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GNOME 3.36 / Endless OS 3.8

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Endless OS 3.8.0 has just been released, which brings GNOME 3.36 to our users. There’s a particularly big overlap between “improvements in Endless OS” and “improvements in GNOME” this cycle, so I wanted to take a minute to look back over what the Endless team worked on in GNOME 3.36.

Login & Unlock Screen

Allan Day has already written about the improvements to the login and unlock experience in GNOME 3.36, so I won’t retread this ground in too much detail. As he (and Nick Richards, in his trip report for Endless OS 3.8.0) mentioned, this change has been anticipated for a long time, so I’m particularly glad that Georges Stavracas and Umang Jain (together with Florian Müllner from Red Hat) could make this happen for this release. The first thing I interact with when I sit down at my computer is the login screen or the lock screen, and the refreshed design is a pleasure to use. (My daughter is sad that Granny’s cat is no longer visible on the lock screen, though.)

GNOME unlock dialog, with Will Thompson's name and face, and password “Tremendousdangerouslookingyak” visible

Peek Password

One improvement that’s perhaps most visible in the redesigned lock screen is the inline “eye” icon to reveal the text in the password field, which was implemented by Umang Jain independently of his work on the lock screen itself. The motivation for this change was actually another system dialogue: the Wi-Fi password dialogue.

During the development of the Hack product – a game-like platform for self-directed learning built atop Endless OS – the team ran many playtesting sessions. While the emphasis of these sessions was on Hack itself, the test users – typically younger teens – would often run through initial setup on a freshly-installed OS. Within a few clicks of turning on the computer, you select your Wi-Fi network and enter its password, which turned out to be a big stumbling block for many users. Wi-Fi passwords are long strings of randomly-generated characters, and on many occasions users simply couldn’t enter the password correctly. The entry has always had a Show Text option in the right-click menu, but right-clicking is itself an unfamiliar operation for younger users more familiar with mobile devices.

Parental Controls, redux

For a year or so, Endless OS has included a parental controls feature, which operates along a couple of axes:

  • Specific installed apps can be disabled for particular users. As a special case, all general-purpose web browsers are controlled by a separate toggle.
  • Not-yet-installed apps visible in GNOME Software — which we rebrand as App Center — can be filtered based on their OARS content rating metadata.
  • Users can be prevented from installing apps at all.

In past releases, this feature was hard to discover and use. At a superficial level, the UI to control it was buried in Settings → Details → Users → (select a non-administrator user) → (scroll down) → (frame within frame within frame). But the real issue was that many Endless OS systems have the child as the primary, administrator user, created through Initial Setup when the machine is unboxed. To meaningfully use parental controls, you’d need to create a separate parent user, then downgrade the child’s account, neither of which is a particularly discoverable operation.

In autumn last year, we met with Allan Day, Richard Hughes and Matthias Clasen from Red Hat to talk through this problem space. Following that, Robin Tafel, Philip Withnall and Matthew Leeds designed and implemented a new flow for parental controls. The key changes are:

  1. Parental controls can be enabled during initial setup. Check a box, choose some options, and specify a parent password.
  2. Once initial setup is complete, there is a dedicated Parental Controls app.

Screenshot of “About You” page from GNOME Initial Setup, showing “Set up parental controls for this user” checkbox (checked)

Screenshot of Parental Controls page of GNOME Initial Setup, showing options to restrict which applications can be installed or used

Screenshot of GNOME Initial Setup “Set a Parent Password” page, with two password fields and one password hint field

Screenshot of Parental Controls application, showing options to restrict which apps a user can install or run

There are a few downstream bits and bobs outstanding, such as a cross-reference from GNOME Settings’ Users panel, but the bulk of this feature is available upstream in GNOME Initial Setup, Software, and Shell 3.36. Parental controls needs close integration with the application management infrastructure, and Flatpak upstream has the necessary hooks. On Endless OS, supporting Flatpak apps — plus Chromium as a special case — is good enough, since that is the sole mechanism for installing applications. It would be great to see support in Malcontent for other package and app managers.

Special thanks to Jakub Steiner for creating a great icon at very short notice.

Malcontent icon: Silhoutte of parent and child holding hands

Renaming Folders

One of the biggest differences between vanilla GNOME and Endless OS is the app grid, which in Endless is on the desktop and fully under the user’s control. Georges Stavracas has been incrementally chipping away at this, and support for renaming folders landed in GNOME 3.36.

Screenshot of renaming a folder titled “Jeux”

The Long Tail

Besides highly-visible new features and redesigns, much (perhaps even most?) of the work of maintaining a desktop is in the parts you don’t see: improving libraries and plumbing, incremental tweaks to user interfaces, and dealing with the wide variety of hardware, software and users that interact with GNOME. Spelunking through the commit histories of various projects, I see many names of colleagues present and past, including André Moreira Magalhães and Philip Chimento respectively. Jian-Hong Pan from the Endless kernel team makes an appearance in GNOME Settings, as does a feature from erstwhile Endless kernel hacker Carlo Caione dating back to 2018.

Umang Jain, Philip Withnall and Matthew Leeds have put a lot of work into improving the robustness of GNOME Software and Flatpak, and there’s more landing as we speak. I’m particularly glad that Matthew has been tracking down missing Flatpak app updates in GNOME Software – bugs which hide information can be the trickiest ones to spot. And Philip is solving the latest Mystery of the Missing Progress Bar when installing Flatpak apps in GNOME Software.

I’m certain I’ve missed many great contributions. Please forgive me, fellow Endlessers.

A Broad Church

Perhaps my favourite part of being involved in GNOME is collaborating with great people from organisations who, in a different world, might be bitter rivals. All of the work I’ve described was a joint effort with others from the GNOME community; and, just as other distributors share the fruits of our labour, we and our users share the fruits of theirs. This is the latest in a long line of great GNOME releases – long may this trend continue.

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GNOME is not the default for Fedora Workstation

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We recently had a Fedora AMA where one of the questions asked is why GNOME is the default desktop for Fedora Workstation. In the AMA we answered why GNOME had been chosen for Fedora Workstation, but we didn’t challenge the underlying assumption built into the way the question was asked, and the answer to that assumption is that it isn’t the default. What I mean with this is that Fedora Workstation isn’t a box of parts, where you have default options that can be replaced, its a carefully procured and assembled operating system aimed at developers, sysadmins and makers in general. If you replace one or more parts of it, then it stops being Fedora Workstation and starts being ‘build your own operating system OS’. There is nothing wrong with wanting to or finding it interesting to build your own operating systems, I think a lot of us initially got into Linux due to enjoying doing that. And the Fedora project provides a lot of great infrastructure for people who want to themselves or through teaming up with others build their own operating systems, which is why Fedora has so many spins and variants available.
The Fedora Workstation project is something we made using those tools and it has been tested and developed as an integrated whole, not as a collection of interchangeable components. The Fedora Workstation project might of course over time replace certain parts with other parts over time, like how we are migrating from X.org to Wayland. But at some point we are going to drop standalone X.org support and only support X applications through XWayland. But that is not the same as if each of our users individually did the same. And while it might be technically possible for a skilled users to still get things moved back onto X for some time after we make the formal deprecation, the fact is that you would no longer be using ‘Fedora Workstation’. You be using a homebrew OS that contains parts taken from Fedora Workstation.

So why am I making this distinction? To be crystal clear, it is not to hate on you for wanting to assemble your own OS, in fact we love having anyone with that passion as part of the Fedora community. I would of course love for you to share our vision and join the Fedora Workstation effort, but the same is true for all the other spins and variant communities we have within the Fedora community too. No the reason is that we have a very specific goal of creating a stable and well working experience for our users with Fedora Workstation and one of the ways we achieve this is by having a tightly integrated operating system that we test and develop as a whole. Because that is the operating system we as the Fedora Workstation project want to make. We believe that doing anything else creates an impossible QA matrix, because if you tell people that ‘hey, any part of this OS is replaceable and should still work’ you have essentially created a testing matrix for yourself of infinite size. And while as software engineers I am sure many of us find experiments like ‘wonder if I can get Fedora Workstation running on a BSD kernel’ or ‘I wonder if I can make it work if I replace glibc with Bionic‘ fun and interesting, I am equally sure we all also realize what once we do that we are in self support territory and that Fedora Workstation or any other OS you use as your starting point can’t not be blamed if your system stops working very well. And replacing such a core thing as the desktop is no different to those other examples.

Having been in the game of trying to provide a high quality desktop experience both commercially in the form of RHEL Workstation and through our community efforts around Fedora Workstation I have seen and experienced first hand the problems that the mindset of interchangeable desktop creates. For instance before we switched to the Fedora Workstation branding and it was all just ‘Fedora’ I experienced reviewers complaining about missing features, features had actually spent serious effort implementing, because the reviewer decided to review a different spin of Fedora than the GNOME one. Other cases I remember are of customers trying to fix a problem by switching desktops, only to discover that while the initial issue they wanted fix got resolved by the switch they now got a new batch of issues that was equally problematic for them. And we where left trying to figure out if we should try to fix the original problem, the new ones or maybe the problems reported by users of a third desktop option. We also have had cases of users who just like the reviewer mentioned earlier, assumed something was broken or missing because they where using a different desktop than the one where the feature was added. And at the same time trying to add every feature everywhere would dilute our limited development resources so much that it made us move slow and not have the resources to focus on getting ready for major changes in the hardware landscape for instance.
So for RHEL we now only offer GNOME as the desktop and the same is true in Fedora Workstation, and that is not because we don’t understand that people enjoy experimenting with other desktops, but because it allows us to work with our customers and users and hardware partners on fixing the issues they have with our operating system, because it is a clearly defined entity, and adding the features they need going forward and properly support the hardware they are using, as opposed to spreading ourselves to thin that we just run around putting on band-aids for the problems reported.
And in the longer run I actually believe this approach benefits those of you who want to build your own OS to, or use an OS built by another team around a different set of technologies, because while the improvements might come in a bit later for you, the work we now have the ability to undertake due to having a clear focus, like our work on adding HiDPI support, getting Wayland ready for desktop use or enabling Thunderbolt support in Linux, makes it a lot easier for these other projects to eventually add support for these things too.

Update: Adam Jacksons oft quoted response to the old ‘linux is about choice meme’ is also a required reading for anyone wanting a high quality operating system

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17 days ago
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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Time Travel

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

The easiest way to ruin all time travel movies is to think about time travel for more than 3 seconds.

Today's News:
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23 days ago
G-d wished...
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32 days ago
Maybe we should take a step back and just prune off the branching timelines involving any Hitlers
32 days ago
Botanical universe engineering.

The Unnamed Co-op Value: Gritty

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Calvin Coolidge, the US President that symbolized the 1920s, has been credited with this statement: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan, ‘press on’ has solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race.”

I think of that quote often when working with co-ops, especially these days. Embracing the values and principles of the co-operative identity is important; however, it is not enough. The people stepping in to create a new co-op or convert an existing business into a co-op also need the value of perseverance. This value, while not stated in either the ICA’s Statement or Mondragón’s list of principles, plays a deciding role in the success or failure of a cooperative. In many ways, it is the expression of this value that creates the cooperative difference of worker co-ops.

Perhaps the essence of being “gritty” provides a more working class way of thinking about perseverance. The value of Gritty combines with that of Solidarity, Self-repsonsibility, and Mutual Self-help to create an almost unstoppable force. The synergy of these values combined in the leadership of an organization can overcome so much.

A co-op, that I worked with, was struggling a bit, but making a go of it. About a month after adding a new director to the board, almost everyone else on the board quit (for personal reasons) leaving this person holding the bag. I would have completely understood if they just left as well (since they really hadn’t anything invested). Instead they pushed forward, recruited new leaders, got the co-op operational and made it a successful and well-respected co-op in its sector.

I see this a lot. I usually encourage people who seek to start a co-op to find a group of five people who will be champions. By champions, I mean, really, the people who are gritty enough to see it through to the end. Why five, because the value of gritty is expressed differently in every person and life gets in the way: a family member becomes ill, a once in a lifetime opportunity arrives, and people discover that the project doesn’t really tap into their gritty after all. The value of grittiness doesn’t manifest until it is needed, so we can only guess and hope.

Today, as our co-ops fight hard to survive the covid-19 pandemic, the gritty manifests. My day job supports a number of co-ops and part of that now includes helping to promote their covid-19 survival models and the US Federation of Worker Co-ops also promotes the efforts of these gritty co-ops.

Stay Gritty!

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58 days ago
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It takes a whole world to create a new virus, not just China | Laura Spinney

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Viruses such as Covid-19 wouldn’t emerge in food markets if it wasn’t for factory farming, globalised industry and rapid urbanisation

  • Laura Spinney is the author of The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World

When I get stressed, a patch of annoying red eczema appears on the inside of my upper right arm. The doctor gives me some cream to rub on it, but I also know that to stop it coming back I have to deal with the underlying problem.

Too much information, you’re thinking, but let me make the analogy. The reason we shouldn’t call the Sars-CoV-2 virus causing global misery the “Chinese virus” is the same reason I shouldn’t blame my eczema on my upper arm: there is clearly a superficial weakness there, but the real cause lies elsewhere.

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61 days ago
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On Coronavirus, Beware the Totalitarian Temptation

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Totalitarianism is Stalin and Hitler, the NKVD and the Gestapo, the Gulag and the death camp. Correct, but take another look. It is also an eternal temptation that has infected Western minds great and small—from Martin “Sieg Heil!” Heidegger to Jean-Paul Sartre, who pitched for Communism until the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. Among the lesser minds, Charles Lindbergh cozied up to Hitler, and Joseph Davies, the U.S. Ambassador to the USSR, penned a ringing apologia for Stalin’s Great Terror in Mission to Moscow. The book was turned into an even more awful movie. Add a herd of Western devotees and camp followers who cheered Mussolini, Mao, Castro, Che, and, lately, Hugo Chávez—this Stalinist caudillo attracted effusive praise from the actor Sean Penn.

Which takes us to China’s President Xi Jinping and an up-to-date example of cheerleading for the almighty state. While in Beijing, the WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom extolled China as a model in the war against SARS-CoV-2, better known as “coronavirus.” According to China’s state media, he gushed that “China’s speed . . . and efficiency . . . is the advantage of China’s system.” The country deserved “praise” and “admiration” for its methods in routing the silent enemy that has spread the COVID-19 epidemic from Wuhan to Milan, from Alberta to Auckland.

Such an éloge needs to be tempered. First of all, the world owes the most recent iteration of the coronavirus to China, more precisely to Wuhan and its “wet markets” whence it sprang forth from bats, a delicacy of the local cuisine. That calamity may be ascribed to Chinese culture. But what followed was owed to the very system cheered by the WHO boss. 

By the end of December, health workers warned that something was afoot. Yet totalitarians hate bad news, that’s in their DNA. Suppressing the reports, they blamed the messengers and detained them. There was “speed,” but the wrong kind. Instead of locking up the doctors, the regime might have closed down Wuhan Airport, which serves 32 cities around the world, including Paris, London, Rome, Seoul, Tokyo, and Sidney. With flights operating into February, the virus forged ahead while precious time was lost. In mid-March, the regime tried fake news, a classic agitprop tool, with the foreign ministry insinuating that the “U.S. army had brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” 

So, why would the WHO director (and plenty of others) applaud the Communist emperor Xi? Because of political expediency, for one. You don’t bite the hand you need to feed in order to contain the Wuhan Virus. But China seems to be making up for its sins. Apparently, new cases have plummeted from 2,400 during the last week in February to single digits in mid-March. So, three cheers for the superiority of a totalitarian system?

But South Korea is the world’s number one when it comes to testing, which is critical for controlling the virus. Taiwan has slowed its spread. In Iran, though, a harsh theocracy whose tentacles reach deeply into society, new infections are on a steep rise. So totalitarian systems aren’t necessarily super-efficient, while supposedly chaotic democracies are hardly doomed.

The price of what Xi calls a “people’s war” is horrendous. To boot, Beijing’s strategy can be pursued only by a totalitarian state, but not by a democracy. Essentially, the state has locked up half a billion people, most harshly in and around Wuhan. It dispatched armies of enforcers to guard the access to residential compounds and to restrict movement within. 

The regime deployed digital surveillance systems no liberal polity would or could countenance, and rightly so. The government tapped into data from state-run mobile companies as well as from payment apps that record “who, when, and where,” so that fugitives can be traced and collared. Regime minions intrude on what is known in the West as “my home is my castle” to record body temperatures, presumably hauling suspects off to detention facilities—for their own good, of course. Tech companies have developed apps with a kind of traffic light. “Green” is good, “yellow” is a warning, “red” is bad. Guards use the color coding to block movement at railroad stations and traffic nodes.

The darkest side of the “people’s war” is sheer repression. Ren Zhiqiang, a prominent Beijing tycoon, had been blasting Xi for extinguishing free speech. Too bad for him that he now ran afoul of an all-out Party campaign to quash criticism about the government’s fake- or no-news strategy. Ren accused the state of having accelerated the epidemic that had claimed innumerable lives. He might as well have committed treason. So, Ren has suddenly disappeared, which is a swift way to silence “enemies of the people.”

State control of information is a bridge to oppression democracies must never cross. Freedom of expression is among the holiest of holies in a liberal polity. An indispensable check on arbitrary power, free media also happen to be eminently useful in national emergencies, exposing error, mismanagement, and falsehood. It was the absence of free media in China that enabled the regime to muzzle the whistleblowers of Wuhan at such a murderous price.

How are those bungling democracies doing? Italy has virtually copycatted China’s anti-virus warfare, practically locking down the entire country. Spain has followed, as has France—though with a 15-day limit for the time being. Other EU members will surely go the same route. They are successively dismantling “Schengenland,” the EU’s borderless realm, reasserting national control. Yet such constraints are being imposed without the totalitarian tools of the Chinese. In deploying the powers of the state, Western governments have illuminated a peculiar advantage of democracies. To combat crises, they need not resort to police-state tactics. 

If governments communicate truthfully with the people, the ruled do what needs to be done voluntarily. Look around the democratic world. People self-quarantine at home and stay away from large crowds. They accept curbs on their freedom such as closed bars, restaurants, theaters, and stores except those establishments that sustain life in deadly times: food, drug, and pet stores (animals have to eat, too). They keep social distance and walk alone rather than in pairs.

Competitive sports unfold in empty stadiums whence games are broadcast. Operas and concerts are streamed. Companies shift to home office work and video-conferencing on their own. Schools close according to local determination, and the government provides emergency day care so that parents can continue to work in critical places like hospitals. It isn’t all voluntary, of course. But there is still a difference between Wuhan and Milan. Carabinieri don’t act as prison guards, but ask for cash receipts that prove a trip to the pharmacy. When venturing outside, the choice is still yours; this is the critical difference. You are not manhandled or dragged off to jail. Instead you pay a fine of 200 euros ($224). 

If you feel mistreated, you can appeal to the courts. The rule of law does not yield to unchecked power. It is “gentle persuasion” that comes with incentives. In Munich, for instance, stores that must lock up for a while enjoy the benefits of the welfare state. Rules on short-time work kick in. The social security system makes up for reduced wages.

Beyond such anecdotes, there is a larger point: the irreducible trade-off between freedom and safety. Despots don’t have to deal with such conflicts. For them, the security of the state—and their regime—is über alles. Let the people pay the price. Authoritarians love crises—or regularly manufacture them—because these justify untrammeled power. The logic is all too familiar. Posit a supreme evil, and all other values must be betrayed: freedom of expression and movement, property rights, judicial review, individual autonomy, political competition, due process. Rule of Law? Not when the enemy is at the gate, and certainly not when he is already roaming the land.

Liberal polities, alas, are not immune to the temptation. Listen to the prophets of planetary doom who want an all-powerful state that would do away with constitutional restraints and unfettered politics for the sake of the earth. Don’t quibble when the house is on fire; seek salvation in “eco dictatorship.” On a less cosmic level, there is Benjamin Netanyahu, who was first in the democratic world to impose a draconian regimen in the corona crisis. Why Israel of all places? Unable to cobble together a coalition, the Prime Minister faces a virus of his own: his criminal indictment and looming loss of office. And lo, he invoked the epidemic to demand an emergency government headed by him for six or even 24 months. A scoundrel who thinks evil of it.

It could happen here, too—which is all the more reason to resist the authoritarian temptation. What are the antidotes? All emergency measures must come with a sunset clause. Protect the freedom of the press at all costs. Set new dates for postponed elections now. Keep holding officials accountable. Secure the separation of powers. The rule is to persuade, not to impose. Defy the pied papers who stoke panic and hysteria in order to deconstruct the liberal state. 

Do not forget that three viruses are in play. One infects the human body, the other the body politic, and the third the economy. Close it down, and the enemy passes from the human bloodstream into the vulnerable creature called “supply and demand.” This is not a financial crisis as in 2008, which is why infusing trillions of liquidity is not working. As a result of sequestration and insulation, production is plunging, and so are consumption and jobs—the life forces of the economy. These are real, not virtual phenomena like stock market busts.

Disease and death are real, too. But if the economy grinds to a halt as consequence of a progressive shutdown, material misery creeps forward. Its relentless advance will also cause sorrow and distress, unleashing a kind of epidemic not seen since the Great Depression when people could no no longer pay their bills or keep their homes. Thus the imperative is to balance not only freedom and safety, but also anti-virus warfare and economic well-being. There is no either-or, damn the consequences.

A system based on the consent of the governed is messy. But it is working throughout the West. The democracies are far better equipped to strike the right balance between health, wealth, and liberty. China’s Xi need not lose any sleep over this three-cornered conflict of values. Yet Western leaders must crack the trilemma for a simple but compelling reason, which is to keep the state of emergency from escalating into a panic and then jelling into a New Normal. Let China be China, but take a daily dose of vaccine against the virus of state supremacy. As seductive as the authoritarian therapy may look, it may cripple the patient known as “Liberal Democracy.”

The post On Coronavirus, Beware the Totalitarian Temptation appeared first on The American Interest.

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