him the MMM theory of relief workers. He hinted at, but unfortunately did not discuss at length, the fact that many (most?) international UN humanitarian workers are African expats who are doing it for the money as much as for love of the work. There is fertile ground (full of landmines) to be explored there: What does it do to the UN’s effectiveness that many of it’s field people don’t like their job but are trapped in it by economic forces? How can international workers be effective when their primary motivation is not solidarity with the beneficiaries, but with their family (and it’s bank account) back home? What’s the solution?

Next, I say the article is too hopeless. At least one reason it is hopeless is that the situation in Darfur and along the Chadian border with Sudan is so hopeless. It’s a political/economic situation, a proxy war between the West and China. It puts into opposition China’s need for resources and disinterest in international norms with the international humanitarian principles the west stands for. No big surprise what wins out: as usual, follow the money.

The other reason it is hopeless is because the journalist got the UN side of the story. The MSF side of the same story has its roots in our very reason to exist, the MSF charter. MSF is in Chad the same reason we are in any country: because patients need us. MSF has hundreds of stories to tell about people in Chad (refugees, citizens, rebels, soldiers, it doesn’t matter who) who needed help and MSF had the capacity in place to give that help, when and where it was needed. There’s something beautiful in that, and the journalist let the heat, the walled compounds, the driving sand, and the rebel attacks divert his attention from the beauty and the power of what it means to just be there, and to be human, alongside other humans. He came close: he personally experienced the pain we all feel when you can’t do enough for one, let alone for everyone. That’s human, and that’s the hard part of the job.

He missed reporting on the the humanitarian imperative, which is too bad. Did he miss it because his hosts at UNHCR and WFP also are missing it? Or was it there, and he just blew it as a journalist? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and I don’t blame him one bit.

Which brings me to my final critique, which is that he doesn’t cover the story from outside the UN bubble enough. But there’s enough other brilliant journalism about MSF and other actor’s work, so perhaps it is valuable just to have the UN story.

Go, read. This article has won a place in my bibliography of humanitarian aid stuff.

PS: The headline is “Lives of the Saints: International hardship duty in Chad”. Headlines are often picked by editors long from the story, and I hope this one was. The people the author talked to undoubtedly told him that aid workers hate to be called heros, saints, or anything other than simply their job title (e.g. log, nurse, protection officer). Our work is too important and too dangerous for us to tolerate show-off heros as colleagues for very long. The professionals in the highest leagues of humanitarian aid (and he met some of them) know they are neither saints, nor heros and they never allow someone to call them one.

Royal Mail and the Colour Red

I just got a little note from Royal Mail telling me that I need to come pick up a packet at the post office. It has this choice bit of stupidity on the back:

Royal Mail, the Criciform, and the colour red are registered trademarks of Royal Mail.

Christmas – Sorry you were out, Copyright (C) Royal Mail Group 2008.

What I want to know is who is the idiot lawyer who actually thinks that not only can he trademark red, but that he can copyright “Sorry you were out”?

PS: I am back after a long relaxing vacation in Switzerland. For the record, this is EXACTLY the kind of thing I see daily in England that makes me need long relaxing vacations in Switzerland…