Weekly Head Voices #115: So much Dutch.

Monday January 16 to Sunday January 29 of the year 2017 yielded the following possibly mention-worthy tidbits:

On Saturday, January 21, we had the privilege of seeing Herman van Veen perform live at the Oude Libertas Theatre. The previous time was a magical night many years ago in the Royal Theatre Carré in Amsterdam.

Herman van Veen is a living, extremely active and up to date legend. To most Dutch people you’ll ever meet he is a formidable part of their rich cultural landscape.

That evening, we heard so much Dutch spoken in the audience around us, it was easy to imagine that we had been teleported to a strange midsummer night’s performance, all the way back in The Netherlands.

Whatever the case may be, at 72 this artist and superb human being seems to have energy and magic flowing from every limb.

Things which running nerds might find interesting

The Dutch Watch

I had to start facing facts.

The Samsung Gear Fit 2 and I were not going to make a success of our relationship. The GF2 (haha) is great if you’re looking for a hybrid smart-fitness-watch. However, I was using it primarily for running, and then one tends to run (I’m on a roll here) into its limitations.

My inner engineer, the same guy who has a thing for hiking shoes, as they are the couture epitome of function over form, made the call and selected the TomTom Runner 3 Cardio+Music watch (the Runner 3 and the Spark 3 are identical except for styling) to replace my GF2.

Hidden in the name, there’s a subtle hint as to the focus of this wearable.

It has a less pretty monochrome display that manages to be highly visible even in direct sunlight. It does not have a touch screen, instead opting for a less pretty directional control beneath the screen that always manages to select the correct menu option. The menu options remind me of the first TomTom car navigation we bought years ago: Not pretty, but with exactly the right functions, in this case for runs and hikes.

Most importantly, the watch has an explicit function for syncing so-called QuickGPSFix data, so that when you want to start running, it is able to acquire a GPS lock almost immediately. Importantly, the device keeps you informed of its progress via the ugly user interface.

Also, I am now able to pre-load GPX routes. Below you can see me navigating my local mountain like a pro with a sense of direction, when in reality I am an amateur with pathological absence of sense of direction:

That’s me in the corner, losing my Re-Samsung.

Anyways, after being initially quite happy with the GF2, I am now more careful with my first judgement of the Runner 3. What I can say is that the first 40km with it on my arm has been a delight of function-over-form.

P.S. Well done Dutchies. The optical heart rate sensor in the previous Spark was based on technology by South African company LifeQ. I have not been able to find a good reference for the situation in the Spark 3 / Runner 3.

Experiment Alcohol Zero early results: Not what  I was hoping

The completely subjective Experiment Alcohol Zero (EAZ) I announced in my 2016 to 2017 transition post has almost run (err… too soon?) to completion.

November of 2016 was my best running month of that year: I clocked in at 80km.

EAZ started on January 4 and will conclude probably on Friday February 3.

Although I was a much more boring person in January of 2017, I did manage to run 110 km. The runs were all longer and substantially faster than my best runs of 2016.

Subjectively, there was just always energy (and the will) available to go running, and subjectively there was more energy available during the runs. This is probably for a large part due to the vicious upward spiral of better glucose processing, better sleep, hence better exercise, rinse, repeat.

I am planning to use some of this extra energy to sweep these results right under the proverbial carpet in order to try and limit the suffering that it might lead to.

(Seriously speaking, I will have to apply these findings to my pre-EAZ habits in a reasonable fashion. :)

Things which Linux nerds might find interesting

My whole web-empire, including this blog, my serious nerd business blog, and a number of websites I host for friends and family, has been migrated by the wonderful webfaction support to a new much faster shared server in London.

The new server sports 32 Intel Xeon cores, is SSD based and has a newer Linux distribution, so I was able to move over all of my wordpress instances to PHP 7.

Upshot: This blog might feel microscopically quicker! (I am a bit worried with my empire now being stuck in the heart of Article 50. I worry slightly more about a great deal of my data that lives on servers in the USA however. Probably more about that in a future post.)

On the topic of going around the bend, I now have emacs running on my phone, and I’m able to access all of my orgmode notes from there. It looks like this:

One might now ask a pertinent question like: “So Charl, how often do you make use of this wonderful functionality?”

To which I would currently have to answer: “Including showing the screenshot on my blog? Once.”

I’m convinced that it’s going to come in handy at some point.

Things which backyard philosophy nerds might find interesting

With what’s happening in the US at the moment, which is actually just one nasty infestation of the political climate around the globe, I really appreciate coming across more positive messages with advice on how we can move forward as a human race in spite of the efforts of the (libertarian) right.

The World Economic Forum’s Inclusive Growth and Development Report 2017 is one such message. As summarised in this WEF blog post, it tries to answer the question:

How can we increase not just GDP but the extent to which this top-line performance of a country cascades down to benefit society as a whole?

In other words, they present approaches for making our economies more inclusive, thus helping to mitigate the huge gap between rich and poor.

According to the report, the answer entails that national and international economic policies should focus primarily on people and living standards. In order to do this, each country will have to work on a different mix of education, infrastructure, ethics, investment, entrepreneurship and social protection.

The countries that are currently doing the best in terms of having inclusive economies, and are generally shining examples of socialism working extremely well thank you very much, are Norway, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Austria. See the blog post for the specific different factors helping each of these countries to perform so well on the Inclusive Development Index (IDI).

Although the countries in the top 10 list all still have room for improvement, it’s great to see that it is actually quite a great idea to combine socialism (which is actually just another word for being further along the human development dimension) with economic survival and even success in today’s world.

(I am still hopeful that one day Gene Roddenberry’s dream of the United Federation of Planets will be realised.

LLAP!)

 

Weekly Head Voices #96: Never gonna give you up.

The week has resulted in a terribly nerdy list of bullets. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK! (there’s a beer recommendation or three at the end to compensate)

  • It turns out that the terrible Samsung trim bug which would eat all of your data, as discovered by Algolia, was a Linux kernel bug after all (now patched by Samsung) and that it would only affect RAID setups. Let’s hope there are no surprising new turning outs.
  • Found out that the fastest ADSL lines available at my new place are a whole 2 Mbit/s. We’ve called off the transaction and we’re now searching for a new house.
  • I’m joking. It was really shocking however to consider the world as seen through a 2 Mbit/s connection. Now it seems that I will soon be entering the wonderful world of 5 GHz wireless connectivity, which should give me a fast enough connection, at least until fibre is rolled out in the year 3047.
  • Started watching Mr Robot. I don’t normally do series, but the pilot was just that good. I like the story, I really like the socially very strangely adjusted hacker protagonist and I love the cinematography. Up to episode 3, I give it 4 out of 5 Linux Distributions!
  • Continued fighting with OSX to get it completely working with my Dvorak and Emacs keybindings, also in Java apps such as IntelliJ IDEA. Two weeks ago I mentioned karabiner as a solution to most of these problems. The final piece of the puzzle was unbinding keys like Alt+W (or Mod+W as Apple calls it) in ~/Library/KeyBindings/DefaultKeyBinding.dict to prevent OSX from turning it into a \(\Sigma\) (sigma); as everyone knows, M-w is the Emacs shortcut for copying the selected region! You can use this trick to prevent OSX from turning any of the other Mod combos into completely unwanted special characters. (My base dict file is that of Jacob Rus.)
  • I guess OSX only Just Works(tm) if your time is worth nothing. Err…
  • My first Kivy pull request, a fix for a Mac-bug (go figure), was recently merged into master. I’ve been using Kivy in the third or fourth generation of my current and probably longest running side project.
  • I’ve also been screencasting some of my night-time coding sessions using one of the more prominent livecoding sites (bonus points if you can find these sleep-inducing performances). It has been an interesting and strange experience programming with people watching over one’s shoulder as it were.
  • On Sunday, I ended up at the Root44 Market in Stellenbosch for another of those really terrible balmy winter days. I had so much fun in the sun, tasting Devil’s Peak First Light Golden Ale and their King’s Blockhouse IPA, and Stellenbrau’s Craven Lager, all from the tap, that I forgot to take a photo of the beautiful surroundings.

Have a beautiful week dear readers! Just remember, I’m never gonna give you up.

Weekly Head Voices #72: Ménage à trois.

Welcome to this post, the 72nd edition of The Weekly Head Voices, and a momentous one at that. For the first time, I’m writing the WHV using my favourite operating system with editing function, Emacs. To those of you who don’t know Emacs, this might mean that I’ve finally gone around the bend.

I can report that it is a very happy place.

real_programmers.png

(there will be more Emacs shenanigans in the near future.)

During this past week, I wrote at least three blog posts (as far as I know):

  • Publish to WordPress with Emacs 24 and org2blog – A super-nerdy post on vxlabs explaining how you too can use Emacs, the operating system with editing function, to write and publish your WordPress blog posts.
  • South Africa, why are you not running Linux? – wherein I explain that it would be much better for the South African national economy and technology ecosystem to kick its proprietary software (Microsoft, Apple, etc.) dependency and standardise on open source.
  • Ernestine teaches Charl isiXhosa Lesson 1 – The first in a new series of posts that I’m super excited about, during which I take you along on my (slow) journey learning isiXhosa, one of our national languages, With Clicks(tm).

I also had time to enjoy a large number of these home-made (grandparents’ home that is) goodies:

Naartjes, aka mandarins, home-grown!

as well as some of this:

Dried sausage (droëwors) and meat (biltong), home-made!

… and then I finally got around to upgrading my main development laptop from Ubuntu version 12.04 to verson 14.04, code-named Trusty Tahr.

IT’S FULL OF STARS.

South Africa, why are you not running Linux?

Ubuntu, my personal favourite Linux distribution, has recently released version 14.04 LTS. LTS stands for Long Term Support: LTS releases are supported for 5 years, meaning that with 14.04 you are covered until 2019.

Trusty Tahr, as 14.04 is known, is beautiful, functional and still free.

Ubuntu means "humanity to others". It also means pretty desktop!
Ubuntu means “humanity to others”. It also means pretty desktop!

This seemed like an opportune moment to get something off my chest. I’m trying to understand why South Africa, my current home, is not running more Linux. In this post, I’m going to summarise the reasons why I think that, especially in SA, we should move away from proprietary solutions such as those offered by Microsoft and Apple, to solutions that are technically at least as good, are completely open and free, and, perhaps most importantly, better empower us to stimulate our local technology ecosystem and the national economy.

Cost to the national economy

Every year, I and a few million other South Africans pay a boat load of income and other taxes. Because in SA not everyone is able to pay tax, it is especially important that this money is used for the common good, for issues such as health-care, education and job creation.

However, instead of using my hard-earned tax to stimulate local industry, the South African government is sending millions of rands, each and every year, to Microsoft, a fantastically rich company in the USA, a fantastically rich country in comparison to South Africa.

The majority of government workstations absolutely don’t need MS Windows, MS Office or Outlook. The majority of government employees would be able to do their job (email, reports, spreadsheets, forms, use of web-apps) better and more securely using Linux.

Furthermore, the use of Linux and open source software encourages the use of open standards for public documentation. In 2007, the SA government officially standardised on the OpenDocument format. However, MS Office use is still rife, and encourages people to use Microsoft’s own XML formats. Although MS standardised these in a bid to stay in the global government game, OpenDocument should be preferred, as it’s better supported by more free and open packages that are available to all citizens, not just those with money for MS Windows and MS Office.

As an added but very important advantage, some of the considerable funds that would have been sent to the USA for MS licensing and support would then be injected into the local Linux support economy, stimulating local skills and creating more high-tech jobs.

Don’t you find it strange that South Africa, a developing country, is sending that much money to the USA when better solutions exist? Don’t you too think that it would be great to have a thriving and more independent Linux-based operating system and application industry right here in SA?

Personal cost

I just checked, it looks like the cost for an OEM license of Windows 8 in SA is R1000. We want as many as possible South Africans to have access to computers and to have access to internet. You can get a cheap PC for R3000 to R4000. It really makes absolutely no sense to spend R1000 on Windows, when Linux would work perfectly well on that same PC hardware.

It gets even more silly when you add in the price of MS Office. For 95% of personal users, packages like OpenOffice or LibreOffice, completely free and even open source, or Google Docs, not open but free, are more than sufficient.

A part of the problem here is simply momentum. Because everyone is still using Microsoft products, everyone thinks that that’s what you need to have. Imagine that the government standardised on Linux, it would not take long before people would then evaluate this as a serious choice when acquiring a new PC.

Security

For the largest part due to Edward Snowden’s actions, and great journalism by The Guardian, it is now widely known (and much has been corroborated), that the NSA and other intelligence agencies around the world have been eavesdropping on everyone and everything.

An important part of this practice, is the working relationships that these intelligence agencies have built up with software vendors around the world. When you run MS Windows or Mac OSX, or any other prioprietary software, you have absolutely no way of knowing, or checking, what your computer is doing with your information. It sounds like something from a spy movie, but the NSA works closely with Microsoft to be able to hack into computers running Windows.

In the case of personal use, this may not be such a problem, but in the case of the South African government and the whole corporate world, it’s slightly crazy that everyone is willing to take the risk that all of their information is being snooped on by cooperating intelligence agencies.

With open source systems one can’t be 100% sure either, but one is able to check and modify and part of the system, at the source code level, that one is working on. Based on this openness, I have personally in the past programmed kernel drivers to support new hardware, and fixed low-level driver bugs. This was possible only because I have access to the source code of everything on my system.

Conclusion

There you have at least three reasons why we here in SA should be running more Linux. Not doing so is costing our national economy money, and it’s costing our people money. More importantly, we’re missing a huge opportunity of technologically and economically empowering South Africans.

A more general point I would like to make, is the following. It turns out that the whole world is actually running Linux already: android telephones, tablets, TVs, zillions of servers, and so on. When you teach people how to use this open and free Linux system instead of the proprietary alternatives, you are in fact teaching them how to control the world.

Don’t dream big.

For months I’ve been walking around with this idea in my head. I was planning to turn it into a blog post titled “On not scaling”. It was going to be about deliberately choosing focus over bandwidth in one’s activities. One is often faced with the choice between scaling up (more work, more people, more things, more turnover, more for the sake of more) on the one hand, and simply not scaling on the other, instead holding on to one’s simple and linear way of doing a few things well. The former approach seems to be the one favoured and encouraged by modern society. The latter has become my preference.

I was still planning to write this post, when I ran into a TEDX talk by Jim Zemlin, whose claim to fame (at least for the purpose of his talk), is that he is technically Linus Torvalds’ boss. Linus Torvalds is the gentleman who created Linux. As you might or might not know, Linux is taking over the world at the moment: 1.3 million new telephones running Android (Linux) are switched on for the first time every day, 0.7 million new Linux-running TVs are sold every day, millions of machines at Google and Amazon run Linux, machines which run most of the web-based services that you know, almost the whole internet runs Linux, and many more embedded systems everywhere. Whether you like it or not, and as Jim Zemlin says, you probably interact with Linux multiple times per day in some way or another.

Through his World-changing creation Linux (and don’t forget the distributed version control system git), Linus arguably is one of the most concretely influential people alive today. With this in mind, skip to about 5:20 in the youtube clip (if you don’t have time, you don’t actually have to watch the clip, my summary of the relevant bit is right below):

When Linus first announced Linux 1991, he wrote I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. With hindsight, this is a fabulously humble quote. Linus was only interested in the awesome thingamabob he was working on; success and ambition were irrelevant. In the end, his creation changed the world.

From this, Zemlin draws a parallel with something the poet Robert Frost said:

Don’t aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally.

I think this is a beautiful life lesson.

Let’s not dream too big.