For this episode, the Bad Voltage team returns to normal with a taped show clocking in at just over an hour. I really enjoyed this one and it made me remember why I started this little column in the first place. Most of the time they bring up stuff for which I have strong opinions, and these posts let me express my thoughts in some depth. Plus, my three readers don’t seem to mind, if they read them at all (grin).
So, if you haven’t listened to it already, please do so now. I’ll wait.
The first segment focuses on the Volkswagen software scandal where, as Jeremy put it, code was added that basically said “if under test, then lie”. I even came up with a joke about this while in Germany. How many VW engineers does it take to change a lightbulb? Forty, unless the emissions inspector is watching, then it is only one.
I had three main thoughts about this topic. The first concerns the US VW CEO Michael Horn, who blamed the whole thing on rogue engineers. Unlike the overall CEO (I found reference to a “North American” CEO, too, how many CEOs does this company have?) Martin Winterkorn who resigned, Horn is obviously taking the coward’s way out and looking to blame anyone but himself. It seems a little fishy – one would think that all the major engineering decisions would be made in Germany, so had Horn testified to that effect instead of trying to shift blame I would have been a little more comfortable with his testimony, but now it seems like he is trying to hide something, which would suggest he knew about the issue. Winterkorn stated “I am stunned that misconduct on such a scale was possible in the Volkswagen Group” which seems to indicate it was too large to just be confined to one or two “rogue” engineers, casting even more doubt on Horn’s account. But since Horn lives in the US of A it is doubtful anything will happened to him, and even if it did he could always find a high paying job in the financial industry. (sigh)
The second thing that bothers me is that this kind of cheating would not be possible if the code for the cars was open source. Heck, the DMCA specifically prohibits “anti-circumvention” which has been interpreted to mean that attempts to reverse engineer proprietary code are illegal, so even attempting to figure out what they are doing could land you in jail. With growing demonstrations of huge security issues in automobile software something needs to be done about it, and of course I’d like to see things become more open. I have been thinking about selling my car, a 2004, but one thing that has kept me from doing it is the thought all of the possible software holes in new vehicles.
Finally, as someone who once owned a 2002 Jetta TDI, part of the diesel ownership experience is the idea that you are helping the environment. I can run biodiesel in it, perhaps from recycled cooking grease, and the overall pollution equation is supposed to be close to that of a hybrid (when you consider the environmental damage used to make the batteries) or an electric car (the majority of electricity in the US is from coal, so add that to the damage caused by mining rare earths). To find that you have been lied to and are actually a huge polluter is quite a blow, and it is the one thing VW won’t be able to easily fix.
One of my team owns a later model TDI and I am very interested to see what happens. My guess is that a software-only fix will simply dumb the power curve down to the point where the car is unusable (and modern diesels can be quite peppy). Think about it: using Jeremy’s “if-then” analogy above, “set test=true” and bam, you pass emissions. Probably makes the car run like crap or they would have done it from the start, but that is an extremely easy software fix. My prediction is that it will take a class-action to get VW to address the problem properly, which will ultimately involve a car “buy back” program.
Anyway, I’m sure the guys will revisit this in the near future and I look forward to hearing more of their thoughts.
The next segment talked about a portable desktop/laptop thing from System 76 called a Serval Workstation. This is a monster device, weighing nearly nine pounds without the charging brick in the 17-inch form factor, that is meant to be a laptop that acts as a high performance desktop.
Several years ago I became tired of lugging even my small laptop around, and so I found a deal on Woot for a decent desktop and bought two of them. I added a couple of nice monitors and now I have one at home and one at the office. With everything I need being accessible from the network, I really didn’t see the need for a laptop (of course, I have one for when I travel).
I thought Aq hit it on the head when he mentioned all of the stuff you have to get for a desktop: keyboard, mouse, camera, speakers, etc., that just comes with a laptop. I especially like the built in UPS – as someone who lives in a rural area they are a must for the frequent power fluctuations. Laptops just come with them. Thus the appeal of this device is to create a portable desktop that is easy to move, trading size and battery life for power.
Also, I really like System 76. I tend to vote with my wallet, and when we needed to replace some aging iMacs I bought a bunch of Sable machines from them and we haven’t been disappointed. They “just work” with Linux, and they are both reasonably priced and pretty sharp looking as well.
The one thing I wish the guys had talked about is the anemic 1080p resolution. I hate the fact that so many laptop manufactures seem content with such a limited pixel density. Sure, 1080p on a 12-inch screen is fine, but on a 17-inch monster? My desktop monitors have a much higher resolution, and my latest laptop, the Dell XPS “sputnik” has even higher density. The HiDPI screen has caused some issues, so that could be one reason that System 76 opted for a lower density, but still it would be nice to have a HiDPI solution that just worked.
My final comment on this is that they are actually wrong when it was stated that the Dell Ubuntu version requires patches that must be installed via a Dell repository. I don’t run the Dell repos on my machine as most of the changes have been ported upstream and there was nothing in the repos I actually needed. Yes, it didn’t work out of the box – it shipped with Ubuntu 14.04 but I am running Ubuntu Gnome 15.04 with a 4.1 experimental kernel to address some of the more irritating bugs, but with 15.10 coming out in a week I am very eager to play with an O/S with the 4.2 kernel delivered as standard.
The third segment was on the idea of a “delayed public license” where code would be initially published under a proprietary license but at some predefined point it would convert to an open source license. While I appreciate the idea behind it, this is not a licensing issue that requires a new license. We really don’t need any more open source licenses. Instead, you could just publish it under a proprietary license with the terms that “on such and such a date” the license would become something else.
The idea is that a lot software has a limited shelf life, and once the immediate revenue opportunities have been exploited, there isn’t much need to keep software closed. Thus a small team of developers could monetize their work yet still add an open source angle to it. This isn’t a new idea, as mentioned in the show id software does this with a lot of its technology. First they opened their Doom engine, and a few years later they opened their Quake engine. Easy peasy.
My suggestion would be to promote this behavior versus coming up with a new license. Also, while I like the thought of putting the code up on something like Github on day one with a proprietary license so that it would be out there when the time came to open source it, I would recommended heavily against this line of action. We have been through a number of cases where people have appropriated OpenNMS code in spite of the license, and the discovery process can be quite expensive if not cost prohibitive. Since this method of starting out proprietary and moving to open source was aimed at small development teams, do yourselves a favor and just hide the code until you are ready to open it. It will work out better in the end.
There were a couple of bits at the end of the show. Jono did a quick “Hack Voltage” segment letting people know that many mobile carriers have the ability to turn e-mails into SMS texts. For example, if you are on AT&T, sending an e-mail to your number “@txt.att.net” will result in an SMS to your phone. We’ve used this a lot in OpenNMS (there is even a field called “pagerEmail” for the address assigned to each user) and it was nice to learn about the addresses for other popular providers. Note that if you have a need to send actual SMS messages (say, if your e-mail server or network is down) you can get an inexpensive device that will let you do it for the price of a SIM card.
They closed the show with a nice long “thank you” to us for hosting the Live Voltage show in Fulda. I was quite touched and I bet the rest of the team were as well, and I look forward to the next “hinted at” live outing of the Fab Four.