Thin client handover at the Polytechnic, Malawi, Africa

alex antener thin client handoverAlex Antener yesterday managed to wrap up this year’s stage of his Free Software project in Malawi, Africa with the official handover of the two complete thin client networks donated by the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Zürich (my dear employer).

In the picture you see Martin Thawani, librarian of the Polytechnic Library, accepting the symbolical gift “Free as in Freedom“. That book “interweaves biographical snapshots of GNU project founder Richard Stallman with the political, social and economic history of the free software movement”. The GNU project is what makes GNU/Linux and the GNU tools possible in the way we know them today.

Alex Antener’s approach to helping the African nation cross the digital divide is different than that of many other organizations and individuals. Instead of dumping northern computer trash on poor schools that certainly won’t ask for something better, he flew across the continents with 70 kilograms of the latest geek toys in his hand baggage. Highly modern servers based on the Intel Core 2 Duo CPU as well as state of the art thin clients by Fujitsu-Siemens — machines newer than what is used in most European organizations! That’s what we use here, why should we cover Malawi in our outdated tech trash? That’s just a convenient way for northern nations to lighten their consciousness and their recycling budget.

Instead, Alex set up the thin client network based entirely on Free Software, then made it transparent how the whole thing works, how it’s maintained, what the nuts and bolts are and where to find help to help yourself. These things would be impossible or severely limited had he used proprietary software. Additionally, the servers he installed make sure that the Polytechnic gets the most out of its prohibitively expensive Internet connection. Firstly they offer proxy caching services, meaning that things downloaded from the Internet are downloaded only once, later the locally stored copy is served and the Internet connection is not taxed anymore. Secondly, the machines are immune to viruses, spyware, trojans and other malware, so the plague of bandwidth-swallowing infected machines is over.

I also took part in the project with some consulting, because I believe the way large western and northern corporations treat African nations of Malawi’s rank is appalling. Africa is often merely abused by private institutions and NGOs to siphon development aid money out of their own (or foreign) governments. Then there is the cultural pollution that comes from large companies like Microsoft and Cisco. They try to impose their proprietary technology, then teach their proprietary thoughts. It’s apparently easy to take a network engineering course in Malawi, but try to learn any other technology than Cisco’s and you will soon run full-speed into a concrete wall. Africa is not supposed to learn about its possibilities. Africa should be thankful! Thankful that we lower ourselves to its ridiculous level and teach it about our wonderful American products. Only Cisco routers shall they know, only Microsoft operating systems shall they use. Operating systems that African companies can gladly buy from us. Oh, don’t worry about payment, my friend, development aid has you covered.

Alex has demonstrated that there are other ways to bridge the gap, to give access to knowledge that is useful in any context, not just inside one single company’s little sandbox. Free Software was nothing new at the time. GNU/Linux and open standards like the ISO standard OpenDocument format were nothing new either. But the average Malawian computer user does not know about these things, even though it’s a Linux distribution by an African man’s company that is the most popular in the world at this moment.

The Polytechnic now has all this information, and it stands as an inspiring example of what is possible. A few hundred people have learned about their possibilities in these last two months, and thousands and ten thousands more still have the opportunity in the coming years.

Photo © 2006 Nathalie Bissig

Emergency escape from planet Typo

Until about half an hour ago, I was a relatively happy user of the [Typo](http://www.typosphere.org) blogging engine. However, there are a few things about Typo that have started to not smell right to my nose. Their Trac is taken offline, the typosphere.org page has been saying “coming soon!” for several months and upgrading to the latest svn version has destroyed all comments in my Typo blog. Granted, the migration warned that I should backup my database, which I did, but for the moment I decided I just don’t have time to live on the bleeding edge. Without a working Trac, it becomes hard to follow Typo’s development. I don’t want to have to run a three tier architecture just to thoroughly test upgrades to my blogging system before I roll them out.

So for the time being, I’ve converted to WordPress. [Stuart Johnston’s conversion scripts](http://ctrlclick.co.uk/articles/2006/06/26/automatic-migration-from-typo-to-wordpress/) helped me move from Typo to WordPress. If you use them, keep in mind that they were made for Typo 2.x. If you try to migrate a Typo 4.x setup, you’ll have to rename Typo’s “categorizations” table to “articles_categories” and do some fiddling with the post and comment counters.

Since I’m used to Markdown, I’ve found [Michel’s PHP Markdown plug-in](http://www.michelf.com/projects/php-markdown/) for WordPress quite useful, too.

Oh, and please bear with me while I write a new WordPress theme. This migration came quite unplanned,

Some brainlessness in rsnapshot

I love rsnapshot, for the most part. It’s one of the most efficient and straightforward incremental backup solutions I’ve ever used — much more reliable than some of the commercial solutions I’ve tried. It leverages the power of GNU cp, your filesystem, rsync and others and smashes them all together into a big happy chunk of reliability.

However, it must contain some idiocy, and I guess it’s somewhere in parse_config_file. I just set up another server, the same way I usually do, but it needed a slightly different rsnapshot.conf. So I edited the one that was there and known to work because it automatically comes off my server images. Afterwards I wanted to do a test run of each of the backup intervals, because that’s what you do. But rsnapshot didn’t agree. It didn’t disagree either. It didn’t do *anything*.

The next step was to increase its logging verbosity and look for hints in syslog. Interesting: It seems to read its config file successfully and it even writes a pid file. Next, it checks for stale backup directories it might have to rotate. That means it parsed its config file and is happy, no? No! The thing wouldn’t copy anything into the backup. Not a single file!

As a last resort, I straced one of those test runs but forgot to include the tracing of child processes. That probably would have given me more of a clue — the way it was, it just added to my confusion.

In the end I decided to unpack a fresh, distribution-approved config file from /usr/share/doc/rsnapshot/examples and to make the required changes by hand. At that point, I scrolled back through my bash history to relaunch the test runs, but with my other hand I was already preparing to submit a bug report, when… It worked! The thing performed all the backups reliably, packed up and went to sleep until cron wakes it tomorrow.

There must have been **some** character **some**where in my config file that deeply confused rsnapshot, confused it so much that it claimed the config file syntax was OK but silently refused to work.

Perhaps config file parsing in rsnapshot has to be rethought. The way I see it, this is sad indeed. It’s the least reliable bit in an otherwise very reliable package, but it’s always the weakest link that breaks the chain, and other assorted age-worn sayings.

TurboGears: Web development done right

gearRuby on Rails is still the Hot Thing of the Moment for at least 68.4% of web developers, according to my highly scientific poll which involved asking no one at all. But while Dave Heinemeier Hansson was busy basking in his (entirely deserved) glory, other easy web development frameworks have come sneaking up from behind. “Yeah, those metoo projects,” you might say, “they try to mimic RoR in PHP and COBOL! Fools! They don’t realize that the Ruby bit is essential!” And you’d be making a good point. That’s why I chose a project with a different philosophy into whose direction you may kindly orient your nose now.

TurboGears is as fresh as a breath mint after a week-long diet of anchovies in garlic oil!

Continue reading “TurboGears: Web development done right”

Impressions from Malawi

Madonna’s adoption scandal may have catapulted Malawi into international headlines, but for my friends Alex Antener, Nathalie Bissig and me, the country has had some significance long before US pop stars have started buying children out of it.

nathalies malawi picture

Alex is currently on his second visit there and Nathalie is joining him on her first. That means that I’m still stuck in Switzerland 🙂

I’m trying to support Alex’ new project in Malawi, “Exterminate All the Brutes”, from here. So as you can guess, these impressions are not my own, they are photographs and drawings made by Nathalie Bissig in Malawi, who is in charge of documenting Alex’ work as well as doing work of her own. Nathalie has posted a blog entry with some more information and a link to the photo album of her sketchbook. The images are free content, released under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.5 license.

malawi picture 2

I just wanted to tickle your curiosity for these wonderful images. I will probably write about the software libre aspects of all this at a later date, or in the blog at lix.cc. Over there, I’ve already talked about thin client setups with Edubuntu that the students of The Polytechnic will subsequently be working with.

Forgotten Games: Trace Memory (aka: Another Code) (NDS)

another code box shotAnother Code: Two Memories (known as Trace Memory in the US) is a lightweight little adventure game for the Nintendo DS that should be hitting bargain bins soon. Why am I mentioning bargain bins? Because there is one key weakness that you’ll read about in reviews everywhere: The game is short.

But if you pick this game up at a bargain price, you can treat yourself to one of the more ingenious adventure titles to appear in the last few years, one that’s only possible on the DS. And that’s not marketing talk there.

You’ll be guiding 14 year old Ashley around a pretty desolate island. How do teenage girlies with white manga hair end up being stranded on an island? Ashley has received a mysterious package from her dad. Who she thought had been dead all these years. The package contained a relabeled Nintendo DS with a fingerprint reader. Once examined, it lured her and her aunt onto a forlorn little island that seems to have ghosts on it, and a past as tragic as Ashely’s own. You get to uncover her past, that of the island’s inhabitants and that of her father.

What’s charming, and a relief, is that Ashley deals with these circumstances in a more or less mature, coming-of-age story-like manner. Of course you’ll read sentences that seem like “WHAT!!! OMG WHY MY DAD DO THSI TO ME WTF!!!11” from time to time, but all in all the dialog is mature enough not to bore an adult to death. This is refreshing — look at Children of Mana or Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime. That’s kiddy dialog right there, and it annoys the hair off my scalp.

Ashley’s very beautifully drawn, in a slightly blurred and softly shaded style that’s not so typical of the mainstream anime I know. Her animations, while only intermittent, are smooth and rather natural. No V-for-victory signs and little arcs for smiley-eyes here, just a normal lanky teenager. With white hair. Grah, so they did have to sneak an anime cliché in there. Look at the box shot for an example, she’s drawn the same way in the game itself. Again, a nice and courageous change from the primary-colored Dead or Alive softporn girls with small noses and humongous breasts that the market cherishes so.

Unfortunately, the style of the 2D art doesn’t seem to extend to the 3D one. On the lower screen, you see the scene in polygonal 3D from a top-down view, where you can move Ashley around with the D-pad or stylus. On the upper screen there is static imagery or the scarcely-animated 2D portraits of people you talk to, and of Ashley herself. While the 2D style is convincing, the still 3D renders of the places you can look at seem like something out of a beginner’s tutorial in 3D modeling. Using POVray. With scenes written by hand, in a text editor. Think “Myst” and you’ll be thinking of prettier vistas still. This is further confused by the polygonal 3D style on the overhead map. It’s not horrible to look at, but it adds yet another style! So we’re dealing with three different graphical styles clashing together in one game. On the other hand, the still images get their job done very well, and Ashley is simply charming. So there.

I’m being all negative here, but that’s actually opposite to the purpose of this posting. What I’m trying to say is that this game, despite it’s shortcomings of, err, being short and utilizing three contrasting graphical styles, is very, very enjoyable. Not only is it a new commercial-grade adventure game, something that is rare in its own right, but it also brings a few innovations to the table, in an era where innovation is often equaled to monetary loss for publishers and when no one wants to take the risk of being the innovator anymore.

I’m talking about a few of the puzzles. You’ll be facing puzzles that involve using your very own Nintendo DS, physically, in completely new ways. And they don’t involve any stylus scribbling or mic blowing at all! I’ll let you find those on your own though, because it’s a very rewarding and surprising experience that makes your heart smile and your mind believe in the vitality of the adventure genre again. On the other hand, you won’t find any brain-wrecking exercises like in, say, an Infocom text adventure. That’s why I said lightweight: You’ll see through most of the puzzles in a few minutes to an hour, casually. If you’re looking for a true brain-teaser, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

To sum it up: The short lifespan of this game would make it disappointing at full price, but if you have any sort of sympathy for the adventure genre, you owe it to yourself to try finding this at either a bargain price or used.

English-speakers should buy Gothic 1 now

If you understand German, you’ve probably heard very good things about [Piranha Bytes’](http://www.piranha-bytes.com/) Gothic series. If you don’t understand German, you’ve probably heard very bad things. I won’t go into the reasons, but there were a few problems with Gothic’s English-language release. First it was delayed, then no release date was in sight at all, the publisher was barely saved from bankruptcy and then I heard of quality issues with the translation and voiceover.

Now that Gothic 3 is fresh off the press (simultaneously in German and English this time!), it would be nice for English speakers to be able to go back to the series’ roots. With the low sales of the original release, you’d be lucky to still find a copy, but now *Piranha Bytes are re-releasing the English version*! Joy for all!

I have never in my life found a more enjoyable roleplaying game. The surroundings are a beauty to look at, the characters are well thought out and every named NPC truly has a life and mood of their own. And there are a lot, I think I’ve encountered several dozen named NPCs in Gothic 1 alone, and this tradition was continued in Gothic 2. Gothic is not for number freaks, as there aren’t many stats and the character development between the different character classes is not 100% balanced. But if you like a well thought-out story, solid characters and beautiful surroundings, you can’t go wrong with Gothic.

The only complaint constantly lobbed at the Gothic series is that the controls are weird. Yes, weird they may be, but get your act together! If you have a single drop of true gamer blood in you, you will soak up the controls in less than half an hour, up to the point where you don’t even notice that they’re weird. They are very well designed to accomplish what they are there to accomplish: Allow controlling a complex game with only two action buttons and one to call up the inventory screen. Think about it while you play: You can control the *entire* game without ever having to move your left hand from the base WASD position or your right hand from the mouse.

So please, do yourself a favor. Plunk down whatever they charge for the budget-price re-release and drop into the world of Gothic. You won’t emerge again for a month, and you’ll be grinning on your way out.

You can [download the English Gothic 1 demo](http://www.piranha-bytes.com/gothic1/index.php?lang=eng) to see if you can live with the controls. If you can, you won’t regret buying this game.

Also, there’s Freddy’s texture patch which makes Gothic 1 look almost as good as Gothic 2 by replacing nearly all of the game’s textures. You can look at a few screenshots in [my gallery](http://terror.snm-hgkz.ch/photos/v/album04/gothic1/).

PS: Another side effect of its age is that the thing even runs on older PCs. Straddle that GeForce 2!

Buy Windows Vista, give your soul to Microsoft

Or you might as well.

The Windows Vista license agreement includes many completely ludicrous points, as [Wendy Seltzer points out](http://wendy.seltzer.org/blog/archives/2006/10/19/forbidding_vistas_windows_licensing_disserves_the_user.html). Not only will the operating system phone home to Microsoft regularly, Microsoft also wants to stop you from listening to music, prevent you from trying to find out what’s wrong with your computer and make it impossible to upgrade your machine too often.

[I](http://www.ubuntulinux.org) [really](http://www.debian.org) [urge](http://www.freebsd.org) [you](http://www.openbsd.org) [to](http://www.dragonflybsd.org) [try](http://www.opensuse.org) [Free](http://fedora.redhat.com) [operating](http://www.freespire.org) [systems](http://www.mandriva.com).

It’s not like there aren’t any.

Via [BoingBoing](http://www.boingboing.net/2006/10/19/vista_licence_micros.html)

A very, very brief History of Personal Computing

The history of personal computing is full of reused ideas. Let’s see:

* Researchers fiddle with the first [GUI](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GUI)s, the mouse, [Ethernet networking](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethernet) and the precursors to all other modern elements of personal computing at Xerox’ [Palo Alto Research Center](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerox_PARC) (PARC).
* Xerox PARC introduces [Alto](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerox_Alto), [Star](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerox_Star)
* Apple steals GUI idea and mouse from Xerox, introduces [Lisa](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Lisa)
* MIT steals GUI idea and mouse from Xerox, introduces [X Window System](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X_Window_System) (It’s still not called X-Windows!)
* Richard Stallman announces [GNU](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU).
* The Internet is born (but barely anyone knows).
* Apple introduces Macintosh, also with GUI and mouse, but much cheaper than Lisa and more successful.
* Microsoft steals GUI ideas and mouse from Apple and Xerox, introduces Windows.
* After two unsuccessful versions, Windows 3 is finally a success, largely because Microsoft’s marketing had succeeded to convince PC makers to preinstall it on their computers and thereby not giving consumers much choice in what operating system they want in the first place.
* Microsoft deliberately introduces errors into MS-DOS so that Windows would not run properly on competitors’ editions of DOS in order to reclaim lost market share and stifle competition.
* Apple cheerfully introduces new versions of Mac OS, each with some innovations in user interface design.
* Linux Torvalds releases Linux, a kernel for x86 PCs.
* The GNU project ports their packages onto Linux, forming the GNU/Linux operating system that is known today. The GNU project aims to create a free (as in software libre) UNIX-compatible operating system. Ideas stolen from UNIX? You be the judge!
* Be, Inc. introduces [BeOS](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BeOS), a very modern operating system for personal computers. It had some features that Microsoft tried but failed to implement in their own operating systems even a decade later.
* Microsoft steals GUI innovations from Apple, introduces Windows 95.
* The [KDE project](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KDE) steals GUI innovations from generally everyone, introduces K Desktop Environment (KDE) running on the X Window System and, specifically, on GNU/Linux.
* The [GNOME](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNOME) project joins the merry pillaging, concerned about non-free components of KDE. Introduces GNOME desktop environment running on the X Window System and, specifically, on GNU/Linux.
* Microsoft fears competition from BeOS as Be, Inc. gets a distribution contract with a PC manufacturer. This manufacturer’s PCs would come with BeOS preinstalled for free. Microsoft uses their fiscal leverage to force the manufacturer to make BeOS invisible to users, leaving them with no idea that the system is installed and no way to easily run it. This is probably one of the key reasons that BeOS was not commercially successful and Be, Inc. went bankrupt, even though their product was technologically sound and years ahead of the competition at the time.
* Apple introduces Mac OS X with many innovations, though [not all of them without critics](http://arstechnica.com/articles/paedia/finder.ars/1). Funnily, Mac OS X is UNIXlike enough to also run the X Window System if it wants to.
* Microsoft releases Windows XP, a bastard child of Windows 98/Me and Windows 2000.
* Apple introduces Mac OS X versions 10.4 (Tiger) and 10.5 (Leopard) with some user interface innovations and gadgets.
* Microsoft steals innovations and gadgets from Apple’s Mac OS X, introduces Windows Vista.

As you can see, everybody stole and continues to steal from everybody else. There are very few innovators in between, only the fewest of them consistent in the amount and quality of innovations they produce. Even Apple had bad years, when barely anything changed and they had to struggle just to keep their system from losing key developers like Adobe due mainly to lack of memory protection and bad multitasking in Mac OS 8 and 9.

In other aspects, you can clearly see that some elements we take for granted today were only possible because one company or person copied the other. GNU/Linux would not have happened in this way without the UNIX systems of old. Windows 95 would not have happened without the innovations in Mac OS. All GUI history can be traced back to Xerox PARC, but it would be ludicrous to give Xerox credit for the spring-loaded folders of the Mac OS Finder or the treemap view of Konqueror’s file browsing mode.

What, then, is stealing? Can you steal an idea? How much do you need to add to someone else’s idea to make it your own, and make it an innovation?

What is to think of companies trying to kill the competition’s innovation? I’ve included the Microsoft vs. Be, Inc. example to ask that question, and also the one where Microsoft deliberately broke MS-DOS so the competition couldn’t run Windows properly. These are heavy-handed tactics that have positive outcomes for absolutely no one (except of course Microsoft).

Also, what are the benefits of reusing a concept? Every computer user today knows what a window is, what a scrollbar has to look like and what its function is. Things have evolved so far that even keyboard shortcuts in the same genre of program do the same. Ctrl-D or Command-D are expected to add a bookmark in a browser, for example. These similarities make computer use, and for many of us that means our daily lives, far, far easier.

I think we’d all benefit from more reciprocal stealing.

Boss of Microsoft Germany resigns

As reported by dpa and also posted at [Heise Online](http://www.heise.de/newsticker/meldung/79117/from/rss09) and [The Raw Story](http://rawstory.com/news/2006/Microsoft_s_top_German_Juergen_Gall_10062006.html), Jürgen Gallmann has resigned. Gallmann was not only chief executive of MS Germany but also had the position of Vice President EMEA. Apparently, he didn’t agree with tighter control by the Redmond headquarters over MS Germany.

This is the third (I believe?) in a series of shuffles and changes at the top of Microsoft — even Bill Gates has left the company! The announcement out of Germany comes only one day after MS had to [cut Bill Gates’ and Steve Ballmer’s bonuses due to slowing profit growth](http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/10/04/bloomberg/bxshake.php) .

I hope this is all a sign that consumers are losing faith in the company as it is right now and that MS’ upper management is panicking around the meeting room like a bunch of scared chickens, trying to catch up to modern times.

Unfortunately, money is the only language Microsoft understands, and perhaps lack thereof and internal struggles will lead to their reconsidering their decisions in relation to the market, slow down with their heavy-handed tactics and become a fair player whose products compete on merit instead of the [sleaziness of their marketing](http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGvHNNOLnCk).

One can dream.