1981

One common trope that we've all heard is how raising a child is like reliving our own childhood. While this has proven to be grossly inaccurate in my own experience, watching the boy grow up has surfaced some long-buried memories of my own childhood when I was about his age1. This happened again today while we were at the mall and he picked up a toy car of Anpanman driving a steamroller. Regardless of how nonsensical the toy was2, it reminded me very much of a time when I was still an only-child, walking along King St. in Hamilton with my parents. There was a toy that I very much wanted that resembled the toy my son asked for today.

Hot Wheels — The Flintmobile

Some time in the summer of 1981, just a few months before my sister was born, I would walk with my parents to the mall downtown. The distance on the map shows we would travel almost two kilometres in each direction, though I don't recall how long this trek would take. What I do remember very clearly is a corner store3 somewhere between Wellington and Catharine Street4 that had a large collection of Hot Wheels cars in the window. One particular car that I would look at every time we went by was the car that Fred Flintstone would drive in the cartoon. It was a bizarre imagining of a prehistoric vehicle, and I wanted it.

One day my parents caved and picked up the car for me. After paying for the toy, they opened the package and I took it outside immediately to play with it on the sidewalk. My parents and I continued on our way to Jackson Square, Woolworth's5, or wherever the heck it was that we were going that day, and I would push the Flintmobile along the sidewalk a few feet at a time.

My parents were either very patient with me, or I don't recall how quickly my father6 insisted I carry the car and keep up with them. If I was as active or talkative at the age of two as the boy, then it's probably some combination thereof. From this point on, however, I would always have a toy car with me whenever I left the house. Fred Flintstone's car stayed with me for the summer, and I remember preferring a red Nissan I called "Turbo" around the same time as my sister was born.

This entire memory, and most of the footnotes, flashed through my mind in the split second it took my son to hand me the toy and ask that I open the package7. Maybe the old adage isn't so inaccurate after all.


  1. The boy is a little over two. Where does the time go?

  2. Anpanman is a children's superhero who files. He'll always choose to fly, even when he has the opportunity to sit in a vehicle going to the same destination.

  3. This was a corner store in the truest sense of the word: a small convenience store that was incredibly cramped inside and was run by an older gentleman. I used to remember his name, as my parents would always say hello, but time has taken this away.

  4. I remember the street names because I would go to the very same store 16 years later every morning to buy a National Post newspaper and can of Pepsi while en route to the second college I attended.

  5. This store is long, long gone from Hamilton.

  6. My father was far less patient than my mother.

  7. He hasn't yet learned how to ask that we buy things for him.

Infiltration

The unseasonably mild end to February has resulted in the nearby parks springing to life. Trees are beginning to bud. Flowers are beginning to sprout. Pollen permeates the air. Everyone looks forward to seeing the plants and animals return to an energetic state of being, but allergies can ruin any sort of enjoyment a person might feel.

Bee Collecting Honey

Allergies seem to be a problem that adults face when they've lived in the same area for a couple of years. The first time I can remember dealing with persistently itchy eyes was around the age of 12. I was staying at my mother's house for the summer in a very rural part of Southern Ontario and every morning would start with me rubbing a bunch of gunk out of my eyes, sneezing once or twice, then getting on with the day. If I were running around and playing with my sisters, then everything was good. If I stopped to read a book1, then my eyes would first begin to water, then itch, then turn red. It was not a fun time, but I quickly learned that I should walk around the 8 acres of lawn while reading if I wanted to avoid the effects of pollen … so I started walking, head down, with a book in my hands. A lot.

Some time around 1995 I was given an over-the-counter allergy medicine that worked pretty well. There was just one little problem: it was expensive. Every pill worked out to about $1.80 which, at the time, was a lot more than a cup of coffee. I have five sisters and two brothers. The family wasn't poor, but it wasn't exactly sitting on a huge pile of cash, either. As a result, I would get a box of 20 pills at the start of spring and it would be up to me to manage when those pills would be taken over the non-winter seasons2. April was generally the month when the allergies would first kick in, and August/September is when they would come back one last time to make me question how it is that humans ever gathered the restraint necessary to not burn the whole planet down, eliminating any chance of pollen interacting with our sinuses.

This was the pattern for the next few years. A box of Contact C in the springtime, and careful rationing over the next six months. After getting a "real job" it became possible for me to buy my own pills whenever it was necessary, but the years of careful rationing had been a good lesson to learn when not to take medicine.

In 2002 when I moved to the west coast of Canada, my allergies all but disappeared for three full summers. It wasn't until 2006 that the itchy eyes made a return along with a new twist: an untrustworthy nose. I would take the recommended dosage of Contact C every day for over a month, spending just over $70 for the luxury of being able to see and breathe. Exercise didn't help. Staying indoors at a place with a really good air filtration system didn't help. Going to the ocean where the wind would generally push pollen away from the beaches didn't help, either. These were miserable months.

Then I moved to Japan and the allergies disappeared again for three full summers. From 2007 to the tail end of 2010 I could enjoy the sights and smells of the country without considering whether the local vegetation was out to spoil my good health. But the autumn of 2010 saw the return of itchy eyes. 2011, not long after the Great Tohoku Earthquake, saw a complete return of itchy eyes and an untrustworthy nose, plus a new symptom: a scratchy throat at the very back of my mouth. When the three problems are competing for attention I consider moving further east in a bid to get a few years of peace … though this is all but impossible now.

With today being the first of March, I'm going to do what my parents did all those years ago when I started suffering from this insufferable seasonal punishment. I'll head to the nearby pharmacy and drop the $22 for a box of 20 allergy pills. The medicine will be kept nearby, but only called upon when the air is particularly difficult to contend with. If I were to take the recommended dosage every day regardless of need, a box would last just ten days and I'd wind up giving the pharmaceutical companies $150 for access to distraction-free sight and smell. This might not sound like a great deal of money, but it's more than I'd like to spend. Besides, taking medicine when the body doesn't need it is a recipe for disaster. If we build up a resistance (or reliance) on chemicals that make us feel better, then consequences await us. For allergy medicine, the consequence would likely be a prescription for something much stronger that also costs much more. This is something I'd really much rather not contend with.


  1. This particular summer, 1991, I read four Star Trek books. The one that I remember most clearly was a Next Generation book, Boogeymen, which was one of the first books I bought with money I earned. This would have been during the decade of Trek where I used a great deal of my free time to read every Star Trek novel that had been published. Up until I moved to Japan, I was able to say with confidence that I had read every Trek novel published by PocketBooks. I've gone back to read some of the older books from time to time, but the writing strikes me as incredibly simplistic and shallow compared to many of the more recent novels.

  2. Yes. My parents would buy just one package per year. If I took the pills on days when I could have just suffered through a mild bout of discomfort, then it was on me.

Rolling Over

Today is the last day of February. There are just ten more months until 2020. We have just eighteen years to replace all of our 32-bit *nix-based systems that need to understand what day it is1. As one would expect from a person who embarks upon a 1,000-year project, time is something that I think about quite often. A lot of people knew about Y2K before it happened. Some people know about Y2038. Very few people (that I know) seem to be aware of the two other impending date-based issues that will affect our technology in the near future. One is the Network Time Protocol rollover on February 7th, 2036. The other is the GPS Week rollover on April 6th, 2019; a little less than six weeks from now.

Fortunately most of our modern technological devices will be ready for the GPS rollover as regular software updates to cell phones, tablets, and desktop operating systems make this a relatively painless bit of math. One area that I expect to see suffer from hiccups, however, will be car-mounted navigation systems. These expensive tools are not known for quality code or regular software updates, which means that some people can expect to see the displayed date in their car to be off by almost 20 years.

The problem basically breaks down like this. The GPS satellites use a 10-bit number to keep track of what week it is. 10-bits has a maximum human-readable value of 1,024. This number of weeks works out to 19.7 years, and every one of these periods is known as an epoch. We're currently at the tail end of the second epoch. From April 6th the week number will roll over to 0 and we'll enter the third. If you have an in-dash navigation system in your car, now would be a good time to see if it's possible to update the software.

Then in 2036 …

Another epoch will be coming to an end in 2036 when the Network Time Protocol runs out of numbers and resets. What's interesting is that NTP uses a 64-bit time value, which should theoretically be large enough to count the number of seconds between the birth and death of our universe. NTP, however, consists of two 32-bit parts; one for seconds and another for fractional seconds. This means that NTP will roll over every 232 seconds, which is about 136 years. Unlike Unix, NTP's first epoch has a start date of January 1, 1900, meaning that it will run out of seconds on February 7th, 2036 at around 06:28:15 UTC. Given that it's network-connected devices that make use of NTP to synchronize their time when booting, and most modern systems will not allow their internal clock to be set to a date before 1970, it shouldn't be too difficult a task for systems to understand when the second epoch begins and just roll with it.

We should still make sure that everything is tested and in place beforehand, though.

Y2038

A Visual Representation of the Y2038 Problem

And then there's the next big epoch to overcome: the Unix timestamp. These numbers are used, quite literally, everywhere. Me being me, I've yet to go a day in the last decade or so where I didn't knowingly use, see, or read a Unix timestamp. What's interesting is that there is no universal solution to this problem. A lot of modern systems support the newer 64-bit timestamps, but there are a lot of lower-powered or older devices that use 32-bit processors where a 64-bit timestamp simply will not work, and any change to how the 32-bit number is parsed would open a huge can of worms that would result in a decade of bug-hunting. Most modern Unix-based systems built in the last five years will be good until the 64-bit epoch hits us on December 4th, 292,277,026,596. This isn't something most of us will need to worry about.

Our 32-bit systems, though … these will come back to haunt us. Thermostats, refrigerators, and other home appliances can last a long, long time. Not all of these devices will need to know the exact date to function, but some will have schedules to follow. If the calendar rolls back to the early 20th century, who knows what sorts of activities an appliance might not automatically handle for us.

The Unix epoch will likely be mostly resolved in the next couple of years as smart people sit down and tackle the problem. Some older hardware and software will not be salvageable, but this won't stop solutions from being brought forward and implemented. The one area where I am concerned about this roll over is in the older, legacy systems that some companies still run. Many organizations that use software originally written in the 80s and 90s for 32-bit mainframes most likely run these systems in virtual machines now rather than on 20+ year old hardware. The great thing about running software in a virtual machine is that these complex systems are incredibly portable. Server hardware can continue to evolve and get replaced every few years, and the virtual machine can be booted up on a new machine in a matter of minutes to take over from a decommissioned system. It's both cost effective and smart. As time goes on, though, the people who know how to maintain the software on those virtual machines retire. As people retire, they take important skills with them. When nobody with the requisite skills remains to manage the legacy system, it becomes a "black box" that nobody touches until someone in 2037 asks if the company is ready for the Unix epoch.

Then we have another Y2K moment.


  1. The Y2038 problem will not be talked about nearly as much as Y2K was, nor will most people even realize its significance.

Where Is the Line?

In late November of last year, Microsoft won a contract with the US military that will result in combat units using more of the company's offerings on the battlefield, including the HoloLens augmented reality headset. A number of employees at the company have expressed concern with this, saying in an open letter that they do not want to develop weapons, which is a completely reasonable position to take. Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO, doesn't see the contract as an issue and believes this to be a "principled decision", which is also a reasonable position to take. As someone who has been asked in the past to write software that went against my morals1 the question I would have if I were in this position would be far more complex than it sounds: where is the line?

Microsoft Hololens.jpg

At what point does a person draw the line and say "This far and no farther"? At the moment, given that I work in education, the answer is pretty clear for me. I will not write nor provide software that will be used to kill, injure, or spy on people. My work can not be used to infringe on the digital and physical sovereignty of others under any circumstance, regardless the promises made by people within the organisation in positions of power. If I am asked to do any of these things, even for something as seemingly benign as putting Google Analytics on a corporate website, I will decline the work and suggest someone else do it. If the infringement is greater, such as collecting the position of a person's mouse, every keystroke, and perhaps even audio data while using the company's resources, then I will protest as high up the chain as I can go until the offending business decision is cancelled. If this doesn't work then I resign and move on2.

This is all well and good for someone working in education, but how about a company such as Microsoft?

Working at Microsoft — or Apple or Google or Canonical — would make the line a little harder to identify primarily because of the military's extensive use of operating systems. Most modern, well-equipped military forces around the world use Windows and Linux extensively. Devices can run Android or iOS. Software that runs on any of these operating systems can be used for the sole purpose of death and/or destruction. If I work with a company that makes operating systems and do not want to participate in any way to the development of weapons or enabling of murder, do I have that luxury? Probably not. Even if I were to not contribute to Windows, people at Microsoft will be working on projects that could be used by a military; be it domestic or foreign. So would the line be somewhere around: so long as my project is not specifically used as a weapon? Would it be a little more specific with: so long as my project is not the active development of a weapon? Both of these seem conveniently myopic.

As unpalatable as the idea may be to some people, companies as large and established as Microsoft are going to work for governments and military organisations. While Satya Nadella has not said that they'll be officially entering the weapons market, he doesn't have to. A lot of Microsoft's products are already in heavy use by powerful entities we may not necessarily agree with. By supplying the US military with HoloLens hardware and some custom software, they'll be doing all the things one would expect from a big company. If employees are morally opposed to the idea and are assigned to the project, they can request to be transferred3. Is this perfect? Not in the least. It is, however, a potentially viable alternative to being a part of active weapons development.

For me the line is pretty clear cut and my positions are generally understood by the management at my employer. For larger open projects that I contribute to, such as Linux, I understand that my code4 could be used within a system designed to harm people, from Claymore mines to ICBMs, and there's literally nothing I can do to prevent this. What I can do, however, is refuse to participate in the active development of weapons … and the people protesting the decision at Microsoft can do the same. The key is not just protesting a decision, but being willing to walk away when the alternative is untenable.


  1. I did not end up writing the software. My bosses were quite upset with me for refusing the demand, as it was coming from the company's investors at the time, but I wasn't going to sacrifice the data privacy of others for my own pay cheque. Instead my immediate manager wrote the code that broke the promise we made to our customers and I left the organisation a few months later.

  2. I understand that this is primarily possible due to the privilege that I have earned over years of hard work, which has (only recently) resulted in a well-paying career that has made saving money possible. Not everyone can afford to walk away from a job for moral reasons.

  3. with the understanding that any request will likely limit their career opportunities going forward.

  4. which has been mostly limited to Bluetooth drivers and fingerprint readers.

Something Is Different

On April 10th, 1815 Mount Tambora experienced one of the most powerful eruptions in recorded history. One year later, the entire northern hemisphere of the globe experienced The Year Without a Summer. History is replete with examples of seasonal anomalies where temperatures were either warmer or cooler than expected. This year, something is different.

Jonn Elledge has recently written an opinion piece on The Guardian asking if he's the only one terrified of the warm weather. He's not. This week the daily temperatures in this part of Japan have been hovering between 14° and 17°C, which is about 10° warmer than usual for the end of February. The higher temperatures haven't been limited to just the UK and Japan, though, as similar irregularities are being seen across Europe and much of Asia. The absence of summer two hundred years ago was likely the result of ash in the atmosphere blocking sunlight. The absence of winter this year is not the result of a lack of volcanic eruptions. Again, something is different.

Whether some people believe it or not, the climate is changing. Politicians and billionaires can debate whether this is the result of human activity until their blue in the face, but the reality before us is undeniable. The warmest 20 years on record for many of the G7 nations have all happened in the last quarter century. Doing the math, it's hard to say that this February warm spell is just a fluke of nature that should be enjoyed rather than heeded. As a civilization, we need to look at what is happening around us and plan accordingly. Leading scientists say that we have fewer than a dozen years to avert disaster. Some say we've already passed the point of no return given that the majority of the world's insects are dying in staggering numbers.

Right now, what matters more is that we address the changing climate than try to affix blame or point fingers. The planet will continue to exist without us and, being the ever-resilient biosphere it is, new species will evolve and conquer the world. But this isn't the point. The universe doesn't care that we exist. The planet doesn't care, either. But we should. We should care very much, and do what is necessary to ensure that we not only exist, but continue to strive towards a better future.

How to Disappear Completely

(m.youtube.com)

Lily Ryan shows us how to “disappear” from mass surveillance facial recognition systems.

She had an interesting set of careers before getting into pen testing systems 🤔

‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants

(www.theguardian.com)

Our need for new, measured and more forensic language to characterise female militancy and the agency that underpins it is now clear. Yet we must remain sensitive to the coercion and violence many female Isis members experienced themselves

Here’s a word: militant. If there is to be honest equilibrium between the genders, then whether a person is a male militant or female militant is inconsequential. Drop the adjective. They are a militant. Debate all you wish about the reasons, but do not debate the word.

I'm quite frustrated with the double standard feminist opinion writers have.

Canada: Jagmeet Singh gets chance to take on Trudeau after byelection win

(www.theguardian.com)

First non-white leader of major party in Canada enters parliament ahead of October election

This is excellent news. While I’m not on board with the whole NDP platform, Jagmeet Singh will bring some much-needed accountability to the Canadian parliament. Hopefully he won’t lose sight of his stated goals …

Sofa surfing made me realise housing should be a basic human right | Penny Anderson

(www.theguardian.com)

Evicting a tenant should be a difficult, restricted process with in-built delays for mediation and strict rules on actual evictions, such as a winter break. If housing is to be a basic, incontrovertible human right, evictions must become the very last resort. Governments must provide a roof over everybody’s head – we should have no more time for excuses.

While the premise is sincere, the reality is far more complex. To claim that housing is a human right is to put a rather large burden on society. Everybody needs a home where they can be safe from weather and other people. What should be expected of the people who require social housing, though? And what should be done if those expectations go unfulfilled?

I don’t mean to sound cruel or heartless. I’ve been close to homelessness once before as well. I’ve also volunteered for two years at a homeless shelter. Not everyone can be given a home and a bit of money forever. This is an incomplete and irresponsible solution.

Value for Who?

Over the last couple of years it seems that just about every website that publishes news has integrated a service called Outbrain for reasons I can't quite understand. As one would expect, Outbrain is an advertising platform that puts links to stories from other websites in front of your face in the hopes that you'll click on the asinine drivel that would better fit tabloid sites. Publishers clearly go to great lengths to make the "promoted links" appear almost native in a bid to get people to click and, as Outbrain has been around a decade, people clearly do just that. But who benefits from this arrangement?

Outbrain

Of the sites that I visit for news, be it world or tech, a little more than half make use of services like this. Most of the outgoing links point to content that does not seem to benefit the company using the service and generally makes the content I've just read appear less valuable. Given that most news sites are part of vast media empires, why not have a small development team create a parent-company-specific version of Outbrain that links to posts on other sites based on a series of tags/keywords/whatever so that readers are encouraged to "stay local", as it were? This wouldn't be terribly difficult and it seems to be a common cross-advertising mechanism employed by some of the Canadian news sites that I frequent.

There's no denying that news sites need to earn money in order to remain operational. There's no denying that subscription revenues are generally insufficient to make it possible to ditch the advertising network hooks. This said, there's no denying that by keeping people on the same or related "sister sites" would make it much more likely that people will click the links, load the pages, and be presented with advertisements. I visit the sites I visit because I know the quality of the writing and have confidence that what I'm reading is generally accurate. I won't visit random links that are "promoted" by an external advertising entity because there is no reason to trust that the stuff I'll read will be worth the investment in time and bandwidth.