Category Archives: Technology

Solving the wrong problem

Dave Winer thinks that podcast RSS feeds should be ghettoised.

Here’s the problem. If you put a link to the RSS feed alongside the links to iTunes and Stitcher and whatever else, you’re going to get a bunch of emails from users about how your site is broken. I know, because I’ve gotten those emails.

And here’s his answer:

Create a simple page that says “This is a link to our RSS feed. It’s used by developers and hobbyists to build their own listeners and it helps support innovation on the internet.”

This is a terrible solution, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the suggested statement is flat-out not true. Speaking for myself, I don’t use iTunes or Stitcher. I use gPodder. If I find an interesting podcast I need an RSS feed to follow it — if you don’t give me a feed I’m not going to follow your content. It really is as simple as that.

This leads to the second problem, which is that Winer is assuming that proprietary feeds are the norm and should therefore be given preferential treatment to open standards. I’m not going to dispute the first part of this assumption but to present RSS as some curiosity that is only of interest to hobbyists is to consign it to history. If you want RSS to remain a viable standard, the RSS feed needs to be given at least the same precedence as the proprietary feeds.

As to the problem that Winer is trying to solve. How many people, really, are incapable of clicking on the correct link? A quick search across the corporate podcasts that I listen to reveals that neither the BBC nor The Guardian feel the need to make some special “your’re stupid” statement about RSS. In fact, The Guardian even manages to force a few extra clicks out of you regardless of what feed you choose.

Of course, the best approach is that taken by the Duffercast1. A single subscribe link takes you to all the feeds with no special statements about any of them, because some audiocasts have listeners who are capable of using the internet.

Footnote

  1. Disclaimer: Yes, I am a duffer

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Smarter Coffee and Systemd User Units

One of the particularly handy features that systemd supports is the ability to set up unit files on a per-user basis. You simply put the unit files in your home directory and tell systemd to start using them.

I have a couple of these and, because I can never remember the details, I’m putting them here to save me trawling through the interwebs next time I change something.

The user level unit files all go in ~/.config/systemd/user

If this folder doesn’t already exists, you will need to create it.

You can then manage the unit by adding a --user switch to the normal systemctl commands.

Clear as mud, I know, so here’s an example.

Back in October I was given a Smarter Coffee coffee machine — this is a filter coffee machine that can connect to your home network in order to send alerts to your phone. On receiving this, my first thought was to wonder if I could direct these alerts to my laptop.

Some searching revealed that not only is this possible but someone else has already done it. So I forked nanab’s repository and started playing around with the code, managing to direct the notifications to the Gnome notifications area. All of this is available on GitHub, but the systemd bit is described below.

First, I should mention that I have a small binary file (smartercoffee) in /usr/local/bin that points to the actual code. This looks like this:

#! /bin/bash
python2 /path/to/smartercoffee/pollingStatusMessage.py --notify GNOME

So the service file (smartercoffee.service), which needs to be dropped in ~/.config/systemd/user, looks like this:

[Unit]
Description=Monitor the coffee machine

[Service]
Type=simple
ExecStart=/usr/local/bin/smartercoffee
StandardOutput=journal
Restart=on-abort

[Install]
WantedBy=basic.target

You can enable the service with:
systemctl --user enable smartercoffee

And start it with:
systemctl --user start smartercoffee

So now, whenever I boot up my laptop, the first thing it does is tells me the status of the coffee machine.

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Quote of the day: A beautiful, flexible, powerful mess

The web thrives on diversity. It’s the diversity of the web that sustains it and it’s the thing that will mean it’s still around long after all the monocultures, whether they be browsers or Facebooks or Googles, have long since vanished from the online ecosystem.

Scott Gilbertson on the value of diversity and why Firefox still matters

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Rolling back

I noticed that the Twenty Seventeen Theme that I installed on this blog at the start of the year wasn’t playing too nicely with Epiphany. Having lots of links in a post is a bit pointless if you have to hover your mouse over them in order for them to be highlighted.

So I have rolled back to the previous theme which, if I’m honest, looks a lot nicer than all this new-fangled modernity,

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Freedom to tinker

Talking about the way in which his embrace of Free Software has changed his attitude to computers, Bruce Byfield reaches a conclusion that rings very true for me.

All unknowing, I had wandered into the world of do-it-yourself. Originating in small groups of hobbyists who had few resources except themselves, free software naturally required more independence of its users. Far from discouraging users from tinkering, free software actually encouraged it with text configuration files and scripting so simple that it could be learned without taking classes. Because there were so many choices, it encouraged me to explore so I could make informed decisions. Just as importantly, because free software was a minority preference, the necessary compatibility with proprietary operating system sometimes required considerable ingenuity.

As a result of these expectations, I gradually lost my learned helplessness. I can’t say exactly when I shed the last of my conditioning, but after a couple of years, I realized that a major shift in my thinking had occurred. I still didn’t — and still don’t know everything about free software, but I no longer panic when a problem strikes.

Although I was using a number of open source applications before, I didn’t really start to delve into GNU/Linux until early 2007 when I installed Ubuntu on my PC alongside Windows XP. And, over the past ten years I have gone from being excessively cautious to (probably) a bit too casual.

There was never a sudden shift but, the more I have poked around the more I have found — all documented and backed by a helpful community. I have moved from really not wanting to do anything that might cause any sort of problem at all to being willing to break my install, safe in the knowledge that if the worst comes to the worst, I can just reinstall the operating system without even risking my data.

I am far from being able to claim any expertise but the openness and availability of information surrounding Free Software means that for any problem I am generally able to understand what the issue is and find or figure out how to fix it.

And that’s freedom.

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Learning Genie with Project Euler

I searched for Gnome Genie and was attacked by a Gnome Ninja.

I’ve recently started playing around with the Genie programming language. This is a variation of Vala but with a more Pythonesque syntax. And I do like Python.

Genie is a compiled language that uses the Vala compiler to produce C code which then compiles to an executable binary. This means that it has less overhead than programs written in Python and should run faster. This is not always a consideration but it can certainly be useful.

The inevitable Hello World program looks pretty simple:

[indent=4]
init
    print "Hello World"

The only problem I’ve found so far is that there appears to be a dearth of “Teach Yourself Genie” resources, either online or off. This is not helped by some of the results that come up when you search for “Genie” or even “Genie Gnome”.

So I’ve decided to have another crack at Project Euler. I have already solved a fair few of these problems in Python, if I can re-implement the same solutions in Genie I will count myself as having made some progress.

One down, 592 to go.

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Removing crapware from the phone

After wasting my time last night, I realised where I’d gone wrong. It appears that the Google Apps Installer on the Fairphone installs the Google Apps as System Apps. So they can’t (easily) be removed and the factory reset does nothing to them.

So what I need to use is the /system/app mover and BusyBox to make the system apps into user apps.

I have tried this with iFixit and successfully removed the default version and upgraded to the F-Droid version.

Going through the actual Google apps will require a little more care and may take some time.

Update

Now I’m confused. I’ve just glanced at the phone and the Google Apps appear to have vanished. The only thing I can think is that, when I restarted the phone, some cleanup happened. But the apps are removed, which is what I was trying to achieve, even if I’m not entirely sure how I achieved it.

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Removing Google Apps from a Fairphone

One of the nice things about the Fairphone is that none of the Google Apps are installed by default. There is a widget that allows you to manually install them and, when I received my phone back in 2014 I hesitated briefly, then tapped it.

This means, of course, that if I want to scrape all of these apps off my phone, the easiest approach is to backup and reset.

It worked, but the results aren’t quite what I expected. I still see apps like the Play Store, Gmail and Google+ on my phone, which leaves me wondering what the Google Apps Installer actually installs. This also means that my phone is still a lot less Googly than I would like and I have simply managed to find the slow way of removing an account.

However, I went ahead and installed F-Droid and started searching for current apps or replacements. This was successful and F-Droid does have everything I want, and more more. The only quirk I encountered was with the iFixit app which was installed by default on the phone. F-Droid tells me there is an upgrade, which I can’t install without first removing the original app. And I can’t remove the original app.

The Fairphone 1 is rooted by default, so I should be able to remove this. But right now, it’s late and I’m going to bed.

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Unplugging

Yesterday was Data Protection Day, which seeks to raise awareness and promote privacy and data protection best practices. Data protection and online privacy are issues that I have tended to think about in the abstract. While I am aware that my online data is exposed, I have a hard time motivating myself to do anything serious about it.

However, with the current global direction of travel, I started to think about how much of my data is going through US servers and the obvious first point of concern is Google, particularly Gmail.

Although I have a few email accounts, for the past few years I have been using Gmail as my primary email — and as my email client. The Accounts and Import page make it very easy to set up Gmail to send and receive from all of my email accounts, allowing me to easily synchronise everything across everything. It’s damnably convenient, but a complete disaster from a privacy point of view.

So today I have unplugged every other email account from Gmail. I have also installed and configured Geary on my desktop and started playing around with the default email client on my phone.

It’s not as convenient as letting Google do all the synchronisation for me, but the effort is minimal and it does mean that all of my email is no longer being pushed through the same server.

I haven’t decided whether to keep my Gmail account. It’s handy to have, but not irreplaceable. I shall watch how my email traffic changes over time and decide later. I shall also have to look into calendaring services.

But first, I shall see about scraping the Google Apps off my phone. This should be reasonably straightforward — if all else fails I just need to do a factory reset. But I must remember to take a backup first.

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Quote of the Day: Not All Change is Progress

There’s nothing wrong with helpful new features, but too often those helpful new features come with a price. They require relearning how to do things that you did reliably the day before. And even the most helpful features cease to be helpful if they require me to completely change my existing workflow.

Scott Gilbertson on the Joy of Vim.

With apologies to the Linux Luddites.

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