FOXTROT/ALFA: The Ongoing Disrespect Mystery, Bill Gates and the Media, Btrfs Default File System in Fedora

Well, this probably comes as a suprise to everyone, but this newsletter isn’t dead. I was simply first very busy and then very busy and very worn out from work. I’ve now had a nice week of holidays, riding around Norway on my motorbike and I’m fresh and ready to get back into the fray. So daily service should resume for FOXTROT/ALFA from now on. Here’s issue 137 for Tuesday, 25 August 2020.

Dr. Disrespect Returns, Ban Still a Mystery

Before we get into what happened today, there’s a story from over a month ago that I want to go back to. Remember the Doc Disrespect ban I’ve puzzled about in this newsletter for a few issues? Well, the Doc’s back streaming (obviously not on Twitch) but until this day, nobody knows what happened. There is no definitive information on why he was banned at all. Which is extremely weird. He did an interview with PC Gamer on the whole thing and his return to streaming but that doesn’t really say anything either.

Sure, and I want to talk about that. But first, you did recently ruffle a few feathers after sharing a video during a stream of Dr. Thomas Cowen, and he was talking about some coronavirus theories. You’ve been open recently and sharing some of your own thoughts about coronavirus and even relating it to things like 5G networks. Even on your last stream, you were talking about David Icke and his documentary. I’m curious, in bringing up those thoughts – and I think it’s okay to call them controversial – did that ever result in Twitch saying anything to you or warning you?


So you don’t think that might be the cause?

I don’t think so. In fact, I–

Beahm’s publicist: We’re getting really close to dangerous territory here. So, you know, Doc, we don’t know why Twitch banned him, and there is no formal warnings or reprimand on record. That’s all legal is going to let him say.

I will continue to follow this story. I find it to be one of the most fascinating things that’s happened in tech and entertainment recently.

Bill Gates' Hold on the Media

These days, anyone who even remotely critisises Bill Gates immediately gets branded a conspiracy theorist. I’ve been there. Even though my dislike of Gates and his friends shouldn’t surprise anyone, it was basically what gave Linux Outlaws its name and I’ve been on the record with it as early as 2007 because of that show. Ever wonder why suddenly, criticising the guy who almost single-handedly irreparably destroyed the PC operating system market and caused insecure computer systems to become the norm, causes you to get branded as an insane nutjob? Maybe it’s because the guy has a hold on most of the journalistic institutions in the US. Luckily, there are still people in journalism with a backbone. Including at the Columbia Journalism Review.

I recently examined nearly twenty thousand charitable grants the Gates Foundation had made through the end of June and found more than $250 million going toward journalism. Recipients included news operations like the BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera, ProPublica, National Journal, The Guardian, Univision, Medium, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, the Texas Tribune, Gannett, Washington Monthly, Le Monde, and the Center for Investigative Reporting; charitable organizations affiliated with news outlets, like BBC Media Action and the New York Times’ Neediest Cases Fund; media companies such as Participant, whose documentary Waiting for “Superman” supports Gates’s agenda on charter schools; journalistic organizations such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the National Press Foundation, and the International Center for Journalists; and a variety of other groups creating news content or working on journalism, such as the Leo Burnett Company, an ad agency that Gates commissioned to create a “news site” to promote the success of aid groups. In some cases, recipients say they distributed part of the funding as subgrants to other journalistic organizations – which makes it difficult to see the full picture of Gates’s funding into the fourth estate.

The foundation even helped fund a 2016 report from the American Press Institute that was used to develop guidelines on how newsrooms can maintain editorial independence from philanthropic funders. A top-level finding: “There is little evidence that funders insist on or have any editorial review.” Notably, the study’s underlying survey data showed that nearly a third of funders reported having seen at least some content they funded before publication.

Gates’s generosity appears to have helped foster an increasingly friendly media environment for the world’s most visible charity. Twenty years ago, journalists scrutinized Bill Gates’s initial foray into philanthropy as a vehicle to enrich his software company, or a PR exercise to salvage his battered reputation following Microsoft’s bruising antitrust battle with the Department of Justice. Today, the foundation is most often the subject of soft profiles and glowing editorials describing its good works.

During the pandemic, news outlets have widely looked to Bill Gates as a public health expert on COVID – even though Gates has no medical training and is not a public official. PolitiFact and USA Today (run by the Poynter Institute and Gannett, respectively – both of which have received funds from the Gates Foundation) have even used their fact-checking platforms to defend Gates from “false conspiracy theories” and “misinformation,” like the idea that the foundation has financial investments in companies developing COVID vaccines and therapies. In fact, the foundation’s website and most recent tax forms clearly show investments in such companies, including Gilead and CureVax.

In the same way that the news media has given Gates an outsize voice in the pandemic, the foundation has long used its charitable giving to shape the public discourse on everything from global health to education to agriculture – a level of influence that has landed Bill Gates on Forbes’s list of the most powerful people in the world. The Gates Foundation can point to important charitable accomplishments over the past two decades – like helping drive down polio and putting new funds into fighting malaria—but even these efforts have drawn expert detractors who say that Gates may actually be introducing harm, or distracting us from more important, lifesaving public health projects.

From virtually any of Gates’s good deeds, reporters can also find problems with the foundation’s outsize power, if they choose to look. But readers don’t hear these critical voices in the news as often or as loudly as Bill and Melinda’s. News about Gates these days is often filtered through the perspectives of the many academics, nonprofits, and think tanks that Gates funds. Sometimes it is delivered to readers by newsrooms with financial ties to the foundation. The Gates Foundation declined multiple interview requests for this story and would not provide its own accounting of how much money it has put toward journalism.

That whole piece is definitely worth a read for anyone trying to stay informed in today’s propaganda-laden news environment. Next time you read about Gates and his foundation and the “conspiracy theorists” attacking him, remember this research and look at the angle of the story in question carefully.

Btrfs Will Be Default File System in Fedora

Btrfs is replacing Ext4 as the default file system in Fedora 33, even though Red Hat has historically been very sceptical of Btrfs (maybe because it was invented at Oracle) and it isn’t even supported in current RHEL versions.

The official Fedora party line on the topic is as follows:

Btrfs is a stable and mature file system with modern features: data integrity, optimizations for SSDs, compression, cheap writable snapshots, multiple device support, and more.

Facebook uses Btrfs on millions of machines in production. They compare its stability to ext4 and XFS (another file system available in Fedora). In fact, they use Btrfs to “improve” the quality of the consumer storage hardware that they use in production. Btrfs detects problems before the hardware fails. (open)SUSE have been using Btrfs for many years now, including SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES). You can’t imagine a company that provides support to customers shipping software that they don’t completely trust.

The Change is code complete, and has been testable in Rawhide as the default file system since early July. Btrfs has been explicitly supported in Fedora since 2012. This is expected to be a transparent change for most users, however it is still significant. Fedora will ensure we deliver the dependable and reliable experience Fedora users have come to expect.

Facebook Expanding its News Involvement

Speaking of Facebook and speking of influences on journalism… Facebook is looking to expand its news initiative across the globe.

Facebook is planning to expand its dedicated news section and says it is “considering” the UK, Germany, France, India, and Brazil as possible recipients, it announced Tuesday. The company’s timeline is vague: “within the next six months to a year,” so it’s curious why Facebook would announce something not yet imminent. But given Facebook’s volatile history with the news industry, and the trend toward requiring platforms to pay news outlets for their content, it’s possible the company is simply testing the waters for its next move.

Facebook launched its News tab to US audiences in June, with plans to pay publishers that participated. To qualify as a partner, Facebook required publishers to pass its integrity standards and to have large enough audiences. It said it would rely on third-party fact-checkers to monitor posts for clickbait, copyright violations, and sensationalist content. Notably absent from the list of possible countries that would receive the News tab next is Australia, which recently unveiled plans to compel tech platforms to help pay for the free content they disseminate. France, which is on Facebook’s list of possible future News targets, ordered Google to pay for content from French publishers in April.

Firefox on Android Just Got Downgraded

It turns out Mozilla fucked up the Android version of Firefox …on purpose?

The last stable version of Firefox for Android was version 68, released in 2019. For over a year, Mozilla has been working on an overhaul of its browser in a project code-named Fenix. Moz has slowly rolled out the result of its work to netizens in preview and beta form – and since the end of July, as a proper release, said to be version 79. This new stable version is what appeared on people’s devices. As well as changes to the user interface that have thrown some users, it is also missing support for all extensions. In fact, by last count, only nine add-ons are supported so far, though this is expected to increase over time.

The gripes about the update land at a particularly inopportune time for Mozilla: a round of layoffs last month hit roughly one in four Mozilla employees, leading to the Rust Project – raised and nurtured by Moz – considering forming its own foundation.

→ See also: Robust Rust trust discussed after Moz cuts leave folks nonplussed: Foundation mulled for coding language

Make Malware, Not War

Who needs tanks when you can have cyber? At least that’s what the British Army seems to be thinking.

Although the proposal to scrap the Army’s 200-odd Challenger 2 main battle tanks is clearly a public talking point intended to rally support ahead of long-predicted cuts to defence spending, The Times reported today that “the changing character of warfare demands more investment in cybercapabilities, space and other cutting-edge technologies.”

Current Army thinking is that “digital”, “cyber” and “autonomous” capabilities will be more valuable in future wars than battalions of riflemen or regiments of heavy armoured vehicles. They’re not alone: earlier this year the Royal Navy issued a tender for robot submarines capable of withstanding depth charges.

(I’ve reported on that story here.)

Another recent MoD tech innovation is its jHub unit, which somehow inserted itself into the national conversation about fighting coronavirus. Military enthusiasts for blockchain, AI and behavioural science convinced themselves the Great British Public would be delighted if personally identifying health data was passed to jHub as part of an opaque data sanitisation exercise. This plan sank without trace along with the first iteration of the UK’s COVID-19 contact-tracing app.

I’m thinking let’s get some completely computer-free Russian tanks from the ’80s and just take all the undefended bases where all these cyber warriors are sitting on their keyboards, slupring Mountain Dew. Seems I’m not the only one thinking this way.

Rob Pritchard of the Cyber Security Expert consulting firm, an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute think tank, opined: “This pervasive idea that investing in vague ‘cyber capabilities’ can somehow replace actual defence spending on things that are useful for defence has gone on way too long. When Putin sends tanks rolling across the eastern European border I’ll be interested to see how much effect the 101st Hacking Division has against the heavy artillery.”

Also Noteworthy

Other stories I’ve been reading today:

This is an archived issue of my daily newsletter FOXTROT/ALFA. You can find more information about it, including how to subscribe via email, on this page.