Poettering Uber Alles

The wisdom of Dear Leader Lennart Poettering:

The design of systemd as a suite of integrated tools that each have their individual purposes but when used together are more than just the sum of the parts, that’s pretty much at the core of UNIX philosophy.

I would say that he misunderstands the essence, the substance and possibly even the purpose of the UNIX philosophy… but I think he actually does understand. I think he’s simply being disingenuous, twisting the definition to meet his desires. It’s clear that this is a man who believes that he knows what’s good and what’s not.

This blog post from last September [0pointer.net] lays out in perfect clarity how dismissive he is of contrary points of view:

The toolbox approach of classic Linux distributions is fantastic for people who want to put together their individual system, nicely adjusted to exactly what they need. However, this is not really how many of today’s Linux systems are built, installed or updated. If you build any kind of embedded device, a server system, or even user systems, you frequently do your work based on complete system images, that are linearly versioned. You build these images somewhere, and then you replicate them atomically to a larger number of systems. On these systems, you don’t install or remove packages, you get a defined set of files, and besides installing or updating the system there are no ways how to change the set of tools you get.

[Emphasis mine]

So the toolkit approach is not useful for someone who’s deploying large numbers of commodity servers? This defies logic. It implies that somehow it’s better to use commodity servers built using Lennart’s toolkit than to have the capability to define one’s own toolkit to build your own purpose-built standard image.

He’s ignoring logic here in order to serve his own agenda, which of course consists of being smarter and sleeker and better than some crufty old Linux with 20 years of barnacles on its hull.

Init on Linux emphatically is ugly, but it’s the product of a very large number of people coping with a very large set of circumstances, and finding a solution that is decidedly imperfect, but can be made to address most of the hundreds of thousands of peculiar and unique use cases in the world today.

Quoth Poettering:

The Linux model is the one where you have everything split up, and have different maintainers, different coding styles, different release cycles, different maintenance statuses. Much of the Linux userspace used to be pretty badly maintained, if at all. You had completely different styles, the commands worked differently – in the most superficial level, some used -h for help, and others ––help. It’s not uniform.

This really is the essence of it. When you get right down to it, he’s just pissed at having to deal with other people’s half-assed implementations of everything, and having to make all the bits work to a purpose. It’s just too… democratic. I suspect he feels the same way George W. Bush did when he famously quipped that if he really were a dictator, he’d get a lot more done.

And that’s really the essence of the problem. No matter how good systemd turns out to be, it’s effectively less than a dozen core committers (the top 10 committers have submitted over 90% of the code) dictating how your modular system is going to run. They want a single group (themselves) and a single philosophy (theirs) to occupy pretty much the entire space between the kernel and userland. And that is not the Linux way of doing things.

Posted: January 16th, 2015
Categories: geek, hard-core, wonk
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Torrenting clichés live on for a reason

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 15.33.10

Freddie de Boer has a post up, decrying pro-torrenting ‘myths’ that need to die.

Down in the comments, he writes,

Many of you are dramatically underestimating the kind of resources that are necessary to make great artwork. Sgt Pepper could not have been made by dedicated amateurs. Even today, high-quality recording costs are far higher than people realize. Lawrence of Arabia could not be made by some kids with a GoPro and a dream. Nobody laboring alone in his bedroom could code Half-Life 2.

But Counter Strike absolutely WAS coded by a bunch of volunteers as a result of their own enthusiasm. Likewise Team Fortress.

Oh – and the Linux kernel, which drives most of the web today. And BSD Unix – the framework on which Mac OS X is built.

And pretty much all of deviantart.com. And a majority of the stuff on 500px.com. And a great deal of good writing.

Lawrence of Arabia could not be made by some kids with a GoPro, but that does nothing to diminish what a couple of kids with a GoPro can do. And Sergeant Pepper – oh, this is silly and childish. Freddie, your proposition is that Great Art is not possible without significant resources being brought to bear. The real proposition is that some kinds of creative endeavour (the majority of which are decidedly not great) are not possible without significant resources. And your warning is that diminishing revenues could result in the death of these endeavours.

But you’re falling victim to one of the most basic misapprehensions in ‘media’ today: That this is a crisis of production. It’s not; it’s a crisis of distribution. There is an entire industry whose existence is predicated on controlling distribution of creative works. That is the industry facing death. It’s those specific companies whose income is predicated on controlling access to the creative works they pay for (they’re not creators themselves) whose fate is in the balance now.

My personal feeling is that they can go take a flying leap. They never did anything for me, or for the vast majority of very talented creators whom I’ve known in my lifetime. They actively quench a great deal of expression, because scarcity is their stock in trade. And they have so subverted the state of the internet now that the vast majority of the planet does not have access to the ‘millions’ of works that you think are so readily (and legally) accessible.

And now, lest you accuse me of not having a reasonable, practical alternative, allow me to point to just one perfectly workable approach that I’ve come up with over the years.

Freddie: you’re not wrong about all of this (though you are quite wrong on some of the details; they only apply to America). You’re just having the wrong conversation. The biggest problem is that you seem guilty of the very American tendency to equate wealth with success. That’s not useful. There’s a lot more to it than that.

Posted: January 6th, 2015
Categories: geek, soft-core, wonk
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Snowdrift? Toboggan hill!


Paul Chiusano, in the course of reinventing the world, writes:

One of my personal pet causes is developing a better alternative to HTML/CSS. This is a case where the metaphorical snowdrift is R&D on new platforms (which could at least initially compile to HTML/CSS).

The problem with the ‘snowdrift’ here, to abuse the metaphor, has nothing to do with IP law, and nothing to do with lack of innovation. It has everything to do with the size of the drift. You don’t have any choice but to wait for someone else to come along to help shovel. But the author is trying to say, If everyone doesn’t shovel, nobody gets out. And that’s not always true.

A quick reminder: When HTML first came out, the very first thing virtually every proprietary software vendor of note did was create their own, better alternative. Web design tools were so common, it became difficult to market oneself as someone who actually knew how to create HTML by hand. And each of those tools used proprietary extensions and/or unique behaviour in an attempt to provide a ‘better alternative’ to consumers – and of course to corner the market on web development, and therefore on the web itself.

But the ‘snowdrift’ in this case was all the other companies. Because no single one of them was capable of establishing and holding overwhelming dominance, the ‘drift’ was doomed to remain more manageable by groups than by any single entity. (Microsoft came closest to achieving dominance, but ultimately their failure was such that they have in fact been weakened by the effort.)

Say what you like about the W3C, and draw what conclusions you will from the recent schism-and-reunification with WHATWG. The plain fact is that stodgy, not-too-volatile standards actually work in everybody’s favour. To be clear: they provide the greatest benefit to the group, not to the enfant terrible programmer who thinks he knows better than multiple generations of his predecessors.

Past a certain point, the ‘snowdrift’ becomes a geographical feature relative to the individual developer. And at that point, I personally prefer a toboggan to a shovel.

Yes, FOSS projects face institutional weaknesses, including a lack of funding. Especially on funding for R&D. But funded projects face significant weaknesses as well. Just look at the recent Node.JS / io.js fork, all because Joyent went overboard in its egalitarian zeal. Consider also that recent widely publicised bugs such as Shellshock and Heartbleed, despite the alarm they’ve caused, haven’t really done much to materially affect the relative level of quality in funded vs proprietary vs unfunded code bases. They all have gaping holes, alas, but the extent of their suckage seems to be dependent on factors other than funding. If not, Microsoft would be the ne plus ultra of software.

Weighed in the balance, therefore, FOSS’s existential problems are real, and significant, but they’re not as significant as those faced by all the other methods we’ve tried. So to those who have a better idea about how to balance community benefits and obligations, I can only reply as the Empress famously did when revolutionaries carried her bodily from the palace: ‘I wish them well.’


Posted: December 9th, 2014
Categories: geek, hard-core, wonk
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The ‘Digital Divide’ is a chasm

The ITU, bless their binary souls, just released the 2014 Measuring the Information Society report. The headline is – or should be – that something is very wrong on the internet, and we need to fix it.

I used to scoff at the phrase ‘digital divide’, which was used to soft-peddle the glaring technological inequalities between rich and poor nations. I still don’t like it, but for different reasons. I used to think that the technological gap between the developed and developing was evanescent, a transient blip which would rapidly disappear as wireless broadband technologies proved viable in even the most marginal markets.

Not so. At least, not so far. The 2014 ITU report shows a widening gap between rich and poor, in spite of the fact that growth in the global digital economy is driven entirely by the developing world.

Let’s look at who’s got access to broadband on their mobile:

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 11.34.58 AM

The disparity between the richest and the poorest countries is glaring, and unlikely to right itself. The developed world and the Least Developed Countries are on completely different trajectories. Even the developing countries are showing a rate of increase that would require radical change even to come close to the level of ubiquity seen in Europe and North America.

The picture is nearly identical when we count the number of households with internet access:

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 2.11.42 PM

Shockingly, residential internet is showing evidence of having reached a plateau in LDCs. While the rate of uptake has improved in the last five years, it’s still hard to say when, if ever, the developing world will achieve similarity – let alone parity – when the richer world.

Don’t underestimate the importance of this metric. While mobile broadband has the most promise in terms of its ability easily to reach people in the developing world, that doesn’t mean we don’t need dedicated broadband at home. Why? Just imagine having to complete all your research for a Masters dissertation on your iPhone.

The contrast becomes even more stark when we consider data use:

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 2.10.43 PM

Once again, the developed and developing worlds are simply on different trajectories. When we consider the relative populations of Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, the disproportion – nay, distension – becomes even more dramatic.

All of that would almost be palatable if the story were simply one of different economies moving at different rates. But that’s not the case. Let’s take a look at telco revenues:

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 2.09.55 PM

Global telecommunications revenue growth, in real and relative terms, is all in the developing world. Since 2007, telco revenues have remained more or less flat at a little under 1.3 trillion(!) dollars in the developed world. They have grown by half in the developing world in the same period. And when we look at percentage growth, the difference becomes even more dramatic.

The question, ultimately, is simple: The developing world is creating dramatic investment opportunities for the telecommunications industry. So where is the dramatic, life-changing result for its peoples?

Posted: December 9th, 2014
Categories: geek, journamalism, social commentary, soft-core, wonk
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Systemd and The Unix Way

What follows is not for the benefit of systemd supporters. I write it because somewhere out there In the wilds of the internet, there might still be some youngster with a clue who needs to get this:

Systemd, OOP and a number of other technologies have been touted by people who have a curious mixture of cleverness and a lack of imagination or experience (something altogether too common in the world of software development). They claim that because they have solved a problem, they are therefore entitled to use the same approach to Solve All Problems Ever. So instead of exercising a little humility and moving their work ahead in a way that’s accepting of other approaches, they charge in full speed, damn the torpedoes and devil take the hindmost.

It happened with Microsoft and ActiveX. It happened with Object Oriented Programming languages – most notably with Java: there was a time when it was hard to find work programming in anything else. It happened, to a smaller degree, with design patterns. You can find numerous other examples if you search for them.

It’s happening again today with systemd.

Now, some may say that the conflict between The Unix Way and systemd’s kitchen-sink approach is a contest between equal ideologies. In other words, each represents a single thing, one of which is old and full of faults, the other of which is new and shiny and presumably lacking in faults. The only choice we have, then, is to weigh each in the balance and choose the one that’s superior.

There’s a fly in that ointment, though: You see, the Unix Way is a process, not a product. It states that it is better to take a toolkit approach – that is, chain together a series of tools that do one thing and do that one thing in a well-defined, simple manner. Systemd, on the other hand, is a particular set of services. Its implementation is antithetical to the Unix Way, because although it’s contrived out of dozens of smaller executables, they really only work when they’re chained together. You currently can’t, in other words, use journald outside of systemd (you’d have to build a completely new interface), or use systemd without journald.

The people who like systemd are willing to discard the decades of experience that brought us the awkward-but-workable Unix world, full of text files, single-purpose utilities, shims on shims on shims…. They see it as ugly and awkward and ungainly. It is all of those things. The place where they go wrong, though, is that they think they can do better in one simple stroke. They think that they’re good enough to design a system *cough* that inhabits the space between kernel and userland, and that they can do it in the course of a few short years. That’s admirable. I applaud their ambition.


But there is no way in Hell that I would let someone with that kind of confidence get within a mile of my machines. That would be Daedalus and Icarus all over again. (Google it; I’m not your nanny.) What systemd supporters fail to understand is that The Unix Way is the way of humility. It’s essentially a way of expressing our own understanding that we cannot do everything well. Therefore, we do the one thing that we can do, and we do it simply (which is not always as well as it might be, but will at least work reliably).

Empirically, systemd does things neither well enough, nor simply. For reasons that are particular to each of them, most adherents are incapable of admitting to either of those things. For example:

> [systemd’s] detractors are ridiculed as hidebound old neckbeards who don’t know any way of doing things but their own.

Its detractors rarely comment on technical merits/shortcomings, 99% of the time they only throw “pid1″, “monolitic”, “poettering blight”, “binary logs” and “they took our jerbs^wkludgy init scripts!” around.

See how the commenter rejects out of hand the complaints that too much happens at too low a level? How there’s no recognition that building a series of interlocking pieces which do not interlock with anything else except themselves, and only in a certain way can be called ‘monolithic’? How the issue of binary logs, of how logging should work generally, is tossed away as so much noise?

Now, it’s not that nobody has ever responded to these complaints. They have, and at length. The issue is that their answers have been rejected by a great many people as insufficient. But rather than show a little humility and learn a thing or two at the hands of those who are offering these criticisms, systemd devs and supporters instead treat dissent as antagonism, and indulge in name-calling (e.g. neckbeard) and such.

It’s shameful, really.

But yes, it’s happened before, and it will happen again. And those of us who are in it (init – heh) for the long haul will eventually get a modicum of sanity back once their fanaticism is ground down by reality.

Posted: October 10th, 2014
Categories: geek, hard-core, wonk
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There’s no app for that


Putting responsibility for our children in the hands of governments and corporations is just wrong

In recent years, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has been drumming up support for surveillance and censorship. They do it under the guise of creating measures to protect children and stop what they call cyber-crime. But what they advocate is nothing short of a toolkit fit for a police state.

I’d love to be able to say that I’m overstating the case. I’d love to find out that the technologies and legal levers that are being proffered by the ITU and various other agencies were never used for anything other than good. I’d also love a pony.

I’ve written before about the fractious relationship between the ITU and the technical organisations that actually do run the internet. I’ve written about how Pacific island governments and societies can come to terms with surveillance and censorship. I’ve even talked about this push by the ITU, extending across the developing world, to drum up support for its vision of the internet as a fenced and orderly place. More to the point, I’ve already written about where it leads.

But just last week, at a conference discussing the protection of critical IT infrastructure, I watched a presenter describing the creation of a computer incident response team (in ITU jargon, a CIRT) based on a model adopted by some of the least free countries in the world. This was presented without apology or explanation.

Meanwhile, just across the grounds of the hotel where this presentation was taking place, another, much more well-attended workshop was taking place. It purported to address what is commonly called child online protection. The core premise of child online protection is that the internet is a scary place, and because it’s technology (about which most of us parents know very little), we need more technology to stop the scary stuff from ever reaching our children.

I cannot help but feel anger that our children are being used as proxies in this fight.

I don’t want to sound completely dismissive of this premise; the internet does have some vile, repugnant content, and predators do use it to identify and pursue vulnerable children. But I cannot help but distrust the agenda, the tools being proffered and indeed the motivation of the organisations driving it. And I cannot help but feel anger that our children are being used as proxies in this fight.

The tactics used are disingenuous, to say the least. The chimaera of online predators, porn and cyber-crime (whatever that is) is waved in front of people’s eyes, and then a mostly modest selection of options is presented. The more pious, caring members of our society then lead the charge to the most draconian possible response.

One typically outraged commenter from the PNG ICT community stated:

Looking at the bigger picture, why are we so called IT experts not doing our bit at work to filter, block, report porn sites? Why is it that NICTA [PNG’s telecommunications regulator] is not effective regulating ISP services to enforce such things like this? It isn’t hard nor an expensive exercise. Look at the learning levels, attitude of our kids these days! Read about all the sex related offences happening everyday in this country. BLOCK OFF all forms of filth through the internet would be the quickest and effective start.

In other words: This is not about the law; this is about our children. Ignore the conflation of nudity with sex offences.

A lecturer in computer science at the University of the South Pacific went further:

There can be a level of parental control that is used by the government. I hope that people are not so extreme when it comes to the term “Internet freedom” that they can tolerate websites that promote terrorism, give information of developing weapons at home, sells porn that involves children and so on. Any government would agree to ban these type of sites.

So the arc of internet freedom now bends toward extremism. It’s just plain depressing. And that’s before we even contemplate what he meant by ‘parental control used by the government’.

As one of the greatest champions of freedom from another reactionary time once said, ‘The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.’

To be fair, there are a number of more moderate voices out there, and senior members of some of our institutions understand the danger of making our networks subject to complete and constant surveillance.

But let’s be clear: that’s exactly what we’re discussing here. When we talk about ‘parental control’, we really mean surveillance and censorship. That’s how content filters work: In order to find anything objectionable, we must inspect everything. And by ‘we’, of course, I mean our police, government officials and, equally worrying, our ISPs and telecommunications companies. While I would like to live in a world where all of these players are above reproach, only one of them needs to succumb to temptation in order for this entire proposition to go pear-shaped.

Our instinctual desire to protect our children is being played upon to further global surveillance and censorship.

This may sound alarmist and, yes, extreme. But it is exactly what is being proposed. I challenge anyone to refute the basic premise that the very same tools that allow government officials and others to filter content also allow them to view every byte that crosses those same wires.

The most depressing part is, these organisations are going to win. There’s no fighting a parent’s protectiveness. And it’s next to impossible these days to combat the concerted application of unreasoning resentment and opprobrium against the very principles that only a generation ago were worth fighting and dying for.

Just days ago, we witnessed the progress of truly appalling surveillance legislation through the Australian senate. While Glenn Lazarus stood to say that the internet ‘poses one of the greatest threats to our existence,’ his fellow senators passed a law that has been characterised as containing ‘arguably the most significant restraints on press freedom in this country outside of wartime.’

Defending free expression and association on the internet is increasingly becoming a mug’s game. Those of us who still uphold every individual’s sovereign right to be wrong on the internet are increasingly subject to accusations that we’re aiding and abetting terrorists, paedophiles and, heaven help us, spammers.

But before I’m consigned to the flames of digital perdition, allow me to say:

1)    I have found, after 20+ years of working on the internet, that There’s No App For That: parents are the best parental control. Technical substitutes for parental supervision are poor substitutes. I have yet to see a single technological service or application that even comes close to simply sitting in the same room as your child when they’re online.

2)    I prefer not to let other people’s parents control my children, thank you.

But who am I kidding? If the Snowden revelations weren’t enough to get people off their sofas and into the middle of the information carriageway calling for fundamental changes to the way we run our networks, what hope can one hoary old geek living in this digital backwater possibly have?

Still, every time someone says, ‘think of the children,’ I can’t help but reply, ‘I wish you wouldn’t.’

Posted: September 28th, 2014
Categories: geek, hard-core, journamalism, social commentary, wonk
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THE WAIT – Healthcare in Vanuatu

A young woman shows off her chest X ray after a visit to the Peace Ark, a Chinese PLA Navy hospital ship. photo: Graham Crumb - imagicity.com

A young woman shows off her chest X ray after a visit to the Peace Ark, a Chinese PLA Navy hospital ship. photo: Graham Crumb – imagicity.com

The failures of Vanuatu’s health services are felt by everyone. But these shortcomings are particularly vivid to me today. As I was working on PiPP’s latest multimedia story on the state of health care in Vanuatu, I buried two friends on consecutive days. I have not the slightest doubt that they would both be alive today if they lived in Auckland or Sydney.

Danny Tetiano and Dr John Otto Ondawame were both influential, important people. One was a gifted musician, mentor to a generation of aspiring artists in Vanuatu. The other, of course, was one of the leaders of the West Papuan independence movement. In addition to the loss to society and to the world, both left grieving widows and young children behind.

To put it plainly, Danny and John died of poverty, not disease.

The cost to society is immense. One of the very reasons West Papuans have struggled to organise themselves and become a well-defined locus of international attention is the lack of well-educated, dynamic people, skilled in persuasion and diplomacy. They lack entrepreneurs to improve prosperity, education to create the entrepreneurs, and health services to preserve and protect them.

The lack of basic services is characterised as systemic abuse when Indonesian government policy is concerned. But how should we characterise such neglect in Vanuatu?

Health services in Vanuatu – there is no health system, per se – are rudimentary at best. Post-operative infection rates make even the most run-of-the-mill surgery a cause for concern. One long-time acquaintance died following the amputation of his big toe. A well-intentioned (but unforgivably vague) blog post by the UNDP raises the point that life expectancy in Vanuatu and other Pacific island countries is ten years less than in Australia and New Zealand.

Ten years, and three hours flight away.

The difference is quantum. It’s at once tantalisingly close and achingly distant. But the bitter lesson that I’ve learned this week, and repeatedly in the past, is that the cost of inactivity is not an abstract one. Death impacts directly on a nation’s ability to grow, to gain experience, and ultimately to survive.

Posted: September 12th, 2014
Categories: hard-core, journamalism, social commentary, wonk
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Honour is respectable

Grinding kava in Central Pentecost - Michael Spear Hawkins

Grinding kava in Central Pentecost – Photo: Michael Spear Hawkins

Vanuatu’s first prime minister Walter Lini famously said, ‘respect is honourable.’ The phrase is often quoted today by people from all walks of life as a means of recalling the best aspects of Vanuatu society: its use of deference and respect as an integral part of community peace-making. Modern influences have transformed kastom in many ways, but respect is still held tightly to the national breast.

We might do well, though, to turn the phrase around.

It must be said that traditional life in Vanuatu is indeed happy… for those men who survive their first five years in comparatively good health. And some women may be content living within the confines of their village roles. But like it or not, that life is no longer available to a growing number of people.

If we include people living in peri-urban areas around Port Vila and Santo, census figures show nearly a 10% change in the urban/rural population ratio between 1999 and the last complete census in 2009. Much of this change is composed of the so-called youth bulge – a growing number of young adults with limited opportunities both in the modern economy and in traditional life.

These are not the only source of discontent. Household dynamics are increasingly complex. Domestic relationships, both formal and informal, are more fluid –and generally more violent– than they were. This is largely a result of the clash between the de facto status of women as chattels, and women’s increased economic independence, and thence mobility, in the modern economy.

Men and women both are no longer subject to the social and geographical confines of village life. Mobility and distance undermine traditions that have sustained Melanesian societies since time immemorial. The coercive or corrective power of community scrutiny recedes once it becomes possible to evade the villagers’ gaze. The village’s role as collective conscience has been eroded and, to date, nothing has arisen to take its place.

At all levels of society, the dwindling power of social pressure leads to behaviour that once might have been unconscionable. Legal and regulatory checks go unheeded and national institutions teeter on the edge of dissolution.

But kastom is a resilient term. It has survived thousands of years of challenge and changing circumstance; it has managed to remain a viable idea throughout even the last two centuries of transformation. There is no reason to believe it won’t survive the changing economic and social conditions of the present day.

An appeal to tradition is an argument for conservatism, for restraint and for mitigating the effects of change. This may lead the more progressive-minded members of the development community to reject kastom in favour of utilitarian liberalism. But just as a banyan’s strength comes from a multitude of roots and branches, counterbalanced and pulling in a variety of directions, we would do well to allow the pull of kastom even as we move ahead.

In a keynote speech last week at the State of the Pacific conference in Canberra, director of the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement Virisila Buadromo candidly discussed how she had been characterised as self-centred and ‘bossy’. She might justifiably have rejected the labels, or even worn them as a badge of pride. Instead, she used the accusations as an opportunity for frank and honest introspection. The result, she said, was a richer, more nuanced understanding of how to function as an agent of change in a society that spends much of its time looking backward.

It is far too easy to indulge only in token inclusiveness when we address both conservative and liberal responses to the drastic changes currently besetting Melanesian societies. As the power of the chiefs erodes, it is still widely, often implicitly, assumed that the frame of kastom cannot be altered to incorporate other models of chieftainship, other means of allocating respect.

Much of the social disruption that has happened, from the household level on up, springs in one way or another from the tension between arbitrary adherence to the old and the equally arbitrary imposition of the new.

We would do well to follow Ms Buadromo’s example and to pursue a reflective, more inclusive path to understanding. Above all, we must not be complicit in allowing Melanesian societies to descend into a dialectical maelstrom pitting ‘development’ against kastom, making each the enemy of the other.

Part of doing so involves finding ways to buttress the restraining forces of social approval & opprobrium which play such an integral role in governing behaviour in the village. As external restraints erode, we need to find new ways, new motivations, to guide our actions, and to curb our worst inclinations.

An Ambae chief once said that respect and shame form the heart of kastom. Reflexive, institutionalised respect for those with social status equips them with the moral weight to protect not just themselves, but others under their care. The ability to instil shame in others is therefore an important tool in ensuring a peaceful society. But as respect diminishes with distance and a shifting balance of power, so too does its ability impose shame or remorse. As collective conscience diminishes in force, individual conscience must fill the void.

Monetisation of traditional land without meaningful and enduring moral and ethical constraints is a tragedy for all concerned. Innovation and change without regard for tradition can uproot even the strongest cultures. And equally important, the other side of the coin: mobility and plenitude of choice too must have reasonable restraints placed upon them.

None of this is new. European societies roiled –and often bled– in the transition between inherited and earned authority, between collective and individual conscience. But framing the Melanesian experience in Western terms is not useful. An ethos is organic, not imposed.

Father Lini might have said it thus: ‘Honour is respectable.’

If we honour our contracts, be they social, legal or economic, we become worthy of respect. The respectable in the community can then acquire and appropriate the power to shame, applying it in familiar, useful ways while showing by example how to internalise the exercise of honour.

Likewise, a more reflective society is more able to innovate, moving more smoothly from acquisition of new ideas to acceptance to appropriation.

How to apply these principles to development and aid? The first step is easy: adjust development planning and implementation processes to incorporate –and invest in– respect for those who, like Virisila, bestride the cusp between change and tradition. Give them the means to gain respect in society by allowing them pride of place in their own work.

Second: allow more space for conservative voices in the transition between traditional and cash economies. It may seem counterintuitive to share power with your most vocal opponents, but social & political settlement, and the mutual accommodation that results, is the least worst available means of building and leveraging respect for the process itself.

And most difficult of all: Quit pretending that the imposition of Western-inspired legislative, regulatory and contractual obligations will suffice to curb the worst excesses of societies with fundamentally different moral and ethical levers.

Posted: June 30th, 2014
Categories: journamalism, social commentary, soft-core, wonk
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Web tricks are not for kids any more

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 12.01.22 PMI started writing web apps in 1994. Using CGI.pm in Perl was pretty much state of the art – and the art wasn’t very pretty. ColdFusion appeared shortly thereafter, but only supported basic control structures – no functions or even subroutines at the start. Then came ASP and a disastrous mishmash of security holes, ActiveX objects being called from the only thing worse than PHP for tag soup with spaghetti code for filler. PHP, for our sins, went from being a ‘hey, kids, look – I made a web page!’ app to an actual application platform.

.. and the list goes on.

I’ve lived through the browser standards wars, I’ve seen such sins committed in the name of the Web that I would wake up screaming, ‘Why, Tim Berners Lee?!? WHY???!!’ I’ve lived through <BLINK>, Flash, animated GIFs, <MARQUEE>… and other monstrosities whose names Shall Not Be Spoken.

I’ve used JavaScript since it was a toy.

But this, my child, is the key: It’s not a toy any more. Finally, after two decades of stumbling around blindly, wreaking more chaos and mayhem than a shirtless, drunken Australian on a JetStar weekend in Bali, web development has finally matured. A bit. It’s learned that being cool doesn’t earn you nearly as many friends as being useful. It’s learned that a guy’s gotta eat, fer Chrissakes, and sleep from time to time. It’s learned that popsicle-stick bridges may be neat, but won’t carry the load that a boring old concrete one will.

But, as the scripture says, ‘then I put away my childish things.’ Oh, it’s true that just because we’ve grown up doesn’t mean we’ve learned every lesson ever. It’s true that we Web Developers still get seduced by Teh Shiney. But all in all, we’ve grown; we’ve lost our innocence and our hair. But we sleep at night. And we parallelise. And we scale. We’re grown-ups now. With grown-up tools.

So put down your PHP child. Accept that JavaScript is a language. REST in your Bower and accept that some change is for the better.

Posted: June 23rd, 2014
Categories: geek, hard-core, humour
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A Bushknife Wedding


Max bursts onstage, tears his mother’s headscarf from her head, covers himself with it and dives into the darkness, hiding among the audience members. Moments later, Sonia, his on-again-off-again girlfriend, appears. She demands to know where he is. She too disappears offstage, returning moments later with a bushknife in her hand and murder in her eye. The ensuing chaos brings the entire community out, and in the course of a raucous meeting, a chief decides that the only choice for these ‘Tom and Jerry’ lovers is for them to marry.

Wan Smolbag Theatre’s new play, a musical titled Laef I Swit (Life is Sweet) tells a tragicomic tale of passion, love and life in Vanuatu. Max and Sonia are a mismatched, all too typical modern couple. Sonia’s idealised dreams of love as a means of escape from the dangers, tedium and frustration of life as a downtrodden woman are dashed when she encounters Max, a sweet-talking, mercurial and charming –but utterly unreliable– man. Nothing can make them happy together, but the prospect of being torn apart seems too much to bear.

Thematically, Laef I Swit is a smaller play than usually emerges from playwright Jo Dorras’ pen. But this only adds to its power. The forces that act on Ni Vanuatu society are compressed into a domestic drama that is poignant, fleetingly sweet and often outright heartbreaking. Director Peter Walker’s staging is, as always, engaging and inventive. He blurs the line between audience and actors, driving the action right in among the seats. It’s a reminder that this play is not simply to be observed. It’s our story, not someone else’s, happening quite literally in our midst.

While music has always been a feature of Wan Smolbag’s stage productions, this is the first time the troupe has given us a full-on musical. All the key moments are played out in song. And what songs they are. The words by Jo Dorras are woven into long, lyrical passages that closely echo the breathless, sonorous flow of Bislama so often heard in Port Vila’s markets and meeting places. The music, composed collaboratively by several company members, covers a broad swathe of styles, ranging from ‘classical’ Broadway to raw, angry rap, to a send-up of American Evangelical gospel, parodied with off-beat brilliance by Smolbag veteran Noel Aru.

As in all its major theatrical productions, Wan Smolbag draws on its depth of talent, using a dual cast. Virana David and Florence Taga share the role of Sonia. Both have a deep well of musical ability to draw upon, and their acting will move even the hardest heart. Dorras’ script has provided them with a character whose exploration draws them to the finest performance I’ve seen yet from either. Virana David has a gift for internalising the conflict of a young woman in hopelessly in love with a hopeless choice of a man, drawing the audience into her turmoil. Florence Taga plays the conflict outward, at one point outright begging the audience for understanding. Their brilliant, contrasting performances are reason enough alone to see the play twice at least.

Both Donald Frank and Albert Tommy (who returns to the main stage after several years’ hiatus) are memorable in their portrayal of Max, a charming lout whose roguish behaviour sometimes descends into brutality. It would be the easiest thing in the world to allow this character to become merely a villain, but both actors manage to remind us of the man that Sonia fell in love with. The final scenes in the play would fail were it not for their ability to humanise a decidedly unsympathetic role.

This wouldn’t –couldn’t– be a play about Vanuatu if drama were not inextricably mingled with satire, joy and bawdy hilarity. Much of the (much-needed) comic relief is provided by Richie Benjamin, whose character, the MC, flits in and out of the action, providing a bridge between audience and actors. His campy persona is disarmingly cute and puckish. It’s as if the MC in the Broadway classic Cabaret had left Berlin to join the Marx Brothers. But Mr Benjamin shows maturity and a surprising depth of compassion at key moments, saving his character from becoming merely a clown.

In every review I write, limited space makes it impossible to mention each and every notable performance. But this year, I feel particularly apologetic. As the company grows and its members mature together, the depth of talent only increases. This is a team with no second string – every single actor could carry a production on his or her shoulders alone. Together, they are a formidable force.

But special mention must be made of the younger actors – if only because veterans such as Noel Aru, Charleon Falau, Morinda Tari, Annette Vira and Joyanne Quiqui had better know how good they are by now. Sereanna Kalkaua’s first appearance in a main stage production shows a wealth of potential. Edgell Junior and Michael Maki share the devilishly difficult role of Eddie. Torn between his unrequited love of Sonia and friendship with Max, his conscience can have no peace. Helen Kailo plays Nancy, a woman just beginning to understand herself and her own strength. Ms Kailo makes the role her own, casting off a tendency to play the quirks more than the character, painting a portrait whose mix of strength and vulnerability, transgression and tradition make a fully realised, memorable person.

It’s almost a crime that language, place and circumstance deny Wan Smolbag theatre the prominence and appreciation they deserve on the world stage. But we can take some comfort from knowledge that, in celebration of twenty-five years of performing in Vanuatu, Wan Smolbag is hosting an international theatre festival next month. If there is any justice in this world, visiting performers will not only enrich our country with their work, but they’ll return home with tales of a theatrical community good enough to rival any in the world.

Laef I Swit runs until June 25th, along with a revival of last year’s play, Klaem Long Lada Ia. Check the posters around town for dates and times, and book your tickets either at Wan Smolbag or in front of the Vanuatu Post building.

Posted: June 4th, 2014
Categories: journamalism, social commentary, soft-core
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