Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Pinebook

In the past, I have written about Single-Board Computers a number of times. Today, I want to do something similar. This time, though, it's a product by a SBC-manufacturer that is still more or less an SBC, but at the same is a lot more than just that. I'm talking about the Pinebook.

So, this manufacturer joined the SBC market with a strong offering: the Pine A64. It was on Kickstarter and it promised to do 4 cores for less money than the Raspberry Pi. Once you started looking at it more closely, you'd find that you probably wanted at least some of the extras and probably wouldn't end up paying less, but the idea was still there.

There was something else that made the Pine A64 stand out. That was that this wasn't going to be just another Raspberry Pi-clone. Most of the other SBCs were either quite a bit more expensive than this thing, or tried to be as close to the Raspberry as possible. Without the word "Pi" in the name and a brand-new form-factor, the Pine A64 made it very clear that it wasn't going to be another clone, which was a rarity for devices that weren't in a different price range all together.

However, it was something else that drew me to the device. It was the HEVC (aka x265) playback support that was promised. This was several years ago and the Raspberry only got HEVC support earlier this year with the RPi 4, so it was something really nice to look forward to. Unfortunately, this turned out to rely on proprietary drivers which basically meant that it only worked on Android, which wasn't really the operating system I wanted to run. I ended up finding this out before the end of the campaign, but decided not to cancel my pledge after all. In the end, though, this is the reason that my Pine A64 has basically been idle ever since I first tried it out just to see if it worked.

But then came the Pinebook. This was basically a Pine A64 (though they made a different board, the main components were all the same) put into a laptop. The whole thing cost only $99 which is incredibly cheap for a laptop. I read about it on a forum I frequented and decided to just go for it. After shipping and taxes, I was down quite a bit more money, but in the end it was still a good deal.

My Pinebook has served me well ever since I got it. It's all about expectations, though. The device isn't really going to play back video well* and it's not going to be flashy or let you have a bazillion tabs open. However, it does extremely well as a digital typewriter, which is what I've mostly been using it as. I've also done some simple GIMP (photoshop but open source, basically) work on it and I've even run some old games in DOSBox.

More importantly, though, I've never been careful with this laptop, which was largely possible because of its price. I've put it in bags I wasn't entirely sure would be handled carefully, I've taken it with me to the strangest places and I've stuffed it in lockers where it barely fit. The result is that the screen is damaged in quite a few places. Of course, the other result is that I've always had a laptop with me when I needed - or even just wanted - it.

In a way, this post may feel a little outdated. That's because the next big thing is the Pinebook Pro, which is a new version of the device that costs twice as much and is meant to be much more usable as a daily driver. I have ordered it and it's supposed to arrive somewhere next month. I might use it to write a sequel to this post at some time. However, I don't think it will completely replace the Pinebook that I currently have, so this piece still feels somewhat relevant to me. And besides, I felt like writing about this device and ultimately, that's what this blog is all about.

*: I should probably check if this is still as bad in newer versions of the software.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Right back at ya!

Some two and a half years ago, I started a three-parter on discrimination on this blog. That was one of the last posts I wrote in a long time. That three-parter was something that had been brewing in my head for a very long time, so I still intend to get back to it eventually and write the remaining two parts. The second part is one that will be more or less the same no matter when I write it, except that I might learn a thing or two and change my opinion a bit. The third part is one that is much more related to the things happening in the world at the moment, so its content will largely be dictated by when I do actually write it.

Today I want to do something different, though. I want to comment on something that I wrote in the first part, and add to it the understanding that I have gained since I wrote it. Let's start by quoting what I wrote in the past.

However, there is this strange other side to [the word nigger], where it is accepted if a black person says it. I would understand this if it was about intention and sometimes a bit of it is about intention. However, the word is also considered racist if it is used by a white person without intending to insult. If anything, the fact that white people cannot use the word while black people can sounds like racism to me.

I don't really want to get into whether calling someone a nigger is racist. I do think that I can say without evoking any controversy that you generally shouldn't call someone a nigger. Black people generally don't like being called a nigger and that should be more than enough reason not to do so. I think that by extension, we can say that is often okay for one black person to call another black person a nigger. And by putting it like that, I think that we can clearly see that the idea that whites cannot use this term isn't actually racist. After all, it's not that they are actually not allowed to say the word, it's that they shouldn't.

Today, I want to look at why a white person shouldn't call someone a nigger while a black person can do this if they want to. When I wrote that, I didn't understand it at all, and I think that the quote above very much shows that. I think I understand it a bit better now, so that's why I'm writing this.

My understanding of this changed completely when I read something on the internet. I don't know where I read it or who wrote it, but what they had written was that when you can respond with "right back at ya", an insult is much more of a playful thing than an insult.

And that's basically all there is to it. It's basically that any insult doesn't really hit as hard when it could also be used against the one using it. For that, it doesn't matter what the insult itself is. It could be some way in which a person is not neurotypical, it could be related to a hobby that isn't considered normal by the mainstream, it could be almost anything else. The key is that when the one using the insult falls in the same category, they can't really mean it as an insult, so it's playful rather than truly an insult.

Of course, being a white male was the first thing that made it hard for me to understand the way this worked for a word like nigger. However, while I think that made it hard, I also think that nigger is also a more or less unique situation where we took things to the extreme. Just like how I think that for many people the main reason it's a "bad word" is because they have been taught it's a bad word, I think that for most people a black man using the word is accepted behavior because they have been taught it's accepted behavior. And we've taken things to a rather extreme point to begin with by basically saying a word is not okay regardless of context or intention, and making basically implying that it's always just in friendliness when a black guy says the word is a similar extreme to me.

At the end of the day, understanding where this difference in judgement of people based on their skin color helped me understand why this isn't actually a problem. I'm not entirely sure if I think this is a good way to tackle problems, but at least now I understand. And if you didn't before, maybe now you can too.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Log-in Superposition

Traditionally, a site has exactly two states. You are either logged in, or you are not. All people get the same site when they are not logged in, and they all get a different website when they aren't. Recently, I have noticed some websites taking another approach and introducing that's the middle ground: not entirely logged in, but also not entirely not logged in.

When I say I noticed this recently, I actually meant that I noticed it a while back. In fact, I noticed the same thing on two completely separate sites and one of them seems to have stopped using this paradigm. I just never got around to writing about it. I still think it's an interesting approach, so that's why I'm writing about it now.

As a brief interlude, let me quickly explain the title of this post. Superposition is a term from quantum mechanics and it's all about there being discrete states, but reality actually being a combination of chances it's in each particular state. They are still discrete states and you will never observe anything but any of the states, but you can prove that until you observed it, it's not in any one of the states, but in a superposition of all of these states. It's a very complex thing to wrap your mind around and it doesn't entirely fit here, but I still thought it was a fun thing to make a quick nod at.

So, what is this third state? It's basically where the site thinks it knows who you are, but does not trust this to be the absolute truth. In this state, everyone has their own version of the site, which may contain things like an unread message count, or the quick menu that shows the most recent items you interact with, but it does not allow you to read your messages, reply to them or see the full history of items you interacted with. When getting to a part of the website where you can do with these things, you'll be prompted for your password (often with your email not editable, but a "this is not me" link, because they do imply they know who you are).

Basically it's a hacking risk mitigation strategy. It's allowing you some convenience of remembering you, but recognizes there is some risk in doing that. However, hacking that part of the website is of limited value because it would not allow the hacker to see much information about the user, or take actions on their behalf.

At the end of the day, I'm not entirely sure whether I think this is a good strategy. I think the added convenience is often limited because you'll end up needing to provide your password after all most of the time. Nevertheless, I think it's very interesting. And in a way, it's pretty similar to requiring the current password to set a new one. If I see a good opportunity for doing so, I might implement this myself. Then again, I also might not.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Burqa Ban

I live in a country where it has recently become illegal to wear a Burqa in public. Well, I think the correct term for the garment most commonly worn in these cases is Niqab, but it is commonly referred to as a Burqa over here ("boerka" in Dutch). Moreover, though, the Burqa alliterates nicely with ban, which is why I picked it for the title, and it's also the translation of a common moniker for the ban in Dutch. In order to be more correct in my text than in my title, I will use the term Niqab in the rest of this post. Of course, the ban does actually cover both garments and so does most of what I have to say, so neither is actually wrong.

I decided to write about this topic after reading an article about a protest against the ban. The whole thing is a difficult matter. It's a complex situation. And I don't really know what to think about it. I see why people are against the ban. I also see why the ban does make some sense. I'm not going to write towards a conclusion because I don't have a conclusion. Still, I felt like writing down my thoughts. And writing on my blog again after it has been far too long is a nice way to do that.

Inequality

I think it's hard to deny that the Niqab is a clear sign of inequality between men and women. While men aren't entirely free to wear whatever they want, they also do not have the same limitations as women. Not being allowed to show your face is a pretty strong restriction.

Of course, this is a much stronger point when you are looking at the Hijab. It's much harder to deny that wearing a Hijab is something that girls and women do not get a say in in many cases, they just have to. This can range from fear of violence from community members if they don't wear it to merely the disapproval of parents. This disapproval can include (fear of) getting disowned, but can also be limited to just the way a parent feels about you. Of course, disapproval by a parent over a simple choice like that can be quite harmful all by itself. Alternatively, it might just be the thing you were brought up to do.

Just the other day, I passed a man with a number of children on my bike. It was a hotter day, so the man was wearing a sleeveless shirt. The boys in the group were dressed less casually, but they were still just wearing shirts. The girls in the group were wearing very long sleeves, clearly not in keeping with the weather, and Hijabs. All of the kids looked like they were in their late single digits or early teen years, so I doubt that they were making independent decisions about this. As I overtook the group, a chill went down my spine because that's not what equality looks like to me.

The Niqab is a more extreme garment. Not showing your hair because you are female just isn't as extreme as not showing your face because you are female. I think either is a clear sign of inequality, but the Niqab is simply more polarizing because it is more extreme, even though it's harder to say to what degree the women in question feel they have no choice but to wear it.

It doesn't really matter to me whether women actually make an independent decision to wear a Niqab - or a Hijab, for that matter. All that does is show that they have been raised in a culture where they are taught it's okay to put such limitations on just one of the two genders. It shows that the inequality is systemic, not that there is none.

A Symbol

At this point, it's clear that the Niqab is a symbol of inequality between men and women. When you consider the limited number of people who wear it and the claim by many that it is their own choice to wear it, it becomes clear that it's not a big part of the inequality itself.

However, I don't think that banning a symbol is the way to go. It's never very effective because it does not address the underlying issue at all. And even if all the main symbols of a problem are banned, new symbols will crop up to take their place. You simply cannot expect the banning of symbols to actually have much effect on a systemic problem.

I don't think inequality between men and women should have a place in our society. There is still a lot of it and we have a long way to go before we have actually banished the inequality all together. I also think that the Niqab and Hijab are indicative of a culture that has more inequality than our "Western" currently does. However, I don't think a ban will change anything, even though I do not have any other ideas on how to get rid of this heightened inequality in this subculture of our own.

Real Motivations

On the other hand, I also think it's clear that this ban is religiously motivated - or perhaps even racially motivated, the two are strongly related here after all. No decent politician will admit that, though. Nevertheless, it is clearly a law introduced to cater to the part of their following that is intimidated by the muslim influence on our culture.

That's the most wrong thing about this ban. Even if the ban can be defended, the real - as I see it - motivation of the ban just cannot. It's one thing to be ineffective by attacking symbols or to end up attacking a problem that isn't really too big because the number of people involved is quite limited, but it's an entirely different thing to be attacking a group of people based on their culture or religion.

Hiding Faces

There are other reasons you can give for the ban, and those are the reasons that make a lot more sense to me. It basically comes down to the reason why I avoided using the word "discrimination" in the previous paragraph. While the law is colloquially known as the Burqa ban, that's not literally what it is. Rather, it is a law disallowing covering one's face. This is not really a new thing, as it wasn't really allowed before either. The new thing is that the freedom of religion does not count as a reason to do it nonetheless.

The balancing of different rights is always something that is required and hard at the same time. One way you have to find this balance is to see where the right of equality cuts into the right to freedom of religion. Another way is to look at how far the right to freedom of religion trumps our laws and cultural norms. To understand that, we have to look at why we do not allow one to cover their face in public places in general.

Whether it's a police officer, a bus driver or your local baker, when you interact with someone, you are creating a sort of contract with a person. In person, this contract traditionally does not include anonymity. The other person knows who they are dealing with and that's generally a good thing. One can easily look at online anonymity to see how it can bring out the worst in people. It's much easier to be rude to someone if you know they can't really recognize you on your next encounter anyway.

Of course, we also behave (somewhat) nicely to people we do not expect to see ever again. Maybe that means that covering you face does not mean you will treat others poorly. However, there's also the fact that it's hard for others to build the rapport with you and understand your intentions when they cannot see your face. Facial expressions are an important part of the way we communicate and taking that away takes away a lot of our ability to figure out someone's true intentions.

The final point is one that perhaps is a little less closely related by the ban because it's not actually related to covering your face. It is related to the rest of the outfit a Niqab often comes with. This is about how when your garb comes with religious protection, it becomes a lot easier to hide things in it. This could mean that you hide the assault rifles you are going to rob a bank with, which you would probably stand out a lot more with when it wasn't just a religious garb you were wearing. It can also refer to petty theft in a grocery store, at which point it becomes a lot harder to check if someone has hidden the item they claim they do not have when there's the protection of a religious garb to hide it with.

I'm not sure how I feel about the last point I raised. It does assume the worst of people. On the other hand, freedom of religion also means a lot of protection when you simply claim to follow a religion without the need to prove that you do. It also doesn't directly relate to the ban on covering your face. Perhaps that's why we shouldn't really take it into account here.

Conclusion

As I promised up front, I don't really have a conclusion.

There are some sensible reasons for the ban, there are some misguided but well-intended reasons for the ban and there are some absolutely horrible reasons for the ban. Unfortunately, I think that the real reasons for politicians that pursued this bad to do so were in the last of the three categories, even if they won't admit it. And that's a very bad thing. Does that reflect on the ban itself? I don't know. It definitely doesn't make it look too good. Yet, the ban itself is separate from the reasoning of the people who supported it. And... well, I just don't know.