metaprogramming and politics

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Defeating Sauron with the “Trust on first use” principle

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photo from Alexandre Duret-Lutz Gandalf and Frodo did the right thing when they went for destroying the power of the all-seeing eye. The idea of a central power that knows everything undermines our ability to self-govern and influence important changes in society, it undermines a foundation of democracy.

As against Sauron, it seems like an impossible fight to try to protect our communication against present-day espionage cartels.  I see glimmers of hope, though. Certainly not much in the political space. Somehow our politicians are themselves too interested to use the eye on select targets — even if only the ones which Sauron allows them to see.

My bigger hope lies with technologists who are working on designing better communication systems. We still have time during which we can reduce Sauron’s sight. But to begin with, how do we prevent passive spying attacks against our communications?

A good part of the answer lies in the Trust on first use principle. The mobile Threema application is a good example: when two people first connect with each other, they exchange communication keys and afterwards use it to perform end-to-end encrypted communications. The key exchange can happen in full sight of the eye, yet the subsequent communication will be illegible. No question, the eye can notice that the two are communicating with unknown content but if too many of them do that this fact becomes less significant.

Of course, the all-seeying eye can send a Nazgul to stand in the middle of the communication to deceive both ends and listen in. But it needs to do so from the beginning and continously if it wants to avoid the victims from noticing. And those two can at any time meet to verify their encryption keys and would realize there  was a Nazgul-in-the-middle attack.

By contrast, both SSL and GPG operate with a trust model where we can hear Sauron’s distant laughter. The one is tied to a thousand or so “root authorities”, which can be easily reined in as need be. The other mandates and propagates such a high level of initial mistrust between us that we find it simply too inconvenient to use.

Societies and our social interactions are fundamentally build on trust. Let’s design systems which build on initial trust and which help to identify after-the-fact when it was compromised. If the eye has bad dreams, then i am sure massively deployed trust-on-first-use communication systems are among them.

Written by holger krekel

October 26, 2013 at 7:04 am

Traditional family models in the IT and Python world

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from “Traditional family not in bible” (click on image goes to related article form gazette.com)

PSF’s code of conduct enforcement is a good step, but what about the many traditional family models in the IT world? I know many fathers which are busy fulltime with non-child stuff, and their partners have the main child responsibility. I heart three main reasonings for this situation and i don’t fully buy them:

  • an economic one: the guy working brings more money into the household. This kind of perpetuates the inequality situation, doesn’t it? And is having less money really an issue? Is part-time working impossible? In germany you have a legal right to do part-time work, to begin with.
  • a biologistic one: women can “naturally” or genetically care better than men for children. One, I’ve seen fathers doing just fine. Two, are we entirely determined by genetics? I see genetics as some kind of hardware, and software can do lots of different things on it. Culture is shaped as much as software. There is no such thing as “objective” nature.
  • go away, it’s a family’s private business and choices. Nevertheless such choices are also culturally determined. Often there is no explicit discussion or choice but rather a fallback to the default, often induced by the facts of birth and breast feeding. How many fathers discuss the issue of child-care openly and regularly, offering changes to give a real choice?

Rest assured, I really like the projects i am hacking on as much as the other guy. Sometimes i feel that caring often for my child makes this harder. On the plus side, it gives me better focus because my time is more limited. And more often than not, i am grateful and have a lot of fun being with my little one.

Now, if more fathers in the Python communities were busier with their children, what would that change in terms of conference attendance of women? Not sure there would be any direct effect except maybe lower conference attendance of men, rising the percentage of women. It would set a good example, however, and help mid- to long-term, i am sure.

Sometimes i like to ask myself this question: when i am dying and wonder what should i have done rather differently? I doubt i am going to say “i should have released one more library, earned more money, become more popular”.

Written by holger krekel

December 14, 2012 at 10:38 am

metaprogramming in Python: What CPython, PyPy, Pyramid, pytest and politics have in common …

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Metaprogramming in Python too often revolves around metaclasses, which are just a narrow application of the “meta” idea and not a great one at that. Metaprogramming more generally deals with reasoning about program code, about taking a “meta” stance on it.  A metaprogram takes a program as input, often just partial programs like functions or classes. Here are a few applications of metaprogramming:

  • CPython is a metaprogram written in C. It takes Python program code as input and interprets it, so that it runs at a higher level than C.
  • PyPy is a metaprogramm written in Python. It takes RPython program code as input and generates a C-level metaprogram (the PyPy interpreter) which itself interprets Python programs and takes another meta stance by generating Assembler pieces for parts of the interpreation execution. If you like, PyPy is a metaprogram generating metaprograms whereas CPython and typical compilers like GCC are “just” a metaprogram.
  • Pyramid is a metaprogram that takes view, model definitions and http-handling code as input and executes them, thereby raising code on a higher level to implement the “Pyramid application” language.
  • pytest is a metaprogram written in Python, taking test, fixture and plugin functions as input and executing them in a certain manner, thereby implementing a testing language.
  • metaclasses: in Python they allow to intercept class creation and introspect methods and attributes, amending their behaviour. Because metaclass-code usually executes at import time, it often uses global state for implementing non-trivial meta aspects.

Apart from these concrete examples, language compilers, testing tools and web frameworks all have metaprogramming aspects. Creating big or small “higher” level or domain-specific languages within Python is as a typical example of metaprogramming. Python is actually a great language for metaprogramming although it could be better.

In future blog posts i plan to talk about some good metaprogramming practise, particularly:

  • keep the layers/levels separate by good naming and API design
  • define a concise “language” for the programs you take as input
  • avoid creating global state in your metaprograms (and elsewhere)
    which can easily happen with meta-classes executing at import time

Lastly, i see metaprogramming at work not only when coding in a computer language. Discussing the legal framing for executing programs on the internet is some kind of metaprogramming, especially if you consider licensing and laws as human-interpreted code which affects how programs can be written, constructed and executed. In reverse, web applications increasingly affect how we interact with each other other, thereby implementing rules formerly dealt with in the arena of politics. Therefore, metaprogramming and politics are fundamentally connected topics.

have metafun, i. e. take fun stuff as input to generate more of it :) holger

Written by holger krekel

November 22, 2012 at 3:04 pm

Why privacy matters and State Secrecy not

Today i saw a woman’s german article on how she wouldn’t want reports about her sex life spread through wikileaks. I wouldn’t like that either. But i see it as a misconception and confusion about two very different issues, namely personal privacy and state/government secrecy. This confusion is used and increased by many politicians for their own purposes.

Privacy means our rights to have a private life, private flat, private actions and private communications. We don’t want the state or the public to surveil us or intrude our private world unless they can show evidence to an independent court that there is something criminal going on.

State secrecy denotes making secret deals, performing secret communication with and secret actions against people or other states. Secret actions can naturally not be discussed in the public and are exempt from our judgement when electing officials. Increasing state secrecy very quickly leads to inner circles wielding great power. The 20th century has tons of bad examples.

Therefore I refuse the notion that if am positive about privacy i must also be ok with state secrecy. Or if i want a transparent government that i also must be ok with total surveillance of my private life. No way. Likely it’s rather true that the more transparent a government is the more secure i can feel with respect to my privacy.

On a sidenote, this all relates to a point in the hacker ethics made by Wau Holland and the Chaos Computer Club a long time ago: “Make public data available, protect private data.”

Written by holger krekel

December 5, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Posted in politics

Tagged with

Wikileaks or: Welcome to the brave new “Terms of Use” era

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Paypal “restricts” the bank account of the german Wau Holland foundation which managed parts of Wikileaks transactions. Citing from their statement :

PayPal has permanently restricted the account used by WikiLeaks due to
a violation of the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy, which states that
our payment service cannot be used for any activities that
encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in
illegal activity. We’ve notified the account holder of this action.

As with my yesterday notes a number of questions arise. What exactly is
illegal about wikileaks behaviour in the US? Was money laundering or
online fraud involved? Was wikileaks given a warning and asked to
provide clarifying statements regarding the usage of _their_ money? Do
they apply the same moral standards to all their customers and accounts?
For example, are they also closing all accounts related to the
Washington Times or related to Sarah Palin publically calling for
assasination
of a citizen of Australia?

If we are learning anything from the Wikileaks case it is the willfullness
of young IT companies in the US to concur with public opinion or direct
government pressure. Up until now i presumed the likes of Amazon or Paypal
also incorporated some ethics. And this would mandate IMO to keep
distance to government actions and to resist government pressure especially
if it’s about something like wikileaks. It seems like the US goverment
used its advanced notice of the pending publication wisely: rather than filtering critical
messages they organised a huge campaign in the US resulting in Amazon,
PayPal and everydns and probably others to implement government policies
and quickly. No need to have special laws or evil government actions – just reference the Terms of Use and be done.

Written by holger krekel

December 4, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Posted in politics

Tagged with

Who needs censorship if you have Amazon and everydns?

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Yesterday Amazon stopped services for the wikileaks archive. Citing from the Amazon statement:

It is not credible that the extraordinary volume of 250,000 classified documents that WikiLeaks is publishing could have been carefully redacted in such a way as to ensure that they weren’t putting innocent people in jeopardy.

So here you have a popular cloud services provider judging their customers content in a broad manner, stating conclusion, terminate services, done. Did they allow discussion? Do journalists need to keep and control all rights of the material they are publishing? Can Amazon show any evidenceof their “jeopardy” conclusion? Would they apply the same moral standard to e.g. blogs or other (journalistic) content that called for going to the war on Iraq – causing >100.000 civilians to die? Does Amazon really want us to believe the US governments outrage and Mr. Liebermanns actions are merely a co-incidence?

Then today everydns.net terminated DNS services for wikileaks.org with a 24 hour prior notice. Citing from the everydns statement:

More specifically, the services were terminated for violation of the provision which states that “Member shall not interfere with another Member’s use and enjoyment of the Service or another entity’s use and enjoyment of similar services.”

So supposedly there was an attack on their DNS servers and they interpreted this as wikileaks doing harm to others? Is this the future of how we handle attacks against single domain names? Would the same happen if it was the site of a chinese dissident or a Poker playing site or any other customer?

As things stand this puts me off these two companies and brings me again to the thought that we need an internet that is as independent from any single company or any single country as possible - it’s in the best interest for all of us in the long run.

Written by holger krekel

December 3, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Posted in politics

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Let’s prevent a no-privacy world by better technology!

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Dear Google, Amazon and web 2.0: you are doing a great job of providing cool services and apps, you are doing away with obnoxious installation and upgrade steps, your stuff often works out of the box and you offer convenient interfaces. Great.

Comes with a caveat, though: the loss of control of my data and my communication, loss of ability to install and run whichever programs I like. You as central organisations and your ruling governments develop the practical possibility to get at all this data, on a mass basis and retro-actively. Something needs to change about this or we all will be ending in a world with historically unprecedented power structures in the hand of few. A world with virtually no privacy.

Part of what i can do is thinking about cool new technology to counter these developments. I am convinced we need a more decentral application execution infrastructure. We need open cloud software and infrastructure that allows to have easy-to-develop apps run "on the net" – a wealthy network of PCs and mobile phones. A free wireless-type network, not expensive mobile "total control" networks.

Written by holger krekel

August 15, 2009 at 1:40 pm

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