Nov 01, 2019 newsletter

Censoring at the source (code): Spain joins Russia and China in GitHub censorship

Spain censoring GitHub

Spain’s government boldly requested that GitHub remove repositories with APK files for an app that protestors are using to organize demonstrations. Spanish telecoms also briefly—and likely incorrectly—blocked all of GitHub.

The controversy is evidence of GitHub's growing influence over access to information and the role that developer platforms can play in political and social issues.

The takedown request was sent by Spain’s Guardia Civil in an attempt to quell growing unrest in Catalonia.

In 2017, leaders in Catalonia organized a referendum on independence from Spain. Earlier this month, Spain’s Supreme Court convicted Catalonia leaders of sedition and sentenced many to jail time. The region has been rocked by protests ever since.

Tsunami Democratic, a group of supporters for Catalonia independence, distributed the app through a public repository on GitHub. The now-removed app helps demonstrators organize street protests and acts of civil disobedience. The Spanish government accuses Tsunami Democratic of encouraging terrorist attacks.

The implication is massive: GitHub is becoming both a development platform and a content distribution platform.

The app APK files are now available on a pro-independence Telegram channel. That a social media channel is a backup for a GitHub repository says much about how content is distributed to users across the internet in today’s developer-first world.

Given its open source nature, code floats freely across GitHub. Content often gets mixed in, blurring the line between development and distribution. GitHub conveniently bypasses gatekeepers, too, like official app stores and web hosts.

For that reason, blocking GitHub is powerful. Governments can halt development and distribution in one fell swoop. It’s like banning a newspaper by both destroying its printing press and jailing its paper boys.

Governments looking to block access to information in our developer-centric world will increasingly turn to GitHub where authorities can effectively quash access to information at the source.

GitHub’s gov-takedowns repository, where GitHub publishes takedown requests from governments, includes three countries: China, Russia, and now Spain.

That list will likely grow with time.


Microsoft wins giant JEDI contract, but even enterprise deals will be developer-first

Nadella holding a lightsaber

In a stunning end to a turbulent story, Microsoft won the Pentagon’s $10B JEDI contract. For developers, Microsoft’s triumph reveals a new enterprise angle to its developer-first strategy.

Short for Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, JEDI marks the beginning a massive undertaking by the US government to digitize its operations, including its most secretive and critical functions. Microsoft is tasked with building out a cloud-computing system for the US military so that the Pentagon can use Microsoft’s entire tech stack, from cloud storage to Azure’s machine learning algorithms.

The JEDI contract is worth up to $10B over 10 years and is a massive win for Microsoft’s cloud platform.

Is it a win for developers?

Moreover, how do developers reconcile Microsoft’s enterprise-focused DNA with its newfangled love for developers?

From Nadella, “the rise of digital IP creation in every organization means developers will increasingly drive and influence every business process and function...”

Microsoft, with decades of close relationships with big enterprises, could be better prepared for the next phase of the cloud wars than Amazon and Google. Still, Microsoft will not be able to do it without developers.

At large companies, business leaders increasingly turn to developers to make important technology decisions. Building developer trust through tools like Visual Studio Code and GitHub establishes a strong reputation that bubbles upwards to senior decision makers.

Developer support will be a key ingredient in JEDI-sized deals.

As competition between cloud services heats up and big tech battles to convert the remaining enterprise cloud holdouts, winning over developers is a much needed—and critical—boost.


Quantum quibbling pits Google against IBM in supercomputer showdown

Google qubits

Last week, Google claimed its team of researchers had achieved quantum supremacy.

IBM soon refuted Google’s claims.

Regardless of IBM's arguments, developers should focus on the long-term, big picture: Google seems poised to take an early lead in quantum computing—if not today, then soon.

Quantum supremacy describes the superiority of a quantum computer in solving a problem that would be nearly impossible on a classical machine. In this case, Google's researchers demonstrated how they were able to complete in 200 seconds using a quantum computer a calculation that would have taken a classical computer 10,000 years to complete.

Quantum computers use qubits, rather than traditional binary bits, for computation. A traditional bit must be in one state, either a 0 or 1, but a qubit can be in a superposition—existing in both states at once.

To demonstrate quantum supremacy, Google ran its calculations on a 53-qubit machine called Sycamore. For its comparison to a classical computer, Google used a machine called Summit located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Summit is the fastest computer in the world.

It was also built by IBM.

IBM argued that Summit was slower in its calculations because it ran out of memory. By tweaking the algorithm and using Summit’s extra hard-disk space, IBM claimed they could complete the original computation in just 2.5 days.

Does it matter?

Likely not. IBM’s solution is still 1,200 times slower than Google’s. Moreover, making the calculation even slightly more complex would quickly overwhelm Summit’s available memory and hard-disk space.

Researchers have struggled to find clear use cases for quantum supremacy. In many instances, quantum computers don’t provide meaningful improvements over classical computers.

IBM’s nitpicking aside, Google’s research proves that may be changing.

For developers, quantum computing will likely give them access to even faster and more powerful computation. Complex problems—like drug discovery, weather predictions, financial modeling, and artificial intelligence—will be more accessible to more developers.

We are likely many years away from seeing intense competition between cloud providers hoping to lure developers onto their quantum computing platforms. For Google, however, it’s never too early to lead the way.


Small bytes

  • Google rolled out access to .new domains, which companies can use to drop users into automated workflows. Developers can visit GitHub’s repo.new to automatically create a new repository [GOOGLE]
  • Of the top one million websites, roughly 1 in 600 runs WebAssembly. Over 50% of those sites used WebAssembly code for malicious purposes. WebAssembly is an incredibly innovative technology, but could empower bad actors [INFOQ]
  • Google is updating its search algorithm to use its famous BERT NLP model. The new model understands context between words to better match the intent of your search. Developers can finally point to an example of natural language processing with massive commercial viability [GOOGLE]
  • GitLab announced plans to include telemetry into its products. After relentless backlash from the developer community, GitLab apologized and backtracked on its plans [GITLAB]
  • McDonald’s, the world’s largest restaurant chain, is beefing up its tech stack with artificial intelligence. As AI finds its way into different industries, every company acts more like a data company [NYT]

Tools

  • Osquery uses basic SQL commands to leverage a relational data-model to describe a device [OSQUERY]
  • Peaks.js is a client-side JavaScript component to display and interact with audio waveforms in the browser [PEAKS.JS]
  • Onefetch is a command line tool that displays information about your Git project directly on your terminal [GITHUB]
  • RxDB (short for Reactive Database) is a NoSQL-database for JavaScript applications like websites, hybrid apps, Electron apps and NodeJS [RXDB]
  • Releasly notifies you of new open-source version releases directly in your inbox [RELEASLY]
  • GitRoyalty uses the power of git to add a paywall to new or existing open source projects, putting money in contributors' pockets [GITROYALTY]
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