The League of Extraordinary Hypocrisy

So it would seem that DC comics are creating a prequel series for the seminal 1980s work, “Watchmen“. I’m not going to discuss whether or not this is a good thing, but rather consider the quotes on that page from the original creators of Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Let’s deal with the quote from Dave Gibbons first:

“The original series of Watchmen is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell. However, I appreciate DC’s reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire.”

Now compare that with the quote from Alan Moore:

I tend to take this latest development as a kind of eager confirmation that they are still apparently dependent on ideas that I had 25 years ago. […] I don’t want money. What I want is for this not to happen. As far as I know, there weren’t that many prequels or sequels to Moby Dick.

Hmmm… this is the same Alan Moore whose League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series is based almost entirely on characters created by other people (most of them far more than 25 years ago), and which includes Moby-Dick’s Ishmael in the first volume. The same Alan Moore whose Lost Girls puts a pornographic twist onto other writers’ characters.

So, Mr Moore, why is it okay for you to use other people’s creations in your own work, but when it comes to somebody creating stories based on your own characters you want it “not to happen”?

Piracy: Not just about price, but availability

Here’s an interesting read from the Open Rights Group about the (lack of) availability of UK films as legitimate digital downloads.

The short summary version of it is that many British films are not legally available to download in the UK – and if they are, it’s often at a price that is comparable to buying it on DVD, but for a lower quality version.

I’m pleased to see that they also included figures that exclude iTunes (which result in even more dismal numbers): as a Linux user I don’t have access to iTunes at all, so my choices are even more limited. Unfortunately history suggests that even if the availability lessons of this report are heeded, the results will only practically be available to Mac and PC users.

An idle thought…

With all the Kinect hacks out there, why hasn’t anyone created a real-time Max Headroom implementation?

Extremely Petty Thieves

We went to the new Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury last night. Despite having seats in the stalls, the throng of people at the bar led us to make our way upstairs to order our interval drinks at the circle bar instead.

The interval arrived and a combination of constrained vomitoria, and excessive politeness as each row waited on the one behind, led to us doing that slow zombie shuffle that is typical of a crowd of people trying to exit an auditorium. By the time we got out into the foyer and made our way upstairs to the circle bar, everyone had already taken their interval drinks from the designated table.

In fact not only had everyone taken their drinks, but some malefactor had taken our interval drinks!

So what had this thief made off with? A refreshing beer? A large glass of wine? An expensive liqueur? No, some damned criminal genius had made off with… two cups of coffee! Really, if you’re going to steal someone’s interval drinks, at least go for the interesting ones.

Our receipt was still in place, next to the sugar bowl and now-empty milk jug, but then we had the fun of trying to get the attention of the bar staff to sort it out while everyone glared at us with the sort of look that suggested violence could erupt – or at least a few fruity words would pass – if it turned out we were pushing in. Luckily the staff heard our (deliberately loud) discussion about what had happened, and everything was sorted with no words, or blows, exchanged.

So, what sort of event had we been to that attracted people who are low enough to steal two coffees from the interval drinks table? Some grungy rock concert? Well, they’re not typically known for their intervals. Some ageing rocker then, whose fans still have a little of the punk spirit, but whose lavatorial urges require an interval? Not even that.

It was a recording of “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue“.

It’s a sorry state of affairs when you can’t even trust Radio 4 listeners not to steal your drinks!

R4 Cards Now Illegal in the UK


R4 (and similar) cards have now been declared illegal in the UK. Personally I think this is a significant injustice, as it further erodes individuals’ ability to use their purchased hardware for non-approved (but legal) uses, under the flag of preventing piracy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m generally against piracy and have purchased all my DS games legally. But I do own and use an R4 card. There are two reasons for this: firstly I do play the occasional homebrew game; secondly I use it as a means to conveniently carry all my games with me without the need to keep swapping cartridges. If there was a legitimate way to achieve this then I wouldn’t have any need of this “piracy device”.

The most worrying part of the article is this quote:

“The mere fact that the device can be used for a non-infringing purpose is not a defence,” read the ruling by Justice Floyd.

By that argument we’d better all get rid of our cameras, CD writers, PVRs, video capture cards and any other technology that may be used for copyright violations as well as legal uses.

I use an iPod as a means to aggregate hundreds of CDs into one device: my R4 is a means to aggregate dozens of games into one cartridge. I could put illegally downloaded music onto my iPod just as easily as I could put illegally downloaded games onto my R4. Yet one device is seen as a successful stalwart of consumer electronics, whilst the other is a scurrilous device used by pirates and ne’er-do-wells. The main difference I can see is that Apple are a big, rich company whereas the defendants in this case were small independent suppliers.

Yet again it would seem that money talks – or at least buys expensive lawyers to do the talking for you.

sudo? sudon’t! Stupid “sudoers.d”

If you don’t know what “sudo” is, then this isn’t the post for you… it’s going to get technical and Linuxy. Let’s start with the summary, as it’s the most important part of this post:

If you use /etc/sudoers.d/ don’t create files in the directory – create them elsewhere, ‘chmod’ them, and only then copy them in.
Edit: You can also use the ‘visudo’ command to create and edit the files – see the comments for more details.

Now for the story about how I came to this discovery…

For reasons that I’ll describe in a future post, I have a need to be able to trigger the “chvt” command from a keyboard shortcut. More specifically I want to run “gksudo chvt 1”, as using chvt to switch from a graphical screen to a console requires superuser privileges on my Ubuntu box. This prompts for my password, which seems a little redundant as I can use CTRL-ALT-F1 to the same effect without having to enter a password. So I decided to add an entry to the sudoers file in order to grant myself passwordless access to the chvt command.

I went wandering over to /etc and found not only the expected “sudoers” file, but also a “sudoers.d” directory. This directory contained a single README file, as follows:

# As of Debian version 1.7.2p1-1, the default /etc/sudoers file created on
# installation of the package now includes the directive:
# #includedir /etc/sudoers.d
# This will cause sudo to read and parse any files in the /etc/sudoers.d
# directory that do not end in ‘~’ or contain a ‘.’ character.
# Note that there must be at least one file in the sudoers.d directory (this
# one will do), and all files in this directory should be mode 0440.
# Note also, that because the sudoers file is not a ‘conffile’ in the Debian
# sense, and sudoers contents can vary widely, no attempt is made to add this
# directive to existing sudoers files on upgrade. Feel free to add the above
# directive to the end of your /etc/sudoers file to enable this functionality
# for existing installations if you wish!

That seemed like just what I wanted. I could create my sudoers command in a file of its own, safe in the knowledge that it wouldn’t get trampled by any future upgrades that affect the sudoers file itself. I copied and pasted the #includedir line into my sudoers file (using “sudo visudo”), then set about adding my sudoers directive in a file I named “chvt”:

> cd /etc/sudoers.d/
> sudo touch chvt
> sudo chmod 0440 chvt


My terminal was filled with a lengthy backtrace, but scrolling back up to the top, I found this little nugget:

sudo: /etc/sudoers.d/chvt is mode 0644, should be 0440

Well thanks for that marvellous insight – I was just trying to set it to 0440 when you stopped me, you stupid machine.

Because I committed the heinous crime of creating an empty file in /etc/sudoers.d/ “sudo” won’t work at all. I can’t correct the permissions, I can’t delete or move the file: in short, I’ve lost administrator access to my machine. All for the sake of an empty file.

Now I can understand sudo throwing a wobbly and quitting if it can’t parse the sudoers file – blindly proceeding to read a malformed file could be a quick route to a buffer overflow attack or similar. But dying completely because an empty file has the wrong permissions seems a little draconian. Yes, that README did say “…and all files in this directory should be mode 0440” – but “should be” isn’t quite the same as “…MUST be 0440, or I’ll DIE!!!”. Here’s an idea: if you don’t like the permissions, just don’t read the file – there’s no need to get all suicidal about it.

It seems that the only way to recover from this situation is to reboot the machine: either booting from a Live CD, or selecting the recovery console during the GRUB boot sequence. You can then remove or change the permissions of the offending file and everything will be back to normal after you restart the machine. It does seem like a lot of hassle caused by a zero length file though – thank goodness I didn’t do this on a production server!

All of which leads back to the summary at the top of this post: Don’t create files directly in /etc/sudoers.d/ If you do use the #includedir directive in your sudoers file, make sure you create your files elsewhere, set the permissions to 0440, and only then copy them into place.

Edit: You can also use the ‘visudo’ command to create and edit the files – see the comments for more details.

Top-left, top-right: why not let me choose?

As I mentioned in this post, the migration of Ubuntu’s window controls from the top right to the top-left were a precursor to other changes which would make use of the now-empty corner of the title bar. I’m still not sure why the controls had to move before any of these new widgets even exist, but at least now we have a little more information about the plans for the top-right corner of Ubuntu windows, as Mark Shuttleworth has posted a blog entry about the so-called “windicators” that they plan to put there.

On the whole I approve of the idea of adding more functionality to the title bar – it’s largely wasted space at the moment. But there’s one thing about this proposal which concerns me: the user has no choice about the position of the windicators. From the proposal it appears that the user can either accept the window controls at the top-left and the windicators at the top-right, or they will have to live without the windicators completely.

When you look at this suggestion in the context of the plans for the Ubuntu Netbook Remix it makes a lot of sense. By positioning the windicators at the top right they appear alongside the main panel indicators in the planned version of UNR which combines the window titlebar with the menu and the top panel into one composite element. But just because this positioning makes sense for UNR, that doesn’t necessarily mean it makes sense for normal desktop installations.

My personal preference would be to retain the close button in the top-right, but move the minimise and maximise buttons (which I rarely use) to the top-left. Windicators would appear in the top-right, but to the left of the close button. Of course this layout wouldn’t suit everyone. Perhaps you would rather have the windicators in the centre of the title bar, with the application name to the left and the window controls to the right? Perhaps you would prefer not to have windicators at all, or perhaps you could live without the maximise button if you’re one of those people who religiously use a double-click on the title bar for the same purpose.

The point is that a single layout arrangement, dictated from above, doesn’t suit everybody. So why not make it configurable? Why not turn the title bar into a container-like element, with the ability to host various widgets that are aligned to the left, right or center. The close button would be a widget. The minimise and maximise buttons would be widgets. Even the window title would be a widget. Windicators would probably be treated as one composite widget, rather than making the user deal with each one individually.

In this scenario the window title bar is more akin to the existing Gnome panels in Ubuntu. If you want to rearrange your window widgets you could just drag them around, much like you can with objects in a panel. If you want to remove a widget entirely you could do that too – although a sanity check would probably prevent you removing the only close button. All this configurability would be hidden away in a tab on the “Appearence” preferences panel, making it easy to get to when needed, but not so obvious that it distracts the average user who wants to stick with the defaults.

I suspect that the basics of this scheme are already in place. The fact that there are instructions floating around for using gconf-editor to switch the window controls back to the right would certainly suggest that title bars are already treated as simple containers for other widgets. So why not expose the functionality in a nice user-friendly way? Why can’t I tailor the title bar to my needs as easily as I can the Gnome panel?

Oh well, maybe next time (extended remix)

This is an extended version of a post associated with my webcomic, The Greys. I’ve posted it here because the extended version reflects my personal opinion, and not necessarily that of my comic strip co-author.

The winners for this year’s Ubuntu Free Culture Showcase have been announced, and unfortunately (for us, at least) our submission, “Ubuntufied Flying Object” didn’t make the cut (even after a quick change of clothes). Congratulations to the two guys who did get in, and whose works will be gracing many thousands of ISO downloads come April 29th.

I don’t want this to come across as sour grapes, but I’m a little disappointed with the Free Culture Showcase. Not with the winners, or any of the other submissions that were entered, but with the premise of the competition as a whole. Yes, it showcases Free Culture – deemed to be works released under a particular set of licenses which allow for free distribution and re-use – but that’s all it does. And it could do more.

Ubuntu – like any Linux distribution – relies on the fact that thousands of people around the world have licensed and shared their source code for free distribution and re-use. That the source code results in executable files which can also be freely distributed and re-used is largely irrelevant – it’s the license of the original source that is important.

But, with the exception of our entry*, every submission to the Free Culture Showcase was an “output” file – ogg audio, ogg video and a pdf. None of them include the “input” files – the audio samples, midi files, video footage or original text from which the final submission was created. None of them included information about how they were created, or what Ubuntu software could be used to edit them. None of them specify what software was used to create them in the first place. Note that such omissions are the result of the rules of the competition, not the fault of the submitters.

What is the purpose of the Free Culture Showcase? If it’s just to show that there’s more to “Free” than software, then perhaps it serves its purpose. But it could be so much more than that. It could be a way to demonstrate to new users some ways in which a Free software stack can be used, and as a very basic tutorial on how to get started in creating their own works. When I look at a Free Culture Showcase winner, I’d like to know how I can produce something similar using the operating system and tools I’ve just downloaded. What extra packages do I need to install? Where can I get the source files in order to recreate the work – or to remix them into my own creation? If the original creator used proprietary software or source material (such as sampled audio), then why? Does this represent a gap in the Free Software stack, or the Free Culture archives, which needs to be addressed?

My personal choice would be to modify the rules of the Free Culture Showcase in future:

  • Show a preference not only for open file formats, but also for those works which make their source files available as well (these could get very large, so Canonical should be prepared to mirror them somewhere). Space limitations will likely prevent these assets being put on the CD, so the winning entries should have an accompanying document added when the CD is mastered, detailing the download locations.
  • Show a preference for pieces created entirely using a Free Software stack.
  • Require a brief description of how the piece was created – what software was used, where audio samples were sourced from – enough to give an interested consumer somewhere to start with their own creations. If proprietary software or source files were used, a short explanation as to why.

This doesn’t prevent binary-only submissions to the competition, but does encourage the submission of files that not only represent Free Culture, but also indicate just what can be achieved using a Free Software stack and Free assets (clipart, samples, stock footage, and so on). Where proprietary software was used, it might indicate an area where Free Software needs to improve. Where source files can’t be released due to license restrictions, it might indicate a need for more comprehensive libraries of assets, or it might motivate another user to re-create the missing file as an equivalent, freely licensed alternative.

Let’s not waste the space on those thousands of ISOs with “here’s some Free stuff”. Let’s use that space with “here are some examples of what you can do with your new Operating System – and some pointers as to how you can do it”.

* Our entry was an SVG file, which is both an input and an output file – it is its own source code. It was created entirely using Inkscape on Ubuntu machines. Anyone can edit our file using the same software stack – or by using Inkscape on Windows or MacOS.

Credit Card (in)Security

My girlfriend is a partner in a small print and design business. As such, she has a company credit card – but it usually only sees service to buy stamps and other minor things.

She’s finally decided that it’s time to replace some of the computers in the company and, being the designery types that they are, Macs were the order of the day. First to go was her ageing PowerBook, replaced by a shiny new MacBook Pro. We pointed a browser at Apple’s online store, loaded up the basket, and tried to check out.

The credit card was declined.

After getting past the usual defensive bluster that overcomes people when they think their creditworthiness is being questioned, she conceded that it might possibly make sense that an expensive laptop purchase on a card that’s usually used for stamps might have triggered some alarms. She called the credit card company to sort it out.

“It’s been flagged as possibly being used fraudulently,” they said.

“Do you mean the purchase I just tried to make, or has it been used fraudulently before then?” she enquired.

“I can’t see anything before then – but I’ll cancel the card and send a new one out to you, just in case.”

“That doesn’t really help me right now. Can you at least let the current purchase go through?”

“Well I’ll need to ensure that you’re really the owner of the card. I’ll need you to confirm your history by identifying a purchase that’s been made with it…”

Not particularly good security, but the chances of a casual card thief knowing that she bought stamps last Thursday are slim, right? Except that the person at the credit card company didn’t want her to name a date and purchase – that would be far too secure…

“Have you just tried to buy something from the Apple Store?”

“Erm… yes.”

“Okay then. I can unlock the card for you to make the purchase now, then I’ll cancel it and get a new one sent out.”

This beggars belief. If they think the card is being used fraudulently enough to cancel it, then why let the laptop purchase go through? If they think it’s safe enough to let that go through, why cancel the card? And why, oh why, oh why does the transaction that was stopped count as a good enough example of the customer’s history for them to conclude that the person on the phone is genuinely the card holder?

What have they done to Bitzer?

I’m going to come out of the toy-chest here and reveal that I watch Shaun The Sheep. Yes it might nominally be a kids’ show, but if you think of it as “Wallace and Gromit Lite” then it’s not a bad way to spend a few minutes of downtime. Besides, you only have to look at the list of references to popular culture on Wikipedia to realise that it’s not aimed solely at children.

So I was quite pleased when I noticed that my MythTV box had recorded a couple of episodes that I hadn’t noticed in the schedules: it turns out that the second series has started. I settled down to watch it with my girlfriend (who is quite the Shaun fan) only to raise my eyebrows at what they’d done to the farmer.

The farmer used to look like this:
[Original Source]

Now he looks like this:
[Original Source – zip file of images]

The key difference isn’t easy to spot in those images, so I’ve combined and re-oriented them to make it a bit clearer:

The key point is the line running around the farmer’s mouth. It’s a lot more pronounced on the show itself. It appears to me that Aardman have decided to speed up their work (or reduce costs, depending on how you look at it) by making the mouth section removable. This lets them animate the mouth movement independently of the rest of the body – and indeed the rest of the head. They did a similar trick on Chicken Run, where it was less noticeable due to the difference in colour and texture between the chickens’ beaks and faces. It stands out more on the farmer, but it’s not too bad, as it generally just makes it look like he’s got a five o’clock shadow.

So, a reasonably subtle change to the design of the farmer. He’s a secondary character anyway, so it wasn’t too distracting. But next to the eponymous Shaun, possibly the most prominent character is the farmer’s dog, Bitzer. Yes, you’ve guessed it, they’ve changed that character too. But unlike the relatively minor change to the farmer’s face, Bitzer has had a complete overhaul. And not in a good way.

Old Bitzer:
[Original Source]

New Bitzer:
[Original Source – zip file of images]

The new Bitzer has acquired a furry texture… but not on his head. Maybe I missed the episode titled “Bitzer gets alopecia”. Perhaps the hair loss is a side effect of his efforts to dye his fur, as indicated by the colour change on his chest, throat and lower jaw. That’s the most egregious change and one which, in my opinion, really spoils the design of the character. It’s pretty obvious that, much like the farmer, they’ve decided to reduce costs by making the mouth into a removable section, independent of the rest of the head. But on the Bitzer model the distinction between the two parts – especially once animated – makes it look like Bitzer has been attacked by a bestial Hannibal Lecter, and his skin turned into a mask covering the top of the imposter’s face.

Watch out Shaun, I think there might be a serial killer on the farm. One who plans to destroy your very soul. I think his name is Aardman.