Rose Tinted Glasses: On Old Computers and Programming

The original version of this blog post was going to be significantly harder to digest and it actually was much more of a rant than a blog post. I decided to discard that, and try to focus on the positives, although please believe me when I say that I’m not particularly happy with what I see around me, and sometimes it takes strength not to add to the annoying amount of negativity out there.

In the second year of Coronavirus pandemic, I (and probably a lot more people) have turned to YouTube content more than ever, just to keep myself entertained in lieu of having actual office mates to talk with day in and day out. This meant, among other things, noticing a lot more the retrocomputing trend: a number of channels are either dedicated to talk about both games from the 80s and 90s and computers from the same era, or they seem to at least spend a significant amount of time on those. I’m clearly part of the target audience, having grown up with some of those games and systems, and now being in my 30s with disposable income, but it does make me wonder sometimes about how we are treating the nostalgia.

One of the things that I noted, and that actually does make me sad, is when I see some video insisting that old computers were better, or that people who used them were smarter because many (Commodore 64, Apple II, BBC Micro) only came with a BASIC interpreter, and you were incentivised to learn programming to do pretty much anything with them. I think that this thesis is myopic and lacks not just in empathy, but also in understanding of the world at large. Which is not to say that there couldn’t be good ways to learn from what worked in the past, and make sure the future is better.

A Bit Of Personal History

One of the things that is clearly apparent watching different YouTube channels is that there are chasms between different countries, when it comes to having computers available at an early age, particularly in schools. For instance, it seems like a lot of people in the USA have had access to a PET in elementary or junior high schools. In the UK instead the BBC Micro has been explicitly designed as a learning computer for kids, and clearly the ZX Spectrum became the symbol of an entire generation. I’m not sure how much bias there is in this storytelling — it’s well possible that for most people, all of these computers were not really within reach, and only a few expensive schools would have access to it.

In Italy, I have no idea what the situation was when I was growing up, outside of my own experience. What I can say is that until high school, I haven’t seen a computer in school. I know for sure that my elementary school didn’t have any computer, not just for the students, but also for the teachers and admins, and it was in that school that one of the teachers took my mother aside one day and told her to make me stop playing with computers because «they won’t have a future». In junior high, there definitely were computers for the admins, but no students was given access to anything. Indeed, I knew that one of the laboratories (that we barely ever saw, and really never used) had a Commodore (either 64 or 128) in it. This was the same years that I finally got my own PC at home: a Pentium 133MHz. You can see there is a bit of a difference in generations there.

Indeed, it might sound even strange that I even had a Commodore 64. As far as I know, I was the only one having it in my school: a couple of other kids had a family PC at home (which later I kind of did too), and a number of them had NES or Sega Master Systems, but the Commodore best years were long gone by the time I could read, so how did I end up with one? Well, as it turns out, not as a legacy from anyone older than me, which would be the obvious option.

My parents bought the Commodore 64 around the time I was seven, or at least that’s the best I can date it. It was, to the best of my knowledge, after my grandfather died, as I think he would have talked a bit more sense into my mother. Here’s a thing: my mother has had a quirk for encyclopaedias and other books collection, so when me and my sisters were growing up, the one thing we never missed was access to general knowledge. Whether it was a generalist encyclopedia with volumes dedicated to the world, history, and science, or a “kids’ encyclopedia” that pretty much only covers stuff aimed at preteens, or a science one that goes into details of the state of the art scientific thinking in the 80s.

So when a company selling a new encyclopedia, supposedly compiled and edited locally, called my parents up and offered a deal of 30 volumes, bound in a nice and green cover, and printed in full colour, together with a personal computer, they lapped it up fairly quickly. Well, my mother did mostly, my father was never someone for books, and couldn’t give a toss generally about computers.

Now, to be honest, I have fond memories of that encyclopedia, so it’s very possible that this was indeed one of the best purchases my parents undertook for me. Not only most of it was aimed at elementary-to-junior high ages, including a whole volume on learning grammar rules and two on math, but it also came with some volumes full to the brim of questionable computer knowledge.

In particular, the first one (Volume 16, I still remember the numbers) came with a lot of text describing computers, sometimes in details so silly that I still don’t understand how they put it together: it is here that I first read about core memory, for instance. It also went into long details about videogames of the time, including text and graphical adventures. I really think it would be an interesting read for me nowadays that I understand and know a lot more about computers and games at the time.

The second volume focused instead on programming in BASIC. Which would have been a nice connection to the Commodore 64 if it wasn’t that the described language was not the one used by the Commodore 64 in the first place, and it didn’t really go into details of how to use the hardware, with POKE and PEEK and the like. Instead it tried to describe some support for printers and graphics, that never worked on the computer I actually had. Even when my sister got a (second) computer, it came with GW-BASIC and it was also not compatible.

What the second volume did teach me, though, was something more subtle, which would take me many years to understand fully. And that is that programming is a mean to an end, for most people. The very first example of a program in the book, is a father-daughter exercise in writing a BASIC program to calculate the area of the floor of a room based on triangles and Heron’s Formula. This was a practical application, rather than teaching concepts first, and that may be the reason why I liked learning from that to begin with.

Now let me rant aside for a moment that the last time I wrote something about teaching, I ended up tuning out of some communities because I got tired of hearing someone complain that I cannot possibly have an opinion on teaching materials without having taught in academia. I have a feeling that this type of behaviour is connected with the hatred for academia that a number of us have. Just saying.

You may find it surprising that these random volumes of an encyclopedia my mother brought home when I could barely read would stay this long with me, but the truth is that I pretty much carried them along with me for many years. Indeed, they had two examples in the book that I nearly memorized, that were connected to each other. The first was a program that calculated the distance in days between two dates — explaining how the Gregorian calendar worked, including the rules for leap years around centuries. The second used this information to let you calculate a “biorhythm” that was sold as some ancient greek theory but was clearly just a bunch of “mumbo-jumbo” as Adam Savage would say.

The thing with this biorhythm idea, though, is that it’s relatively straightforward to implement: the way they describe it is that there’s three sinusoidal functions that set up three “characteristics” on different period lengths, so you calculate the “age in days” and apply a simple mathematical formula, et voilà! You have some personalised insight that is worth nothing but some people believe in. I can’t tell for sure if I ever really believed in those, or if I was just playing along like people do with horoscopes. (One day I’ll write my whole rant on why I expect people may find horoscope sign traits to be believable. That day is not today.)

So, having a basis of something to lay along with, I pretty much reimplemented this same idea over, and over, and over again. It became my “go to” hello world example, and with enough time it allowed me to learn a bit more of different systems. For example, when I got my Pentium 133 with Windows 95, and one of the Italian magazines made Visual Basic 5 CCE available, I reimplemented the same for that. When the same magazine eventually included a free license of Borland C++ Builder 1.0, as I was learning C++, I reimplemented it there. When I started moving to Linux more of the time and I wanted to write something, I did that.

I even got someone complaining that my application didn’t match the biorhythm calculated with some other app, and I had to find a diplomatic way to point out that there’s nothing scientific with either of thsoe and why should they even expect two apps to agree with it?

But now I’m digressing. The point I’m making is that I have, over the years, kept the lessons learned from those volumes with me, in different forms, and in different contexts. As I said, it wasn’t until a few years back that I realized that for most people, programming is not an art or a fun thing to do in their spare time, but it’s just a mean to an end. They don’t care how beautiful, free, or well designed a certain tool is, if the tool works. But it also means that knowing how to write some level of software gives empowers. It gives people power to build the tools they don’t have, or to modify what is already there but doesn’t quite work the way they want.

My wife trained as a finance admin, she used to be an office manager, and has some experience with CAFM software (Computer Aided Facilities Management). Most CAFM suites allow extensions in Python or JavaScript, to implement workflows that would otherwise be manual and repeating. This is the original reason she had to learn programming: even in her line of work, it is useful knowledge to have. It also comes with the effect of making it easier to understand spreadsheets and Excel — although I would say that there’s plenty of people who may be great at writing Python and C, but would be horrible Excel wranglers. Excel wrangling is its own set of skills and I submit to those who actually have them.

So Were Old Computers Better?

One of the often repeated lines is that old computers were better because either they were simpler to understand in one’s mind, or because they all provided a programming environment out of the box. Now, this is a particularly contentious point to me, because pretty much every Unix environment always had the same ability of providing a programming environment. But also, I think that the problem here is that there’s what I would call a “bundling of concerns”.

First of all, I definitely think that operating systems should come with programming and automation tools out of the box. But in fact that has (mostly) been the case since the time of Commodore 64 for me personally. On my sister’s computer, MS-DOS came with GW-BASIC first (4.01), and QBasic later (6.22). Windows 98 came with VBScript, and when I first got to Mac OS X it came with some ugly options, but some options nonetheless. The only operating system that didn’t have a programming environment for me was Windows 95, but as I said above, Visual Basic 5 CCE covered that need. It was even better with ActiveDesktop!

Now, as it turns out, even Microsoft appears to work to make it easier to code in Windows, with Visual Studio Code being free, Python being available in the Microsoft Store, and all those trimmings. So it’s hard to argue that there aren’t more opportunities to start programming now than there were in the early ’90s. What might be arguable is that nowadays you do not need to program to use a computer. You can use a computer perfectly fine without ever having learnt a programming language, and you don’t really need to know the difference between firmware and operating system, most of the time. The question becomes, whether you find this good, or bad.

And personally, I find it good. As I said, I find it natural that people are interested in using computers and software to do something, and not just for the experience of using a computer. In the same way I think most people would use a car to go to the places they need to go to, rather than just for the sake of driving a car. And in the same spirit of the car, there are people who enjoy the feeling of driving even when they don’t have a reason to, and there are people who find unnecessary things to be required when it comes to computers and technology.

I wish I found it surprising, but I just find it saddening that so many developers seem to be falling into the trap of thinking that just because they became creative by writing programs (or games, or whatever), the fact that computer users stopped having to learn programming means that they are less creative. John Scalzi clearly writes it better than me: there’s a lot of creativity in modern devices, even those that are attacked for being “passive consumption devices”. And a lot of that is not about programming in the first place.

What I definitely see is a pattern of repeating the behaviour of the generation that came before us, or maybe the one who came before them, I’m not sure. I see a number of parents (but thankfully by no mean all of them), insisting that since they learnt their trade and their programming a certain way, their kids should have the same level of tools available, no more and no less. It saddens me, even sometimes angers me, because it feels so similar to the way my own father kept telling me I was wasting my time inside, and wanted me to go and play soccer as he did in his youth.

This is certainly not only my experience, because I have talked and compared stories with quite a few people over the years, and there’s definitely a huge amount of geeks in particular who have been made fun of by their parents, and left scarred by that. And some of them are going to do the same to their kids, because they think their choice of hobbies is not as good as the ones we had in the good old days.

Listen, I said already in the past that I do not want to have children. Part of it has always been the fear of repeating the behaviour my father had with me. So of course I should not be the one to judge what others who do have kids do. But I do see a tendency from some, to rebuild the environment they grew up in, expecting that their kids would just pick up the same strange combination of geekiness they have.

At the same time I see a number of parents feeding the geekiness in their children with empowerment, giving them tools and where possible a leg up in life. Even this cold childfree heart warms up to see kids being encouraged to learn Scratch, or Minecraft.

What About All The Making, Then?

One of the constant refrains I hear is that older tools and apps were faster and more “creative”. I don’t think I have much in terms of qualifications to evaluate that. But I’m also thinking that for the longest time, creativity tools and apps were only free if you pirated them. This is obviously not to dismiss the importance of FLOSS solutions (otherwise why would I still be writing on the topic?) but the fact that a lot of the FLOSS solutions for creativity appear to have a similar spirit to the computers in the ’80s: build the tools you want to be creative.

I’m absolutely sure that there will be people arguing that you can totally be creative with Gimp and Inkscape. I also heard a lot more professionals laughing in the face of such suggestions, given the lack of important features that tools like that have had in comparison with proprietary software for many years. They are not bad programs per se, but they do find their audience in a niche compared to Photoshop, Illustrator, or Affinity Designer. And it’s not to say that FLOSS tools can’t become that good. I have heard the very same professionals who sneered (and still sneer) at Inkscape, point out how Krita (which has a completely different target audience) is a fascinating tool.

But when we look back at the ’90s, not even many FLOSS users would consider Gimp an useful photo-editing tool. If you didn’t have the money for the creativity, your option was most likely chosen between a pirate copy of Photoshop, or maybe if you’re lucky and an Italian magazine gifted it out, a license for Macromedia xRes 2.0. Or maybe FreeHand. Or Micrografx Windows Draw!.

The thing is, a lot of free-but-limited tools online are actually the first time that a wide range of people have finally been able to be creative. Without having to be “selected” as a friend of Unix systems. Without having to pirate software to be able to afford it, and without having to pony up a significant investment for something that they may not be able to make good use of. So I honestly welcome that, when it comes to creativity.

Again: the fact that someone cannot reason around code, or the way that Inkscape or Blender work, does not mean that they are less creative, or less skilled. If you can’t see how people using other tools are being just as creative, you’re probably missing a lot of points I’m making.

But What About The Bloated Web?

I’ve been arguing for less bloat in… pretty much everything, for the past 17 years on blogs and other venues. I wrote tools to optimize (even micro-optimize in some cases) programs and libraries so that they perform better on tiny systems. I have worked on Gentoo Linux, that pretty much allows you to turn off everything you can possibly turn off so you can build the minimalistic system you can think of. So I really don’t like bloat.

So is the web bloated? Yes, I’d say so. But not all of it is bloat, even when people complain about it. I see people suggesting that UTF-8 is bloat. That dynamic content is bloat. That emojis are bloat. Basically anything they don’t need directly is bloat.

So it’s clearly easy to see how your stereotypical 30-something US-born-and-raised, English-only-speaking “hacker” would think that an unstyled, white-on-black-background (or worse, green-on-black) website in ASCII would be the apotheosis of usable web. But that is definitely not what everyone would find perfect. People who speak languages needing more than ASCII exist, and are out there. Heck, people for whom the actual bloat from UTF-8 (vs UTF-16) is the wasteful optimization for ASCII are probably the majority of the world! People who cannot read on black backround exist, and they are even developers themselves at times (I’m one of them, which is why all my editors and terminals use light backgrounds, I get migraines from black backgrounds and dark themes).

Again, I’m not suggesting that everything is perfect and nothing needs to change. I’m actually suggesting that a lot needs to change, but it is not everything needs to change. So if you decide to tell me that Gmail is bloated and slow and use that as the only comparison to ’90s mail clients, I would point out to you that Gmail has tons of features that are meant for users not to shoot themselves in the feet, as well as being a lot more reliable than Microsoft Outlook Express or Eudora (which I know has lots of loyal followers, but I could never get behind myself), and also that there are alternatives.

Let me beat this dead horse a bit more. Over on Twitter when this topic came up, I was given the example of ICQ vs Microsoft Teams. Now the first thing is, I don’t use Teams. I know that Teams is an Electron app, and I know that most Electron app are annoyingly heavy and use a ton of resources. So, fair, I can live with calling them “bloated”. I can see why they chose this particular route, and disagree with it, but there is another important thing to note here: ICQ in 1998 is barely comparable with a tool like Teams, that is pretty much a corporate beast.

So instead, let’s try to compare something that is a bit more close: Telegram (which is already known I use — rather than talking about anything that I would have a conflict of interest on). How fast is Telegram to launch on my PC? It’s pretty much a single click to start and it takes less than a second on the beast that is my Gamestation. It also takes less than a second on my phone. How much did ICQ take to load? I don’t remember, but quite a lot longer because I remember seeing a splash screen. Which may as well have been timed to stay on the screen for a second or so because the product manager requested that, like it happened at one of my old jobs (true story!)

And in that, would ICQ provide the same features of Telegram? No, not really. First of all, it was just messages. Yes it’s still instant messaging and in that it didn’t really change much, but it didn’t have the whole “send and receive pictures” we have on modern chat applications, you ended up with having to do peer-to-peer transfers and good luck with that. It also had pretty much *no* server-side support for anything, at least when I started using it in 1998: your contact list was entirely client-side, and even the “authorization” to add someone to your friend list was a simple local check. There were plenty of ways to avoid these checks, too. Back in the day, I got in touch with a columnist from the Italian The Games Machine, Claudio Todeschini (who I’m still in touch with, but because life is strange and we met in person in a completely different situation many, many years later); the next time I re-installed my computer, having forgotten to back up ICQ data, I didn’t have him in my contacts anymore, and unsure on whether he would remember me, I actually used a cracked copy of ICQ to re-add him to my contacts.

Again, this was the norm back then. It was a more naive world, where we didn’t worry that much about harassment, we didn’t worry so much about SWATing, and everything was just, well, simpler. But that doesn’t mean it was good. It only meant that if you did worry about harassment, if someone was somehow trying to track you down, if the technician at your ISP was actually tapping your TCP sessions, they would be able to. ICQ was not encrypted for many years after I started using it, not even c2s, let alone e2e like Telegram secret chats (and other chat clients) are.

Someone joked about trying to compare running software on the same machine to see the performance fairly, but that is an absolute non-sequitur. Of course we use a lot more resources in absolute terms, compared to 1998! Back then I still had my Pentium 133MHz, with 48MiB of RAM (I upgraded!), a Creative 3D Blaster Banshee PCI (because no AGP slots, and the computer came with a Cirrus Logic that was notorious for not working well with Voodoo 2), and a Radio card (I really liked radio, ok?). Nowadays, my phone has a magnitude or two more resources, and you can find 8051s just as fast.

Old tech may be fascinating and easier to get into when it comes into learning how it all fits together, but the usable modern tech is meant to take trade offs toward the users more and more. That’s why we have UIs, that’s why we have touch inputs, that’s even why we have voice-controlled assistants, much as a number of tech enthusiasts appear to want to destroy them all.

Again, this feels like a number of people are yelling “Kids these days”, and repeating how “in their days” everything was better. But also, I fear there are a number of people who just don’t appreciate how a lot of the content you see on YouTube, particularly in the PC space of the ’90s and early ’00s, is not representative of what we experienced back then.

Let me shout out to two YouTubers that I find are doing it right: LGR and RetroSpector78. The former is very open to point out when he’s looking at a ludicrous build of some kind, that would never be affordable back in the day; the latter is always talking about what would be appropriate for the vintage and usage of a machine.

Just take all of the videos that use CF2IDE or SCSI2SD to replace “spinning rust” hard drives of yonder. This alone is such a speed boost on loading stuff that most people wouldn’t even imagine. If you were to try to load a program like Microsoft Works on a system that would be perfect for the time except for the storage, you would be experiencing a significant different loading time than it was back in the day.

And, by the way, I do explicitly mean Microsoft Works, not Office because, as Avery pointed out on Twitter, that was optimized for load speed — by starting a ton of processes early on, trading memory usage for startup speed. The reason why I say that is because, short of pirated copies of Office, most people in the ’90s that I know would be able to use at best Works, because it came pre-installed on their system.

So, What?

I like the retrocomputing trend, mostly. I love Foone’s threads, because one of the most important things he does is explain stuff. And I think that, if what you want is to learn how a computer works in detail, it’s definitely easier to do that with a relatively uncomplicated solution first, and build up to more modern systems. But at the same time, I think there is plenty of abstraction that don’t need to be explained if you don’t want to. This is the same reason why I don’t think that using C to teach programming and memory is a great idea: you need to know too much of details that are not actually meant to be understood for newcomers.

I also think that understanding the techniques used in both designing, and writing software for, constrained systems such as the computers we had in the ’80s and ’90s does add to the profession as a whole. Figuring out which trade off was and was not possible at the time is one step, finding and possibly addressing some of the bugs is another. And finally there is the point we’re getting to a lot lately: we can now build replacement components with tools that are open to everyone!

And you know what? I do miss some of the constrained systems, because I have personal nostalgia for them. I did get myself a Commodore 64 a couple of years ago, and I loved the fact that, in 2021, I can get the stuff I could have never afforded (or even didn’t exist) back when I was using it: fast loaders, SD2IEC, a power supply that wouldn’t be useful as a bludgeoning instrument, and a SCART cable to a nice and sharp image, rather than the fuzzy one when using the RF input I had to.

I have been toying with the idea of trying to build some constrained systems myself. I think it’s a nice stretch for something I can do, but with the clear note that it’s mostly art, and not something that is meant to be consumed widely. It’s like Birch Books to me.

And finally, if you only take a single thing away from this post, is that you should always remember that an usable “bloated” option will always win over a slim option that nobody but a small niche of people can use.

Blogging From An Onyx Boox Max Lumi

Some time ago, I found a video from Technology Connections over on YouTube about using eInk tablets for productivity. It’s part one of a number of other videos exploring the usage of electronic ink (or electronic paper) displays in Android tablet, that allow an experience that is a compromise between a fully featured Android tablet, and a Kindle-like device.

This piqued my interest, which is not surprising given that, like Alec, I have been an early adopter of ebooks, suffering through the pain of my Sony PRS-505 before landing on Amazon’s love-hated Kindle. But in addition to the ideas that he showed in the videos, I was also already considering whether to get myself an ePaper drawing tablet to use to take notes and doodle diagrams to share on the blog, although I was considering the reMarkable rather than the Onyx at that point.

The main reason why I was mostly considering rather than going for it, was that it’s not a small investment. As I pointed out in a previous post, despite now having a significant easier access to funds, I’m trying to balance the investment on my personal visibility with having time (and resources) for my wife. Buying a device that is mostly to draw diagrams on is very much overkill, if what you do for a living is not drawing diagrams left and right. And while the idea of being able to doodle on eBooks was singing to my inner geek, I knew that it wouldn’t have been nearly as useful as the Kindle is to me.

Things changed when I got to the point of Alec’s videos in which he points out how he used the device with a bluetooth keyboard to work on his (video) scripts, to avoid tiring his eyes as much with a monitor. That spoke to me, and to my wife, who fell just short of ordering it for me, and instead insisted I get one. Which I did, together with a stand (which I will admit I don’t like). I already had a keyboard (a Microsoft Surface Ergonomic Keyboard that I bought a few years ago in the Microsoft Store in Seattle, and that I think could have been much better, but is still better than your average bluetooth keyboards).

In terms of which device to get I went for the highest end that was available, the Onyx Boox Max Lumi. The reason for that is once again to do with our old friend the compromise: a bigger device is harder to bring around, but I don’t think I’d be blogging on the go that much with this device. If I am going to be doing that, for instance at my mother’s house, if we ever get to see her this year, I would be using my laptop, most likely. As such, getting a bigger screen means having more space to draw diagrams. But in particular the 13″ suggested it would be possible to use it horizontally to write a blog while reading off a different source, although that one doesn’t look like it’s going to be feasible any time soon (give me a moment to get to that).

My original intention was to use this primarily through the WordPress application, because I thought it would be easier to use the block editor in that. Unfortunately, it looks like the WordPress app is not only not suitable for the Onyx Boox but it’s not suitable for many tablets either. The problems with the interface itself can be ignored, for the most part, if you just want to use it to type in blog posts. But because of the background color effect on the block editor, the text in the block editor appears hard to read with the “halo effect” to indicate the contrast.

Thankfully, similarly to what is reported in Technology Connections video, both Firefox (to a point) and the website (to a point) are usable enough to not make this a waste of time and money. Unfortunately, I think there is a long way to go to make this a much better platform for blogging.

The first question to ask, is whether the display is even fast enough for using with a browser, and the answer is a resounding yes. Since the videos, it looks like Onyx has improved significantly the handling of refresh modes, introducing two “faster” refresh rates that come with more ghosting, but allowing a much smoother operation of scrolling. They automatically enable these modes when scrolling, and they even introduced a one-tap “refresh the screen now” mode, that is one of the requests Alec makes in the videos. So either Onyx is taking that feedback directly, or they have otherwise reached the same conclusions.

Despite the screen allowing extremely fast “drawing” (minus ghosting), it looks like applications needed to be designed somewhat explicitly for them to make use of those capabilities. The included note app is a pleasure to draw on. The Italian crosswords magazine La Settimana Enigmistica, on the other hand, is disappointingly slow, not showing the traced writing in real time at all (I’m still not sure why they don’t optimize more for tablets of this kind — I would argue that they could easily sell a branded tablet with EMR pens, and it would maybe not fly off the shelf but definitely sell to a number of hardcore fans; I’d get one for my mother for sure).

As I said, I’m using this with a keyboard, and this is where the next problem is: Android is kind of terrible when it comes to physical keyboards. They work, mostly, but everything is a bit odd around them. So for instance, the default AOSP-based keyboard supports dead keys for grave (`) but not for single and double quotes (‘ and “), and it turns out I rely on those being dead keys a lot — all of my typing would look off without it.

I found a way around this, with a £2 application that allowed me to configure individual dead keys behaviour, but it doesn’t quite solve it for me. The next thing I would be needing is a way to have a compose-like behaviour that would allow me to access em- and en-dashes. I am actually considering two options for that: the first is to create a custom layout, the way the tool I bought allows me to (very complicated and annoying, and reminds me of having to reinvent US International on Mac OS X with Ukelele), the second would be to figure out how hard it is to take the AOSP keyboard and make an US International keyboard with compose behaviour. Of course if anyone is aware of that already existing, I’m happy to take it. Open source would be an advantage (to fix if something doesn’t quite work the way I want it to), but I’m happy to take something closed and paid to avoid having to deal with side-loading if it exists.

But the most annoying problem with the keyboard might not even be a problem of Android itself. It might be a problem of Firefox, or WordPress, or something in the whole unlikely setup: sometimes when I navigate to a different point in the post, and try to edit it, characters are inserted in different places. Often at the end of the post, sometimes the location I had just moved a few seconds before. This is not constant, and it happens no matter whether I use the keyboard to navigate, or I tap on the page. Given I’m using the web version of WordPress, it might be a browser-JavaScript-Uncommon setup problem, but it is aggravating. I have tried Edge, to see if it would make things better, but despite being actually able to give a much better experience, closer to a normal desktop (including the presence of as-you-type spellchecker), its insistence in zooming on the WordPress interface as I want to type on it makes it impossible to use.

As you probably noticed by now, I have not really used this to make diagrams yet. I’m not sure I have anything this very moment that would benefit from me drawing a diagram of things, although I do have a couple of ideas for later. For now I’ve only used it to scribble and try out the Staedler Noris Digital (which I got for crosswords on the Samsung tablet instead). Again, this needs specific support for this type of devices, and so most of the tools around this do not work. Microsoft OneNote is unusable due to latency; Jamboard is a bit better but nowhere close to the original Notes app; and Squid is nearly usable, but again, the internal Notes and Books apps are so much faster.

One thing that is definitely clear from using this device for a week or so, is that for this device class to be a killer, we need applications to optimize for it. It might sound like an empty phrase, given that I do not work on any application that might be involved, but I also think that a number of these different device classes have come up over the years, and sometimes they managed to establish themselves. When I first got an Archos Android TV device, it was nearly one of a kind. It wasn’t easy to use, and it wasn’t particularly powerful. And because it was pretty much based on the Samsung Galaxy design, it ended up going stale pretty quickly after. On the other hand, there are now a number of Android-based TV devices, not last Amazon’s own FireStick. So the class itself didn’t disappear despite the one device being, frankly, a failure.

Similarly, while Samsung was first to market (or at least the loudest to market) with high-precision, pressure sensitive pens with their Galaxy Note series, the same technology is now in use by a number of other manufacturers, including this very device, and supported by a number of different applications. So I do not see why, in 2021, we shouldn’t be expecting more applications to make use of the tools that are available, even if it’s for a small percentage of users for now. So if anyone is aware of any Android application that makes use of the capabilities for fast drawing on this and other devices, even if it’s a paid app, please let me know.

I have just used this device now for about a week as I finish drafting this post. My impression is that it was a good investment for my eyes, particularly as working from home during a pandemic does mean not resting my eyes as much as I used to (no more stepping from the desk to grab a coffee with Luke when something irks me, no more hour-and-change break after going through the Californian email, while commuting to the office). It does mean I’m not actually resting my eyes as much, but it does mean I don’t tire them as hard as I used to.

There is also one more interesting thing here, which is the fact that, for the blog, a vertical monitor makes a lot more sense than a horizontal one! Unfortunately, it looks like it’s still hard to get keyboard covers that allow you to use the monitor vertically, and let’s not even talk about vertical laptops. But the truth is that for a long, rambly document, the vertical space is more important than the horizontal. WordPress’s own editor does not really scale to fill the whole horizontal space when you use it on a normal monitor, but it works like a charm on the “mobile” editor as loaded by Firefox.

There are a few more things that would make the overall experience more “professional”. As I said, if the WordPress app was usable, it would be much easier to type, rather than having to deal with the silly “cursor is in one place, characters appear somewhere else” situation. And if Edge didn’t randomly zoom in the wrong place, it would probably be the best browser to use on this particular devices, including the ability to switch tabs on Ctrl-Tab (with the external keyboard of course).

The other thing this just may be usable for is coding. Not the “full software engineering” type of coding, but if you are working on, say, adding documentation to an extensive codebase, it might be a good thing to have at hand, if nothing else because it’s vastly distraction free, and makes for an easy to read screen. You could say that this is the modern equivalent of using monochrome displays with a Commodore 64 to get the sharper fonts.

At any rate, you can probably expect more blog posts and possibly Twitter questions and rants, over the next few months, as I try my best to keep up with the blogging as the lockdown finally eases, and I can finally go out and enjoy my cameras, too.

Country You Go, Banking You Find

If you have been following this blog for a long enough time, you probably know I “enjoy” writing about banks, or at least I end up doing that quite a lot, whether I enjoy it or not. Part of that it’s because I still find myself reason about money the way I did when I had my own company, and part of that because, well, I have opinions of what good banking looks like to me. Part of the reason why I have that opinion, is that I have seen a lot of what good banking is not, and it gives me material to keep writing.

Of course, I’m also lucky because I have at this point seen how banking works (or fails to) in multiple countries, and I can at least compare the point of view of an user in those contexts. I don’t have any idea how this works from the other side of the fence of course, as I have (thankfully) never worked for a financial institution. Not that I haven’t considered that (hey, I live in London after all), but then I remember that I would probably be finding that things are even more screwed up than I can see from the outside, and decide to put my savings into gold bullions — as it stands, I just keep getting depressed by everything tech, and been considering turning to opening a coffee store and bakery.

And I do mean it, when I say that different countries have… pretty much nothing in common when it comes to banks and banking — costs, services, expected behaviour and contacts. Some of it appears to be so entrenched culturally, that suggesting changing something would be probably considered heresy.

Italy

In Italy it is (or at least was) common for current accounts to have a monthly fee, although somewhat nominal, and this usually doesn’t include much more than a bank card. I used to have a cheques book — but only because at the time, my family used to use those for a lot of things. I think I only ever used once, and I’m not remembering what for.

Outbound wires were expensive back when I was using them, raising in price over time, and differed whether I would be wiring to the same bank or to a different one. Cashing in cheques was free, as long as they were in the same currency, while receiving inbound wires depended on both currency and source of the wire — when I was a contractor working for Google on ChromeOS, the invoice payments arrived in dollars, but from within Europe, and they didn’t cost me enough “to notice”; when I received the payments from another customer, they dropped hundreds of euro on the bank’s coffers — which is why I am happy that TransferWise exists now.

While Italy had early federated ATMs that allows you to access your money at any time, there is one thing that I have noticed is not common elsewhere: accessing ATMs outside of your bank’s own is generally a paid option. And I don’t mean that in the USA sense (that I’ll get to later) of ATMs that charge you a fee to use them — I mean that the bank will charge you a fee to use an ATM of a competitor. This got to the ironic part where, when visiting Italy after moving to Dublin, it was cheaper for me to use an Irish debit card to get some cash out of a machine, because my Italian bank didn’t have any ATM in an easily-reachable place for me to use. This might be annoying to me, but it’s a significant pain for people like my mother who don’t drive, and that need to be driven to another town to find a free machine.

Another interesting note about Italian bank cards is that, up until very recently, were not usable online. I think nowadays most banks have at least a paid option to give you a normal Visa or MasterCard debit card, but for a long time you ended up with cards that couldn’t be used online at all — even when they had 19 digits on them for the Maestro circuit. Indeed, back when I hit these issues I did ask whether I should have gotten a VPay (Visa’s answer to Maestro, before Visa Debit), but I was told that that would have been less accepted in Italy itself.

Credit cards are still uncommon — before bank cards could be used online, the vast majority of people I knew who made purchases on eBay would be using pre-paid cards (Visa Electron or MasterCard Debit), that you topped up for a fee. The most common one at least back then was issued by the Italian post (Poste Italiane), under the name PostePay — it was also one of the biggest scam targets for many, as many eBay sellers would pretend that the PostePay logo appearing on the announcements meant that they would pay directly to a pre-paid card, rather than through PayPal – a great scam, since eBay can’t see the money changing hands, and won’t protect you from fraudsters. At least they seem to have abandoned chip’n’sign.

On the other hand, direct debits have been a thing for a long while… although that became an issue when SEPA Direct Debit became a thing. Indeed, the old Italian direct debit system was advanced enough (and similar enough to the SEPA DD Core specifications) that it appears most banks and operators just re-used the same infrastructure, just changing the size of the fields used as parameters. This worked well as long as you were not trying something as silly as direct-debiting an Italian utility to an Irish bank account or vice-versa. And I know that because I tried.

To be honest, though, not everyone is using direct debits still. Before my parents split up and I started being the one paying for the bills, my father insisted on not using direct debits at all, and instead paid the bills at the post office — and since a number of times the bills arrived past due, we ended up paying quite a lot of money in interests. The pay-to-the-post-office thing is also a fairly standard concept of Italian culture, at least up to the ’90s. I don’t think any of my age-peers are doing that anymore, particularly because post offices are pain to get to: in many town you can only get to them in the morning, and not over the weekend.

Indeed we got to the point that a lot of banks offer (or at least used to offer) a postal payment service so you could put in your request for a postal payment online… and then receive the paper receipt by snail mail, because what they pretty much did was forwarding the request to a local post office, with batch-printed money order forms!

Ireland

Given the fact that Ireland is part of the EU, and thus SEPA, you may think that things are mostly the same between Ireland and Italy. You would be wrong.

First of all, bank accounts in Ireland are a mess to choose from, because none provides any decent service. The one account I was given when I landed, through Google on AIB, was one of the most commonly used one, and required €2500 in the account at every single day of the quarter, or otherwise it would charge you for each operation you took… including received wires. Note that this is a daily minimum and not an average-over-the-quarter, like the equivalent would be in Italy. And goes without saying that it’s a no-interests account, so you need to put some money “to sleep” to avoid being charged through the nose.

The last account I settled on was an Ulster Bank premium service account at €36/month. It actually paid for itself in terms of a lot less time spent dealing with straightening things out (after a horrible situation with KBC, I really wanted someone that could do that stuff for me). And it came with a secondary Sterling account (via Ulster Bank Northern Ireland — I still have that account!), as well as a savings account and credit card.

Thankfully, Ireland abandoned the country-limited bank card system called Laser before I immigrated, in favour of using more standard Visa Debit cards. With the exception of KBC that, as far as I know, was the only issuer of MasterCard Debit bank cards. A number of other non-bank services issued MasterCard Debit cards: Revolut, Curve, and An Post’s money exchange services — the latter being ironic given that An Post was the only place I knew of that did not accept MasterCard Debit cards, only Visa Debit.

As far as I know, none of the big banks issue bank cards that have fees to take money out of a non-bank-owned ATM, to the point that I never bothered to go anywhere else but the two Spar supermarkets around my place, when I needed cash.

Direct debit is the norm, although some system of postal payment is still present, and a number of bills would have the details printed on the bottom. Ironically, it’s because of that, that once I leaked my own credit card number. Overall, the Irish banking system appears to me fairly straightforward, with most payment being executed electronically, and widespread card acceptance.

An interesting note about direct debits is that, despite nominally being part of the SEPA Direct Debit Core system, they appear to be vastly region-locked. I had to threaten Tesco Bank (before they sold their business to AvantCard) to bring it up with the regulator when they refused to let me direct debit an account with a non-Irish IBAN, and Ulster Bank (Ireland) didn’t budge even then. A few of the utilities, also, appear to still be unable to change the direct debit dynamicall: you instead choose how much you want to pay, and then they will issue you a statement to show how much in credit/debit you are.

What I would say is still Ireland’s biggest problem when it comes to banking is the lack of competition. It’s the reason why Revolut actually works well there: there is no high-street competition and those who are used to different level of service will go straight to FinTech offers. My impression is that the reason for the lack of competition is that it relates to the way folks stick to the bank their parents used, something that I have encountered in Italy a lot as well.

England

I nearly titled this section United Kingdom, but then I realized that there are a few things that don’t quite work the same way throughout the country. Which is something that became very apparent when I transfered from Dublin to London: in the Workday interface, when it asked me for a “UK bank account”, I provided an Ulster Bank (NI) account number, and that had me wait for another two weeks (with a roundtrip to payroll to change my account on file), because Northern Irish bank accounts are not compatible with most English payment systems, it appears.

On the bright side, the competition between banks is fierce, although there are a number of “branded” accounts that consumers don’t always notice are operated by the same institution. There are also free-by-mandate bank accounts made available by a number of well-known banks, although that is becoming an increasingly limited space.

In my experience, this is one of the most consumer-friendly banking system, with payments between accounts, whether private or business, being free or nearly free, and direct debits being ubiquitous. The best of all is that so-called “Faster Payments” transfers appear on the credited accounts nearly instantaneously, in a matter of minutes if not seconds, without any surcharge. Italy does have similar fast payments, but in their case, it usually comes at an additional cost.

Otherwise, the English system looks a lot like the Irish one, at least for now. Bank cards are issued usually on the VISA network, although I know of at least one bank issuing Mastercard debit cards. More recent ones stopped providing the embossed digits for the fully-offline usage, which is fair as the only place that I saw using those in the past few years has been a hotel in Tokyo.

Credit cards are an intersting story here. They are not expensive, honestly, but they are very, shall we say, selective. If you just moved into the country, you’re not going to get a credit card for a number of months, which is again similar to Ireland, although I did manage to get one relatively fast with American Express (which, of course, is not cheap by itself). Once you’re allowed to get a card, the price of it is usually recovered by cashback. Or you may choose to get one of the cards that cost nothing but don’t get a cashback at all. Personally, I decided to get two cards: Santander’s with generic cashback, and Amazon’s (by NewDay) with Amazon-only, points-based cashback; the former is paid back by the regular payments we have on it, and the latter was free, and adds up a few scores of pounds a year.

Compared to the time I spent there, the one thing that England appears to have that Ireland missed (and, as far as I know, so does Northern Ireland), is the concept of “retailer offers”. For those unaware of these, many banks include “selected offers” with their bank accounts or credit cards, which you usually need to explicitly opt into. The way you do that, is usually through their normal mobile banking app (or website), although I think a couple of banks have separate apps for those.

These offers are usually in the form of anything between 2% and 10% cashback for purchases over a certain amount up to a maximum. Depending on the bank, these are offered either in actual cash, additional “points”, or separate “rewards balance”. This is where things get interesting and complicated, because you end up having to keep in mind which card/account has a certain offer, and you end up then deciding which one to use to pay at a certain place depending on that.

To make the calculation more complicated, the rules are also different between these. My bank (Santander) has a single set of offers on the account, which applies to debit and credit cards alike. And if the offer is for “one-time”, it is consumed as soon as either me or my wife use the card for an eligible transaction. On the other hand, American Express applies the offers on the card, so both of us need to check our app for valid offers, and one-time offers can be used once per card (very useful for offers that instead of a percentage, give you back a fixed amount, like the yearly “Shop Small” week — fun fact: in the beforetimes, it confused a lot of waiters when we would decide to split the bill, particularly when our wedding rings are clearly visible). But at the same time, the banks’ offers can be combined with Airtime Rewards, so you win some, lose some.

Direct debits are another area that includes some calculation space, and some similarities with Ireland. The number of utilities using fixed direct debits is significantly lower, but it’s not entirely uncommon either. On the other hand, a few banks (including Santander) do apply cashback to (certain) direct debits. Or they may decide to give you perks as long as you have direct debits set up. This provides a gameable system: particularly when accounts suggest you can get perks as long as you have two direct debits, you can take a look at your periodic payments and, if they do allow PayPal, you can use then turn a periodic payment into a direct debit. For instance, you may have Spotify and Netflix as those direct debits.

My short version of an impression of the English banking system is of one that is perfect if you are a fan of strategy games or RPGs where you can spend a day just calculating the possible weapon/armor/enhancement combos. You can then decide to squeeze all possible combining offers, get the best exchange rate for each purchase, and so on. If you are not into these trickeries and calculations, well, you can still get a pretty much no frills account and be happy knowing that they are not really mugging you of a lot of money.

What is possibly the most annoying thing, is that the security of logging into the online banking options is fairly horrible. England (and Ireland too) is the home of “Please give us your 3rd, 7th, 38th character of your password” requests, which are horrible security theatre, and add nothing in terms of security, since transparent phishing proxies are not uncommon at all.

United States

For this country, I only have a passing knowledge of the banking system, since I have never lived there proper, but I do have a bank account, so I have experienced some of the workflows, and I can compare notes with a few people I know that have lived there.

The first thing everybody will tell you about US banking system, is that it still heavily relies on paper cheques. Yes, the same cheques that had the main spotlight in movies such as Catch Me If You Can (which in my opinion is a great movie, by the way). What has changed since the time of that movie is that there’s a lot of “virtual process” around cheques in the USA, something that I don’t think other countries have done, for good or bad.

So for instance, I have received myself a few US cheques (mostly as rebates for goods I bought in the USA); to cash them I didn’t have to wait for my next trip to the country: my bank (Chase) allows me to scan the cheques front and back with their mobile phone app and they consider that good enough that I don’t have to present the original to any one at all. I could literally take the cheques and frame them, if they had an emotional meaning for me (they don’t, and I didn’t). And I’m told that on the other hand, you can ask your bank to print out a cheque for you via their online banking, and they will post it out for you just fine. I’m sometimes scared by this strange paradox of still using cheques, but beside being reminded of the William Gibson quote («The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed»), I can only shake my head and thank the luck that “my” banking system doesn’t require me to deal with this.

Electronic payment in stores appear to be also unevenly distributed. While I had no issue with paying by card in most places I’ve been to, in either California, Pittsburgh, or New York, there appears to be still a lot of services that are cash only. One of them, ironically, in Mountain View: Dana Street Coffee Roaster serves really good coffee, but I don’t usually keep cash at hand (except if I’m going to The New Mongolian Barbeque), which is why I usually just hang out at Red Rock unless I’m with a local.

There is also the elephant in the room, that only recently the United States have introduced chip-and-pin for points of sale around the country, and the last time I was there, a lot of them still didn’t support it. The reason for that appears to be related to the way point of sale devices are handled in the USA, where a lot of vendors actually bought the terminals, rather than renting them from a bank or payment processor. This is unlike Europe, where as far as I know, most banks will sign you up as a customers and provide you a leased terminal, which they take responsibility for updating and replacing as needed, which allowed the deployment of new technologies such as chip cards (with either PIN or signature) and NFC payments in a much shorter order than across the pond.

Payments, particularly consumer to consumer, are a mess. The whole concept of direct bank transfers is not something you can consider in the USA, with wire transfers costing $25 at both ends of the transaction (depending on banks and other rules). This may give a bit of context on why Silicon Valley appears to want to reinvent payments every year, with new methods to “attach money” through all kind of messaging platforms, and why people still attach themselves at the idea of bitcoin solving problems related to instantaneous transfers among peers.

On the other hand, online banking systems appear to be a lot more sensible when it comes to login security than European banks. Chase even supports proper password managers in their login both on the website and on the mobile app, which is unheard of in the countries I lived in here in Europe. And they even will use email for OTP rather than the silly SMS. It also appears that retailer offers exist in the USA as well. Chase is always trying to sell me a Dropbox subscription, with a 15% off (and TurboTax, although I don’t actually owe taxes in the US so that would not be particularly useful).

Conclusions

This is by no means a complete and detailed comparisons of all these banking systems. It is most definitely biased and partial, particularly given, as I said, I have not lived in the United States, but only experience it as a passerby.

I have not covered the different credit score systems of these countries (among other things because I do not have a credit score in the USA at all), nor I have talked about how to get loan or mortgages (the latter of which, I never tried getting anyway). All of these are extremely important components of a banking system and they, more than the services to consumers, should be considered when debating its health.

I just find this particular field interesting, and I think that reading more about other countries banking systems might get people to pay more attention to the horrible technological solutions they come up with. Nobody cares about cryptocurrencies for money transmission in Europe because SEPA means you can transfer money for fees that are pretty much nothing by comparison with your average crypto transaction. Noone had more than a passing interest in “attaching money to Gmail” outside of the USA.

I honestly open that in the future I’ll get to know more banking systems. It would mean indeed moving again, but I think it would be interesting to see different parts of the world, too.

Moving Notes #4: Fixing Up A Flat You Rent

If you thought that after signing the lease for the new flat everything would be done and dusted, you’d be wrong. In what is definitely not a surprise to anyone, things didn’t go quite as planned once we started moving in, and not all of it was a fault of our landlord.

When we saw the flat, it was definitely in need of some freshening up, as the previous tenants lived there for a number of year and had clearly given it quite the run down. Most of it was taken care of before we entered, but as you can imagine with a pandemic going on, and the country still being in lockdown months later, not everything was fixed in time, and we have been understanding of it. Indeed, unfortunately a few months later we’re still talking about some of the issues, among other things because we stayed in the same development, and the companies involved in maintenance stayed the same — with the related lack of touch.

Now, this part of notes is going to be fairly generic with lack of details — that’s because the situation with the flat was particularly… peculiar, and our landlord is an individual, not a company, and doesn’t use a management company either. Which means that most of the issues we had to resolve were matters for just the three of us. But there’s a few lessons we learned that I thought I would share with others — because I’m sure many people already know these, but someone won’t, and maybe they’ll get the idea.

Keep Track

When we received the keys to the flat, not all of the work was completed. As I said, the reason for that was due to further lockdown happening in-between our signing and the move, among the other things reducing the pool of workers to fix the various issues.

Because of the number of issues, some minor and some more involved, we started tracking them with a shared spreadsheet. This was a great advantage — particularly as our landlord was very appreciative of the approach, as he could himself tick off the addressed issues as we went by. I’m honestly surprised that ticketing queues for property management companies are not more common, but given the way they worked I’m not surprised. I could really see a business opportunities for private landlords to have access to similar tools, but I also know it’s going to have a lot of abuse thrown into it, so I can’t say I’m surprised.

Take note of when you reported something, include pictures (links to Google Photos or Dropbox shared photos work great), and explicitly suggest what you want your landlord to do to address the situation. For a number of issues, we have explicitly suggested “Just so you know, this was the case, but we can fix it ourselves” — yes, we could have insisted by the terms of the lease that he should be addressing it, but we’ve both been respecting his time (and costs) and our privacy by working it this way. Note that of course any cost associated with extraordinary maintenance is to be born by the landlord — and it’s a privilege that we can afford advancing the money for this.

Try Everything, Quickly

This may be obvious to a number of people, but it still caught us unprepared. We keep adding things to check out at inspection every time we move somewhere. One of the things that I noted in the previous flat was that the extraction fan in the kitchen had two circular active carbon filters that needed replacing, so I did open to check if they needed replacing when we did the inspection… and that’s when we realized that the wire mesh filter needed to be replaced, too — it was completely delaminated.

Among the things that we needed to get fixed or replaced, was the hairtrap in the shower, which we didn’t expect to find damaged with all the “teeth” that are meant to trap hairs simply gone. This was notable because finding the right piece to replace this with turned out to be involved. The manufacturer of the showers in this building (as well as the whole quarter we live in, for what we know) has gone bankrupt pretty much right after the flats were built — although I don’t think there’s any connection between the two facts.

Where we nearly got burnt (pun intended) was the oven: when we moved in, we noted that the light in the oven was not working. It took some time to figure out what the bulb was at all — it was a G9 socket bulb. And for some reasons that are definitely not obvious to me, it won’t turn on if the time on the oven is not set. Don’t ask me why that is the case. What we didn’t question was how the light went out. Well, turns out that it might happen if the temperature of the oven exceeds the expected 350°C.

So here’s a piece of advice: grab an oven thermometer, set the oven at a reasonable temperature (e.g. 220°C which is common for baking), and check what the thermometer is reading. We did that, because when my wife was preparing bread, she was scared by how fast it started browning (and eventually burning), and that didn’t feel right. Indeed once we received the thermometer, we set the oven to 100°C, and after not even five minutes it read 270°C. Yeah that was not good, and the oven had to be replaced.

Now there’s an interesting point to make about replacing white goods in rented flats: as Alec Watson points out, there’s an incentive problem at hand: landlords are paying for the equipment, but not for the bills, so they are incentivised to buy replacement parts at a low cost on the short term even though they are not the most efficient. In this case our landlord did do good to us with the replacement oven, especially given that it was replaced just before lockdown entered into effect this past November — but the oven was definitely “less fancy” than the one that originally came with the apartment. Of course none of the lost features were really a loss for us (somehow these apartments came with very fancy ovens), but it’s a point to note.

Check all the lights, check all the taps, check all the drains. Do that as soon as you can. Make sure you report any drain that even appears to be slow, because it’s likely going to get worse rather than better. Check anything that is fused to make sure it turns on.

Uncommon Cleaning Products

While most flats are meant to be cleaned professionally before you move in, what counts as “clean” is pretty much on the eyes of the beholder. So you probably want to have a good supply of cleaning products when moving in into an apartment no matter what.

There’s a few more items that you may want to have, though. Dishwasher cleaners are widely available nowadays, and in my experience they do improve things a great deal, but washing machine cleaners are not often thought about. We used these in the previous flat and they were instrumental here to get the washing machine ready to be used, because it was in a horrible state when we came in, part because it was never cleaned properly, and part because it stayed shut down for many years.

One of the thing that turned out to be very useful to have, was good old citric acid. This turned out to be something that we didn’t really keep at hand at all, until last year — Dyson recommended it to clean the tank of their Pure Cool+Humidify device, which we bought last year due to the ventilation issues that the flat we were leaving.

Aside: the Dyson was actually a very good purchase, not because of the brand, but because we just had no idea how dry this flat was going to be — without humidifier, we approach 30% over night, and that is not good. And also, we still have ventilation issues — although not as bad as in the previous flat.

Citric acid is used in the Dyson cleaning cycle to descale the pump, but can also be used to descale pretty much anything that needs descaling. You can buy optimized descaling products, for instance for kettles (and you should, if you have a kettle and as hard a water as we have here), but for descaling things like taps and showerheads, it works like a charm, and is overall much cheaper.

You’re likely going to be needing stronger acid to unclog drains — or to remove smell from them. These are available in most grocery stores in different brands so feel free to browse and find them. Keep track of how many you need. This was not a problem here, but when I moved to Dublin I ended up needing the extra strong ones in every single drain. It added up to over €60, and I got a rent discount from my landlord for that.

Also, listen to the advice that the locksmith who had to come in the other week had for us, and WD-40 your locks twice a year. As he put it: «Change your clock, lubricate your locks.» He was not here for the flat’s door (thankfully! — but also, we barely ended up both leaving at the same time since we moved in), but he did check on the fact that the door’s lock was starting to get loose.

Storage Spaces And Cable Management

Managing storage in London tends to come up with a lot of jokes. Utility closets are virtually clogged by boilers and other equipment. What we learnt in the past is that it’s much easier to make space in a closet when most things are in square-ish boxes. So we ended up buying a bunch of boxes from Really Useful Products (we went straight at the source, after disappointing deliveries by both Ryman and Argos), and use them to store things such as cleaning supplies, rarely used tools, and replacement lightbulbs.

The end result of this type of organization is that the volume occupied in the closet is definitely increased, but also it’s easier to move stuff around, and we no longer fear smashing lightbulbs when retrieving the fabric softener. Why do we have so many lightbulbs? Because we ended up replacing the spotlights in my office and in the ensuite with Philips Hue lights. I’ll talk about the ensuite setup another day.

Boxes go well in cabinets, too — particularly if they are too deep to otherwise get stuff out. We’re not to the point of ordering custom made acrylic boxes like Adam Savage – among other things, while work is good, we don’t make TV money – but we might have perused online stores specs to find boxes that fit the nooks and crannies of our kitchen cabinets.

Similarly, vertical space is always nice to recover where you can. If you take for example the air fresheners from AirWick or Glade, most of them can be hang on the wall. And while it’s usually not a good idea to screw stuff in the wall, 3M Command makes it possible to still put them on the wall without risking your deposit money. And they actually tend to work better once you put them at “nose height”. We put one in the bathroom by the door, so when you walk in it sprays and you smell it just right then and there. I have to say I feel I’m getting more bang for the buck than having it on top of the cabinet or to the side of the sink.

Another place where it’s not obvious that vertical space is cheaper than horizontal one is the shower cube. In both flats I lived in London, despite having a good walk-in shower, there’s been no shelf for holding gels and shampoo, and I usually ended up just balancing them on the taps – since installing a shelf is not possible while renting, and using the suction cup ones tend to be more annoying than not. Instead using a shower basket allows to hold the bottles just fine. And some Command strips adds the hooks needed to hold loofahs and the like.

The next problem is that you never have enough plugs for stuff, and even when you do it’s likely in the wrong place. We tried a number of solutions and for this one I have two advices: the first is that if you own your furniture, you can easily screw in a multi-plug extension cord, which makes it so much easier to manage cables.

The other thing that we found that helps quite a bit is these cable-less three-way extensions. They seem safe enough, and give more plugs in spaces where two-gangs are too little, without adding to cable management. We put a few of these around where we have lamps, and where we would like to plug in our vacuum cleaner.

The final cable that needed some sorting out was the network cable. Like most (but not all) of the flats we saw here in London, the network plug used by our ISP (the ever awesome Hyperoptic) is in the living room, by the expected “TV area”, but I would like to have wired network all the way to my office, since I’m on videocall most of the day anyway. This is not an uncommon problem; in Dublin I was physically in the same room, but still had to go through most of the room to get to my desk, while in the previous flat I paid someone to install trunking along the walls and under the doors (before my wife even moved in).

Our landlord suggested just drilling through behind the sofa to the office, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that wit the number of unknown issues with cabling going on. So instead I ended up looking at alternative options. And here’s where I need to thank Hector once again: when I first visited him in Japan he gave me a tour of Akihabara from the technician point of view and showed me the extra thin ELECOM network cables. That’s the one I used in Dublin too, and that’s the one I used to go below the two doors in this flat — except I needed something longer if I didn’t want to just bridge it inside the living room. So I ended up ordering a 20 meters flat CAT6 cable from Amazon Japan, and that works like a charm: it fits neatly under the doors and doesn’t get snapped on at all.

Conclusions

We’ve been living here six months and we’re still sorting things out, some of it is the fault of the lockdown making it hard to get people in to fix things, some of it because of the building management company failing at responding altogether.

Hopefully, we’ll soon be done and we can consider it settled… although I guess the change in routine once the lockdown finally eases will mean we’ll find more stuff to sort out. So maybe you’ll get more parts to this series.

After The Streams — Conclusion From My Pawsome Players Experiment

A few weeks ago I announced my intention to take part in the Cats Protection fundraiser Pawsome Players. I followed through with seven daily streams on Twitch (which you can find archived on YouTube). I thought I would at least write some words about the experience, and to draw some lines out of what worked, and what didn’t, and what to expect in the future.

But before I drop into dissecting the stream, I wanted to thank those who joined me and donated. We reached £290 worth of donations for Cats Protection, which is no small feat. Thank you, all!

Motivations

There’s two separate motivations to look at when talking about this. There’s my motivation for having a fundraiser for Cats Protection, and then the motivations for me doing streams at all, and those needs to be separated right away.

For what concern the choice of charity – both me and my wife love cats and kittens, we’re childfree cat people. The week happened to culminate in my wife’s birthday and so in a way it was part of my present for her. In addition to that, I’m honestly scared for the kittens that were adopted at the beginning of the lockdown and might now be left abandoned as the lockdown eases.

While adopting a kitten is an awesome thing for humans to do, it is also a commitment. I am afraid for those who might not be able to take this commitment to full heart, and might find themselves abandoning their furry family member once travel results and they are no longer stuck at home for months on end.

I also think that Cats Protection, like most (though not all) software non-profit organizations, are perfectly reasonable charities to receive disposable funds. Not to diminish the importance and effort of fundraisers and donations to bigger, important causes, but it does raise my eyebrow when I see that NHS needs charitable contributions to be funded — that’s a task that I expect the government taking my tax money should be looking at!

Then there’s the motivation for me doing livestreams at all — it’s not like I’m a particularly entertaining host or that I have ever considered a career in entertainment. But 2020 was weird, particularly when changing employer, and it became significantly more important to be able to communicate across a microphone, a camera and a screen the type of information I would usually have communicated in a meeting room with a large whiteboard and a few colour markers. So I have started looking at way to convey more information that don’t otherwise fit written form, because it’s either extemporaneous, or require a visual feedback.

When I decided to try the first livestream I actually used a real whiteboard, and then I tried this with Microsoft’s Whiteboard. I have also considered the idea of going for a more complex video production by recording a presentation, but I was actually hoping for a more interactive session with Q&A and comments. Unfortunately, it looks only a few people ever appeared in the chatrooms, and most of the time they were people who I am already in contact with outside of the streams.

What I explicitly don’t care for, in these streams, is to become a “professional” streamer. This might have been different many years ago — after all, this very blog was for a long time my main claim to fame, and I have been doing a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure that it would give a positive impression to people, and it involved also quite a bit of investment not just in time but in money, too.

There’s a number of things that I know already I would be doing differently if I was trying to make FLOSS development streaming a bigger part of my image — starting with either setting up or hiring a multiplicator service that would stream the same content onto more than just Twitch. Some of those would definitely be easier to pull off nowadays with a full-time job (cash in hand helps), but they would be eating into my family life to a degree I’m no longer finding acceptable.

I will probably do more livestreams in the upcoming months. I think there’s a lot of space for me to grow when it comes to provide information in a live stream. But why would I want to? Well, the reason is similar to the reason why this blog still exists: I have a lot of things to say — not just in the matter of reminding myself how to do things I want to do, but also a trove of experience collected vastly by making mistakes and slamming head-first into walls repeatedly – and into rakes, many many rakes – which I enjoy sharing with the wider world.

Finally (and I know I said there’s two motivation), there’s a subtlety: when working on something while streaming, I’m focusing on the task at hand. Since people are figuratively looking over my shoulder, I don’t get to check on chats (and Twitter, Facebook, NewsBlur), I don’t get to watch a YouTube video in the background and get distracted by something, and I don’t get to just look at shopping websites. Which means that I can get to complete some open source hacking, at least timeboxed for the stream.

Tangible Results

Looking back at what I proposed I’d be doing, and what I really ended up doing, I can’t say I’m particularly happy about the results. It took me significantly longer to do some things that I expected would take me no time whatsoever, and I didn’t end up doing any of the things I meant to be doing with my electronics project. But on the other hand, I did manage some results.

Beside the already noted £290 collected for Cats Protection (again, thank you all, and in particular Luke!), I fully completed the reverse engineering of the GlucoMen areo glucometer that I reviewed last week. I think about an hour of the stream was dedicated to me just poking around trying to figure out what checksum algorithm it used (answer: CRC-8-Maxim as used in 1wire) — together with the other streams and some offline work, I would say that it took about six hours to completely reverse engineer that meters into an usable glucometerutils driver, which is not a terrible result after all.

What about unpaper? I faffed around a bit to get the last few bits of Meson working — and then I took on a fight with Travis CI which resulted in me just replacing the whole thing with GitHub Actions (and incidentally correcting the Meson docs). I think this is also a good result to a point, but I need to spend more time before I make a new release that uses non-deprecated ffmpeg APIs — or hope that one of my former project-mates feel for me and helps.

Tests are there, but they are less than optimal. And I only scratched the surface of what could be integrated into Meson. I think that if I sat down with the folks who knows the internal in a chat I might be able to draw some ideas that could help not just me but others… but it turns out that involves me spending time in chat rooms, and it’s not something that can be focused on a specific time slot a week. I guess that is one use where mailing lists are still a good approach, although that’s no longer that common after all. GitHub issues, pull requests and projects might be a better approach, but the signal-to-noise ratio is too slow in many cases, particularly when half the comments are either pile-on or “Hey can you get to work on this?”. I don’t have a good answer for this.

The Home Assistant stream ended up being a total mess. Okay, on one half of it I managed to sync (and subsequently get merged) the pull requests to support bound CGG1 sensors into ESPHome. But when I tried to set up the custom component to be released I realized that first, I have no idea how to make a Home Assistant custom component repository – there’s a few guidelines if you plan to get your component into HACS (but I wasn’t planning to), and the rest of the docs suggest you may want to submit it to inclusion (which I cannot do because it’s a web scraper!) – and the second is that the REUSE tool is broken on Windows, despite my best efforts last year to spread its usage.

The funny thing is that it appears to be broken because it started depending on python-debian, which mostly reasonably didn’t expect to have to support non-Unix systems, and thus imported the pwd module unconditionally. The problem is already fixed on their upstream repository, but there hasn’t been a release of the package in four months and so the problem is still there.

So I guess the only thing that worked well enough throughout this is that I can reverse engineer devices in public. And I’m not particularly good at explaining that, but I guess it’s something I can keep doing. Unfortunately it’s getting harder to find devices that are not either already well covered, or otherwise resistant to the type of passive reverse engineering I’m an expert in. If you happen to have some that you think might be a worthy puzzle, I’m all ears.

Production and Support

I have not paid attention too much about production. Except for the one thing: I got myself a decent microphone because I heard my voice in one of the previous streams and I cringed. Having worked too many years in real-time audio and video streaming, I’m peculiar about things like that.

Prices of decent microphones, often referred to as “podcasting” microphones when you look around, skyrocketed during the first lockdown and don’t appear to have come quite down yet. You can find what I call “AliExpress special” USB microphones that look fancy studio mics on Amazon at affordable prices, but they pretty much only look the part, not being comparable in terms of specs — might be just as tinny as your average webcam mic.

If you look at “good” known brands, you usually find them in two configurations: “ready to use” USB microphones, and XLR microphones — the latter being the choice of more “professional” environments, but not (usually) directly connected to a computer… but there’s definitely a wide market of USB capture cards and they are not that much more expensive when adding it all together. The best thing about the “discrete” setup (with an XLR microphone and an USB capture card/soundcard) is that you can replace them separately, or even combine more of them at a lower cost.

In my case, I already owned a Subzero SZ-MIX06USB mixer with USB connection. I bought it last year to be able to bring in the sound from the ~two~ three computers in my office (Gamestation, dayjob workstation, and NUC) into the same set of speakers, and it comes with two XLR inputs. So, yes, it turned out that XLR was a better choice for me then. The other nice thing about using a mixer here, is that I can control some of the levels on the analog side — because I have a personal dislike of too-low frequencies, so I have done a bit of tweaking of the capture to suit my own taste. I told you I’m weird when it comes to streaming.

Also let’s me be clear: unless you’re doing it (semi-)professionally, I would say that investing more than £60 would be a terrible idea. I got the microphone not only to use for the livestream, but also to take a few of the meetings (those that don’t go through the Portal), and I already had the mixer/capture card. And even then I was a bit annoyed by the general price situation.

It also would have helped immensely if I didn’t have an extremely squeaky chair. To be honest, now that I know it’s there, I find it unnerving. Unfortunately just adding WD40 from below didn’t help — most of the videos and suggestions I found on how to handle the squeaks of this model (it’s an Ikea Markus chair — it’s very common) require unscrewing most of the body to get to the “gearbox” under the seat. I guess that’s going to be one of the tasks I need to handle soon — and it’s probably worth it given that this chair already went through two moves!

So hardware aside, how’s the situation with the software? Unfortunately, feng is no longer useful for this. And as I was going through options last year I ended up going for Streamlabs OBS for the “It vastly works out of the box” option. Honestly, I should probably replace it with OBS Studio, since I’m not using any of Streamlabs’ features, and I might as well stick to the original source.

As I said above, I’m not planning to take on streaming as a professional image — if I did, I probably would have also invested in licensing some background music or a “opening theme”. And I probably would have set up the stream backgrounds differently — right now I’m just changing the background pictures based on what I shot myself.

Conclusions

It was a neat experiment — but I don’t think I’ll do this again, at least not in this form.

Among other things, I think that doing one hour of stream is sub-optimal — it takes so long to set up and remind people about the chat and donations, and by the time I finished providing context, I was already a quarter of the hour in. I think two to three hours is a better time — I would probably go for three hours with breaks (which would have been easier during the Pawsome Players events, since I could have used the provided videos to take breaks).

Overall, I think that for this to work it needs a bigger, wider audience. If I was in the same professional space I was ten years ago, with today’s situation, I would probably be having all kind of Patreon subscriptions, with the blog being syndicated on Planet Gentoo, and me actually involved in a project… then I think it would made perfect sense. But given it’s “2021 me” moving in “2021 world”… I doubt there’s enough people out there who care about what goes through my mind.

Glucometer Review: GlucoMen Areo

Two weeks ago I reviewed a GlucoRx Q meter, and while I was doing that I ended up down a rabbithole that I did not expect. The GlucoRx Nexus and Q are both manufactured by the same company, TaiDoc Technology – a Taiwanese medical device manufacturer that manufacturers and sells both personal medical devices such as glucometers and hospital equipment. They clearly manufacture “white label” meters, given that the Nexus (TD-4277) is available under a number of different brands and names — and in particular when looking at that I found it as the “GlucoMen Nexus”.

The reason why that caught my eye is that it’s marketed by the Italian pharmaceutical company Menarini — and I’m Italian so I knew the name. So when I added the information on the Q, I thought I would go and look on whether they also sold that under the GlucoMen brand — they didn’t, but I found another rathole to look at.

It turns out that the GlucoMen brand in the UK is managed by a subsidiary of Menarini called A. Menarini Diagnostics, and they sell not just your usual blood-based glucometers, but also a CGM system (though from what I can see it’s similar to the Dexcom I didn’t like). They also allowed me to order a free meter (the GlucoMen Areo that I’m going to review here), together with the free USB cable to use with it to download the data to a computer.

The fact that this meter required a separate cable hinted me at the fact that it’s not just another TaiDoc rebrand — as I said in the previous post, TaiDoc is the first manufacturer that I find re-using their exact protocol across different devices, and that suggested me that any other modern model from them would also use the same, and since they are using a Silicon Labs 8051 platform with native USB, it sounded unlikely they would need a separate cable.

Indeed, when the meter arrived it was clear that it’s not a TaiDoc device — it’s very different and all the markings on it suggest that Menarini is manufacturing it themselves (though, also in Taiwan). And it’s… interesting.

The first thing that I noted is that the carrying pouch was significantly higher quality than I’m used to. No netting to hold stuff in, but instead a Velcro-held pouch, and enough space to hold their prickling pen with. And on the inside, in addition to the logo of the company, space to write (or attach a label of) name, phone number, address and email. This is the first time in all my years with diabetes that I see such a “posh” pouch. Which turned out not to be entirely too surprising once I noticed that the pouch has the logo of the Italian accessories designer/manufacturer Tucano.

Going instead to look at the meter, what came to my attention quickly is that this meter is the first non-Chinese meter I find that (allegedly) has a “touch free” ejection of the testing strips. The shape and construction of the device roughly reminds me of the basic Tamagotchi from my early teens — to the point that when I push the button to eject the strip I’m afraid I’m going to destroy the LCD panel in the front. Note that unlike the Chinese devices, that have a lever that physically push the strip out of the holder, in this meter the “Push” button only appears to “let go” of the strip, which you can tip into the trash, but does not physically dislodge it at all.

The cable sent to me is another of the common 2.5mm TRS serial adapters — this one using a Silicon Labs CP2104-compatible chip on board (probably in the mould of the USB plug). It plugs at the bottom of the device, in a fashion pretty much identical to the OneTouch Ultra2 devices. Not surprising given I think they were the most common in Italy back in the day.

In addition to the USB/serial connectivity, the device is meant to speak NFC to a phone. I have not figured out how that is supposed to work, to be honest. It seems to be meant mostly to integrate with their CGM solution, and since I don’t have one (and I’m not interested in testing it right now), I don’t expect I’ll figure that out any time soon. Also NFC snooping is not my cup of tea and I’ll gladly leave that to someone else who actually knows how to do that.

Aesthetics continue with the design of the testing strips, that are significantly larger than most other meters I have at hand right now (this is not always a bad thing — particularly for older people, larger strips are easier to use), with a very thin drop placement at the top, and a white front. I’m not trying to play the stereotype of “Italian company cares about style more than substance”, but I have seen enough glucometers by now to say that Menarini definitely had a designer go through this with an eye at fitting everything together.

In terms of usability, the device is pretty straightforward — the display is a standard LCD (so standard I’m sure I saw the same exact segments before), very bright and easily readable. The amount of blood needed in the strip is actually much smaller than you would expect, but also not as little as other meters I have used in the past. This became very apparent during the last of my reverse engineering streams, when I lost three (or four) strips to “Err3” (too little blood), and it reminded me of how many strips I used to lose to not having drawn enough blood when I started using a meter.

In terms of documentation and usability of the markers function there’s something to say there, too. The device supports one or none markers out of four: before meal, after meal, exercise and “check mark” — the check mark is documented in the manual as being pretty much a freeform option. The way you mark these is by pressing (not holding) the power button when you’re looking at the strip result — the manual says to hold the button until the marker flashes, but if you hold it for more than a split second it actually turns off the device, which is not what I expected.

In a strange turn of events, this is also the first meter I saw using a fish (and fish bones) to represent the before (and after) meal. Nearly everything else I have at hand uses an apple (and an apple core), since that’s fruit, and thus sugars. I don’t have an issue on the option per se, but I can imagine this does confuse people at times.

The software is… painfully complex. It seems designed more for medical professionals than home use, which probably explains why the cable is not included by default. It also supports most GlucoMen devices, though it appears to install a long list of drivers for USB-to-serial adapters, which suggests each cable comes with a different serial adapter.

I have actually fully reverse engineered the protocol, live on stream during my Cats Protection Pawsome Players week — you can see the live streams archived on YouTube, but I’ll also post (probably later on) a summary of my discovery. It’s fully supported now on glucometerutils tough. The interesting part there is that I found how the original software has a bug: it can only set the time some of the times, literally, because of the way it provides the checksum to the device. My implementation doesn’t suffer from that bug.

Service Announcement: Pawsome Players Streaming Week

You may remember I have been irregularly streaming on Twitch some of my FLOSS work, which focused almost exclusively on unpaper over the past few months. Now, unrelated to this, Cats Protection, the British no-profit whose primary goal is to rehome cats in need, launched their Pawsome Players initiative, aiming at raising fund through streaming — video games primarily, but not just.

With this in mind, I decided to join the fun, and will be streaming for the whole week at least an hour every day, and work on more FLOSS projects. You can find the full schedule (as well as donate to the campaign) on Tiltify, and if you want to get reminded of a particular night, you can join the events on the blog’s Facebook page.

In addition to wrapping up the Meson conversion of Unpaper, I’m planning to do a little bit of work on quite a few more other projects:

  • I have a new glucometer I want to reverse engineer, and with that comes an opportunity to see my way of working through this type of work; I’m not as entertaining and deep as Hector, but if you have never looked over the shoulder of a “black box” reverse engineer, I think it might be interesting. The code I’ll be working on is likely usbmon-tools rather than glucometerutils, but there’s a chance that I’ll get so far ahead I’ll actually implement the code.
  • Speaking of reverse engineering, I have a few adapters I designed (and got printed) for my Saleae Logic Pro 16. I have not released the schematics for those yet, but I now have the work approvals to. I should make a repository for them and release them, I’ll do that on stream!
  • I want to make some design changes to my Birch Books, which I’ll discuss on stream. It’s going to be a bit more PCB “designing” (I use quotes here, because I’m far from a designer, and more of a “cobbler together”) which is likely going to be scary for those who do know what they are doing.

I’m also open to the idea of doing some live code-reviews — I did lots of those when working at Google, and while for those I had a lot of specific standards to appeal to, a number of suggestions are nearly universal, and I have done this before where I was pointed at some Python project and gave some general advice of what I see. I’d be willing to take a random project and see what I can notice, if the author is willing!

Also, bonus points for anyone who guesses where the name of the fundraising page from.

So I hope I’ll hear from you on the stream chat (over on Twitch), and that you’ll join me in supporting Cats Protection to help find every kitty a forever home (me and my wife would love to be one of those homes, but it’s not easy when renting in London), and reach the £1985 target.

Flashing ESPHome on White Label Smart Plugs

You may remember that I bought a smart plug a few years ago, for our Christmas tree, and had been wondering what the heck do you use a smart plug for. Well, a few months ago I found out another use case for it that I had not thought about to that point: the subwoofer.

When I moved to Dublin, nearly eight years ago now, I bought a new TV, and an AV receiver, and a set of speakers — and with these last one, came a subwoofer. I don’t actually like subwoofer that much, or at least I didn’t, because the low-frequency sounds give (or gave) me headaches, and so while it does sound majestic to watch a good movie with the subwoofer on, I rarely do that.

On the other hand, it was still preferable to certain noise coming from the neighbours, particularly if we ended up not being in the same room as the device itself. Which meant we started using the subwoofer more — but unlike the AV receiver, that can be controlled with a network endpoint, the subwoofer has a physical switch to turn on and off… a perfect use case for setting this up with a smart plug!

Since I didn’t want to reuse the original plug for the Christmas tree (among other things, it’s stashed away with the Christmas tree), I ended up going online and ordering a new one — and I selected a TP-Link, that I thought would work just the same as my previous one… except it didn’t. Turns out TP-Link has two separate Smart Home brands, and while they share the same account management, they use different apps and have different integration support. The Christmas tree uses a Kasa-branded plug, while the one I ordered was a Tapo-branded plug — the latter does not work with Home Assistant, which was a bit annoying, while the former worked well, when I used it.

When TP-Link then also got in the news for having “fixed” a vulnerability that allowed Home Assistant to control the Kasa plugs on the local network, I got annoyed enough that I decided to do something about it. (Although it’s good to note that nowadays Home Assistant works fine with the “fixed” Kasa plugs, too.)

I asked once again help to Srdjan who has more patience than me to look up random IoT projects out there, and he suggested me the way forward… which turned out a bit more tortuous than expected, so let me try to recount it here, showing shortcuts as much as I can at the time of writing

The Hardware

Things start a bit iffy to begin with — I say that because the hardware I ended up getting myself was Gosund SP111 from Amazon, after checking reviews that they were still shipping an older version of the hardware that can be converted with tuya-convert (I’ll get back to the software in a moment). There’s plenty of warnings about the new models, but in a very similar fashion to the problem with CGG1 sensors, there’s no way to know beforehand what version of a firmware you’re going to find.

But in particular, SP111 are not Gosund engineering’s own work. Tuya is a company that build “white label” goods for many different brands, and that’s how these plugs were made. You can find them under a number of different brand names, but they all share the same firmware and, critically, the same pairing and update keys.

One of the best part about these Tuya/Gosund plugs is that they are tiny in the sense of taking very little space. They are less than half the size of my first Kasa-branded TP-Link smart plug, and even when compared with the newer Tapo-branded one they are quite slimmer. This makes for adding them easily to places that are a bit on the constrained side.

The Firmware

I did not buy these devices to run with the original firmware. Unlike the CGG1 and pretty much everything else I’m running at home, this time I went straight for the “I want to run ESPHome on them.” The reason for that was on one side, I’m annoyed and burnt by the two TP-Link devices, and from the other, the price of Hue-compatible smart plugs was annoyingly high. That would have been my default alternative.

Of the various important things to me, Home Assistant support grown from a “meh, sure” to “yeah I want that” — and in part because I did manage to set up scripts for quite a bit of tools at home through it. One of my original concerns (wanting to still be able to control most of these features by voice) is taken care of by signing up for Nabu Casa, which provides integration for both Google Assistant and Alexa, so even with the plug running a custom and maybe janky, firmware, getting it to work with the rest of the house would be a breeze.

There’s other options for open source firmware for the SP111, as well as other smart plugs. Tasmota is one of the most commonly used for this, and there’s another called ESPurna. I have not spent time investigating them, because I already have one ESPHome device running, and it was easier to lower my cognitive load to use something I already kinda know. After all, the plan is to replace the Kasa plug once we take out the Christmas tree, which would remove not one but two integrations from Google and Amazon (and one from Home Assistant).

All of these options can be flashed the first time around with tuya-convert, even though the procedure ended up not being totally clear to me — although in part that was caused by my… somewhat difficult set up. This was actually part of the requirements. Most smart home devices appear to be built around ESP8622 or ESP32, which means you can, with enough convincing, flash them with ESPHome (I’m still convincing my acrylic lamp circuit board), but quite a few require you have physical access to the serial port. I wanted something I could flash without having to take it apart.

The way this works, in very rough terms, is that the Tuya-based devices can be tricked into connecting to a local open network, and from there with the right protocol, they can be convinced to dump their firmware and to update it with an arbitrary firmware binary. The tuya-convert repository includes pretty much all the things you need to set this up, neatly packaged in a nearly user-friendly way. I say nearly, because as it turns out there’s so much that can go wrong with it, that the frustration is real.

The Process.

Part 1: WiFi.

First of all, you need a machine that has a WiFi adapter that supports Access Point mode (AP mode/hostapd mode, those are the keywords to look for it). This is very annoying to know for sure, because manufacturers tend to use the same model number across hardware revisions (that may entirely change the chipset) and countries — after all, Matthew ended up turning to Xbox One controller adapters! (And as it turns out, he says they should actually support that mode, with a limited range.)

The usual “go-to” for this is to use a laptop which also has an Ethernet port. Unfortunately I don’t have one, and in particular, I don’t have a Linux laptop anymore. I tried using a couple of Live Distros to set this up, but for one reason or another they were a complete bust (I couldn’t even type on Ubuntu’s Terminal, don’t even ask.)

In my case, I have a NUC on top of my desk, and that’s my usual Linux machine (the one I’m typing on right now!) so I could have used that… except I did disable the WiFi in the firmware when I got it, since I wired it with a cable, and I didn’t feel the need to keep it enabled. This appears to have been a blessing in disguise for a while, or I would have been frustrated at one of the openSUSE updates in December, when a kernel bug caused the system to become unusable with the WiFi on. Which is what happened when I turned the WiFi on in the firmware.

Since I don’t like waiting, and I thought it would generally be a good idea to have at least one spare USB WiFi dongle at home (it would have turned useful at least once before), I went and ordered one on Amazon that people suggested might work. Except it probably got a hardware revision in the middle, and the one I received wasn’t suitable — or, some of the reports say that it depends on the firmware loaded on it; I really didn’t care to debug that too much once I got to that stage.

Fast forward a few weeks, the kernel bug is fixed, so I tried again. The tuya-convert script uses Docker to set up everything, so it sounded like just installing Docker and docker-compose on my openSUSE installation would be enough, right? Well, no. Somehow the interaction of Docker and KVM virtual machines had side effects on the networking, and when I tried I both lost connectivity to Home Assistant (at least over IPv6), and the tuya-convert script kept terminating by itself without providing any useful information.

So instead, I decided to make my life easier and more difficult at the same time.

Part 1.1: WiFi In A Virtual Machine

I didn’t want Docker to make a mess of my networking setup. I also wasn’t quite sure of what tuya-convert would be doing on my machine (yes, it’s open source, but hey I don’t have time to audit all of it). So instead of trying to keep running this within my normal openSUSE install, I decided to run this in a virtual machine.

Of course I need WiFi in the VM, and as I said earlier, I couldn’t just pass through the USB dongle, because it wouldn’t work with hostapd. But modern computers support PCI pass-through, when IOMMU is enabled. My NUC’s WiFi supports hostapd, and it’s sitting unused, since I connect to the network over a cable.

The annoying part was that for performance issues, IOMMU is disabled by default, at least for Intel CPUs, so you have to add intel_iommu=on for the option of passing through PCI devices to KVM virtual machines to be available. This thread has more information, but you probably don’t need all of it, as that focuses on passing through graphic cards, which is a much more complicated topic.

The next problem was what operating system to run in the VM itself. At first I tried using the LiveDVD of openSUSE — but that didn’t work out: the Docker setup that tuya-convert uses is pretty much installing a good chunk of Ubuntu, and it runs out of memory quickly, and when it does it throws a lot of I/O errors from the btrfs loaded into memory. Oops.

Missing a VM image of openSUSE Tumbleweed, I decided to try their image for JeOS instead, which is a stripped down version meant to be used in virtualized environments. This seemed to fit like a glove at first, but then my simplicity plans got foiled by not realizing that usually virtualized environments don’t care for WiFi. Although the utter lack of NetworkManager or any other WiFi tooling turned out to be handy to make sure that nothing tried to steal the WiFi away from tuya-convert.

In addition to changing the kernel package with a version that cares about WiFi drivers, you need to install the right firmware package for the card. After that, at least the first part is nearly taken care of — you will most likely need a few more tools, such as Git and your editor of choice. And of course, Docker and docker-compose.

And then, do yourself a favour, and turn off firewalld entirely in your virtual machine. Maybe I should have said earlier “Don’t let the VM be published to the Internet at large”, but I hope if you get to try to pass-through a WiFi device, you knew better than doing that anyway. The firewall is something that is not obvious is going to get in your way later when you set to run tuya-convert, and it’ll make the whole setup fail silently in the hardest way possible to debug.

Indeed, when I looked for my issues I found tons of posts, issues, blogs all complaining about the same symptom I had, which was all caused by having a firewall in place. The tuya-convert script does a lot of things to set up stuff, but it can’t easily take down a firewall, and that is a biggie.

Indeed, and I’ll repeat that later, at some point the instructions tell you to connect some other device to their network and suggest otherwise it might not be working. My impression is that this is done because if it doesn’t work, you shouldn’t try taking the next steps yet. But the problem is that there is no note anywhere to help you if it doesn’t work — and the reason for it failing is likely the firewall stopping the DHCP server from receiving the requests. Oops.

Part 2: The Firmware Blob

ESPHome configurations are… sometimes very personal. I have found one for the SP111 on the Home Assistant forums and adapted it, but… I don’t really feel like recommending that one. So I’m afraid I won’t take responsibility for how you configure your ESPHome firmware for the plug.

Also, once you have ESPHome on the device, changing the config is nearly trivial, from the Home Assistant integration, so I feel it’s important to have something working at first, and then worry about perfecting it.

I think someone will be confused here on why am I jumping on configuring the firmware blob before we got to convert the device to use it. The reason for that is that you want to have the binary file (either built locally or generated with the Home Assistant integration and downloaded), and you put it into tuya-convert/files/, you will be able to directly flash that version, without going through the intermediate step of using one of the bundled firmware just to be able to update to an arbitrary firmware. But to do that, it needs to happen before you complete the Docker setup.

So, find yourself a working config for the device on the forums (and if you find one that is maintained and templated, so that one can just drop it in and just configure the parameters, please let me know), and generate your ESPHome firmware from there.

Also note that the firmware itself identifies the specific device. This means you cannot flash more than one device with the same firmware or you’ll have quite the headache to sort them out afterwards. Not saying it isn’t possible, but I just found it easier to make the firmware for the devices I was going to flash, and then load each one. As usual, my favourite tool to remember what is what would be my label maker, so that I don’t mix up which one I flashed with which binary.

Part 3: The Conversion

Okay so here’s the inventory of what you should have by this point before we move on to the actual conversion:

  • a virtual machine with a passed-through WiFi card that is supported by hostapd;
  • an operating system in the VM with the drivers for the WiFi, Docker, docker-compose, and no firewall;
  • a checkout of tuya-convert repository;
  • one or more ESPHome firmware binary files (one per device you want to flash), in the files/ directory of the checkout.

Only at this point you can go and follow the instruction of tuya-convert: create Docker image, setup docker-compose, and run the image. The firmware files need to be added before creating the docker image, because docker-compose does not bind the external files/ directory at all.

Once the software starts, it’ll ask you to connect another device that is not the plug to the WiFi. I’m not entirely sure if it’s just for diagnostics, but in either case, you should be able to connect to the network — the password should be flashmeifyoucan, although I don’t think I’ve seen that documented anywhere except when googling around for other people having had issues with their process.

If you try this from your phone, you should be prompted to login into the WiFi network through a captive portal — the portal is just a single page telling you that the setup is completed. If your phone gets stuck in the “Obtaining IP Address” phase, like mine did, make sure you really took down the firewall. This got me stuck for a while because I thought that the Docker itself controlled the whole firewall settings — but that does not appear to be the case.

Final Thoughts

I guess that this guide is not going to be very useful, with the new versions of the SP111 not being supported by tuya-convert (and not clear if it can be supported), but since I have two plugs still unused, it helps me to have written down the process to avoid getting myself stuck again.

The plugs appear to have configurable sensors for voltage, amperage, and total wattage used — and the configuration of those is why I’m not comfortable sharing the config I’m using: I took someone’s from a forum post but I don’t quite agree with some of the choice made, some of the values appear fairly pointless to me.

Voltage monitoring would have been an useful piece of information when I was back in Italy — those who read the blog a long time ago might remember that the power company over there didn’t really have any decent power available. Over here it feels like it’s very stable, so I doubt we’ll notice anything useful with these.

Having Smart Home devices that don’t rely on cloud services is much more comfortable than otherwise. I do like the idea of being able to just ask one of the voice assistants to turn off the subwoofer while I’m playing Fallout 76, for sure — but it’s one thing to have the convenience, and another to depend on it to control it. And as I said some time ago, I disagree with the assertion that there cannot be a secure and safe IoT Smart Home (and yes, “secure” and “safe” are two separate concepts).

As for smart plugs in particular? I’m still not entirely sold, but I can see that there definitely are devices where trying to bring the smart in the device is unlikely to help. Not as many though — it’s still a problem to find something that cannot be served better by more fine-grained control. In the case of the subwoofer, most of the controls (volume, cross-over, phase) are manual knobx on the back of the device. Would it have made sense to have a “smart subwoofer” that can tweak all of those values from the Home Assistant interface? I would argue yes — but at the same time, I can see in this case an expense of £10 for a smart plug beats the idea of replacing the subwoofer entirely.

I honestly have doubts about the Christmas tree lights as well. Not that I expect to be able to control them with an app, but the “controller” for them seems to be fairly standard, so I do expect if I search AliExpress for some “smart” controller for those I will probably find something — the question is whether I would find something I can use locally without depending on an external cloud service from an unknown Chinese brand. So maybe I’ll go back to one of my oldest attempts at electronics (13 years ago!) and see what I can find.

By the way, if you’re curious what else I am currently planning to use these smart plugs on… I’m playing with the idea of changing my Birch Books to use 12V LEDs – originally meant for Gunpla and similar models – and I was thinking that instead of leaving it always-on, I can just connect it with the rest of the routines that we use to turn the “living” items on and off.

Kind Software

This post sprouts in part from a comment in my previous disclaim of support to FSFE, but it’s a standalone post, which is not related to my feelings towards FSFE (which I already covered elsewhere). It should also not be a surprise to long time followers, since I’m going to cover arguments that I have already covered, for better or worse, in the past.

I have not been very active as a Free Software developer in the past few years, for reasons I already spoke about, but that does not mean I stopped believing in the cause or turned away from it. At the same time, I have never been a fundamentalist, and so when people ask me about “Freedom 0”, I’m torn, as I don’t think I quite agree on what Freedom 0 consists of.

On the Free Software Foundation website, Freedom 0 is defined as

The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).

At the same time, a whole lot of fundamentalists seem to me to try their best to not allow the users to run the programs as they wish. We wouldn’t, otherwise, be having purity tests and crusade against closed-source components that users may want to actually use, and we wouldn’t have absurdist solutions for firmware, that involve showing binary blobs under the carpet, and just not letting the user ever update them.

The way in which I disagree with both formulation and interpretation of this statement, is that I think that software should, first of all, be usable for its intended purpose, and that software that isn’t… isn’t really worth discussing about.

In the case of Free Software, I think that, before any licensing and usage concern, we should be concerned about providing value to the users. As I said, not a novel idea for me. This means that software that that is built with the sole idea of showing Free Software supremacy, is not useful software for me to focus on. Operating systems, smart home solutions, hardware, … all of these fields need users to have long-term support, and those users will not be developers, or even contributors!

So with this in mind, I want to take a page out of the literal Susan Calman book, and talk about Kind Software, as an extension of Free Software. Kind Software is software that is meant for the user to use and to keep the user as its first priority. I know that a number of people would make this to be a perfect overlap and contrast, considering all Free Software as Kind Software, and all proprietary software as not Kind Software… but the truth is that it is significantly more nuanced than that.

Even keeping aside the amount of Free Software that is “dual-use” and that can be used by attackers just as much as defenders – and that might sometimes have a bit too much of a bias towards the attackers – you don’t need to look much further than the old joke about how “Unix is user friendly, it’s just very selective of who its friends are”. Kind software wouldn’t be selective — the user use-cases are paramount, any software that would be saying “You don’t do that with {software}, because it is against my philosophy” would by my definition not be Kind Software.

Although, obviously, this brings us back to the paradox of tolerance, which is why I don’t think I’d be able to lead a Kind Software movement, and why I don’t think that the solution to any of this has to do with licenses, or codes of ethics. After all, different people have different ideas of what is ethical and what isn’t, and sometimes you need to make a choice by yourself, without fighting an uphill battle so that everyone who doesn’t agree with you is labelled an enemy. (Though, if you think that nazis are okay people, you’re definitely not a friend of mine.)

What this tells me that I can define my own rules for what I consider “Kind Software”, but I doubt I can define them for the general case. And in my case, I have a mixture of Free Software and proprietary software in the list, because I would always select the tools that first get their job done, and second are flexible enough for people to adapt. Free Software makes the latter much easier, but too often is the case that the former is not the case, and the value of a software that can be easily modified, but doesn’t do what I need is… none.

There is more than that of course. I have ranted before about the ethical concerns with selling routers, and I’ve actually been vocal as a supporter for law requiring businesses to have their network equipment set up by a professional — although with a matching relaxation of the requirements to be considered a professional. So while I am a strong believer in the importance of OpenWRT I do think that trying to suggest it as a solution for general final users is unkind, at least for the moment.

On the other side of the room, Home Assistant to me looks like a great project, and a kind one to it. The way they handled the recent security issues (in January — pretty much just happened as I’m writing this) is definitely part of it: warned users wherever they could, and made sure to introduce safeties to make sure that further bugs in components that they don’t even support wouldn’t introduce this very same problem again. And most importantly, they are not there to tell you how to use your gadgets, they are there to integrate with whatever is possible to.

This is, by the way, the main part of the reason why I don’t like self-hosting solutions, and why I would categorically consider software needing to be self-hosted as unkind: it puts the burden of it not being abused on the users themselves, and unless their job is literally to look after hosted services, it’s unlikely that they will be doing a good job — and that’s without discussing the fact that they’d likely be using time that they meant to be spending on something else just to keep the system running.

And speaking of proprietary, yet kind, software — I have already spoken about Abbott’s LibreLink and the fact that my diabetes team at the hospital is able to observe my glucose levels remotely, in pretty much real-time. This is obviously a proprietary solution, and not a bug-free one at that, and I’m also upset they locked it in, but it is also a kind one: the various tools that don’t seem to care about the expiration dates, that think that they can provide a good answer without knowing the full extent of the algorithm involved, and that insist it’s okay to not wait for the science… well, they don’t sound kind to me: they not just allow access to personal data, which would be okay, but they present data that might not be right for people to take clinical decisions and… yeah that’s just scary to me.

Again, that’s a personal view on this. I know that some people are happy to try open-source medical device designs on themselves, or be part of multi-year studies for those. But I don’t think it’s kind to expect others to do the same.

Unfortunately, I don’t really have a good call to action here, except to tell Free Software developers to remember to be kind as well. And to think of the implications of the software they write. Sometimes, just because we’re able to throw something out there, doesn’t mean it’s the kind thing to do so.

My Take on What I Would Replace FSFE With

So it looks like my quick, but on-the-spot renegation of FSFE last December made the round much further than most of the blog posts I ever write. I think that, in comparison, it made a much wider range than my original FSFE support post.

So I thought it would be worth spending a little more time to point out why I decided to openly stop supporting FSFE — I did provide most of this reasoning in short form on Twitter, but I thought this is better summarised in a blog post that others can reference, and that I can point people at.

So first of all, this is not all about the allegations. It was very easy to paint my post, and all the other critical outbursts against FSFE, as a position taken on hearsay. But as I already said, this was just the “flash trigger” of me calling back the support for an organization for which my feeling cooled down significantly for years. Again, I said already in the other post that I got in touch with Matthias a few years ago already about my concerns with the organization, and it was Public Money, Public Code that kept me as a supporter since then.

The reason why I decided to write renege my support when the allegations were extended, and I even changed my posts schedule for it, is that I didn’t want my (much older) post on supporting FSFE to be used as an excuse to support an organization that was in the middle of a controversy. I have been a strong supporter and have been talking people about FSFE for years, including about their more recent REUSE initiative last year, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be used as a shield from criticism.

I had an entire draft complaining about the way FSFE made me feel most like I was supporting FSFG (Free Software Foundation Germany), and that doesn’t seem to have changed that much since I wrote it two years ago. Both the news page and the activities page at the time of writing are clearly highlighting a tight focus on German issues, including talking in very broad strokes about how the German Corona Warn App doesn’t need Google – strokes so broad that make it feel like a lot of smoke and no meat underneath – and still more focus on dealing with router lock-ins (missing a lot of nuance).

I do understand that, if most of the volunteers engaging are German they will care about German issues the most, and that if the “wins” come from Germany, obviously the news will be filled with German wins. But at the same time, an organization that wants to be European should strive to have some balance and decide not to use all the news coming from a single country. Looking at the news archive page at the time I’m writing this post, there’s seven references to «Germany», one to «France», and none to «Italy», «Ireland», «United Kingdom», «Great Britain», and so on.

And it’s not that there’s nothing happening in those other countries. COVID Tracker Ireland, to stay in the topic of Covid tracing apps, is also Free Software (licensed under MIT license), and a number of other apps have been literally built based on its code. Public Money, Public Code to its best! But nothing about it on the FSFE’s website, while there’s a number of references to the German app instead.

And again speaking of Public Money, Public Code, Italy doesn’t seem to be represented at all in their list of news, with the only reference being a two years old entry about “FSFE Italy” asking for support to the project by political parties. This despite the fact that the Italian Team Digitale and the established pagoPA company have been also releasing a lot of Free Software.

Once again, if you want to change the direction of an organization, joining directly and “walking the walk” would help. But there’s a number of reasons why that might be difficult for people. While I was working for Google – a cloud provider, very clearly – it would have been fairly difficult for me to join an organization with loud complaints about “the cloud” (which I anyway disagree with). And similarly given the amount of coverage of privacy, even when not related to Free Software directly, it would be hard for me to be an activist given my current employer.

Before you suggest that this is my problem, and that I’m not the target to such an organization, I want to point out that this is exactly why I didn’t go and say that they are terrible organization and called for a boycott. I just pointed out that I no longer support them. I did say that, out of my experience, I have no reason to disbelieve their accusation, and even after reading their response statement I don’t have any reason to change my mind about that.

But I also have been a Free Software developer and advocate for a long time. I believe in the need for more Free Software, and I agree that government-developed software should be released to the public, even if it doesn’t benefit directly the taxpayers of the government that developed it. I made that case in Italian over ten years ago (I should possibly translate that blog post or at least re-tell the tale). I would enjoy being an activist for an organization that cares about Free Software, but also cares to get more people onboard rather than fewer, and would rather then not build “purity tests” into its role.

Another big problem is with the engagement method. Because of the abovementioned purity test, FSFE appears to only be engaging with its community in a “write only” media over Twitter. If you want to be an activist for FSFE you need to use email and mailing list, or maybe you can use Mastodon. In-person meetings seemed to still be all the rage when I discussed this a few years ago, and I do wonder if with 2020 happening they manage to switch at least to Jitsi, or if they ended up just using an Asterisk server connected to a number of landlines to call into.

I’m still partially comfortable with mailing lists for discussion, but it’s honestly not much of a stretch to see how this particular communication medium is not favorable to younger people. It’s not just the lack of emoji and GIF reactions — it’s also a long-form medium, where you need to think careful about all the words you use, and that persists over time. And that counts double when you have to handle discussion with an organization that appears to have more lawyers than developers.

I joked on Twitter that for a Gen-Z person, asking to use email to partecipate is the equivalent of asking a Millennial (like me) to make a phone call. And I say that knowing full well how much time I used to spend on the phone when I ran my own company: it’s not fun to me at all.

But that means you’re cutting out two big categories of people who could have both the intentions and the means to help: younger people with time on their hand, who can actively partecipate in programs and organization, and professionals who might have the expertise and the contacts.

And speaking of the professionals — you may remember that I came to the REUSE tool (which I contributed a number of fixes to myself) after complaining about having a hard time contributing while at Google because projects, among others, often didn’t provide a proper license that I could refer to, to submit patches. At the time of writing, just like a few years ago when I first tried correcting something on the website, the FSFE Website repository does not provide a license or SPDX headers (to comply with REUSE).

What would I like is for an actual European-wide organization, focused not on government policy, but rather on making it possible to have a sustainable ecosystem of Free Software development, particularly when it comes to all of those nuances that differ from a discussion of Free Software and licensing that is always too USA-centric.

The organization I have in mind, that I would love to provide monetary contribution to (if not outright be an activist for, time constraint being a thing), would be spending time in universities and high school, showing the usefulness of Free Software to learn new things. Convincing both professors and students of the usefulness of sharing and receiving, and respecting the licensing.

This is not as obvious: back when I was in high school, BSA was the only enforcement of license compliance in schools, and Free Software advocates were explicitly undermining those efforts, as they were working for a few proprietary software manufacturers. But as I said before, undermining proprietary software licenses undermines the Free Software movement. If people are trained to ignore licensing requirements, they are going to do so for Free Software, and that’s now you end up with projects ignoring the limits of GPL and other licenses.

And this connects to the next problem: for the movement to be sustainable, you also need people to make a living off it, and that requires taking licensing seriously. It’s a topic I come back over and over: business-oriented Free Software is already lacking, and people need money to survive. When the option for more experience developers, project managers, community managers, … is basically to barely make ends meet or go work for one of the big companies that don’t focus on Free Software… well the answer is obvious for a lot more people you may imagine. Not everyone gets to be the “star” that Greg KH or Linus Torvalds are, and get paid to pretty much keep their Free Software engagement — most others either do it as a side hustle, or have a side hustle.

The Document Foundation found out the hard way that there’s need for actual business plans if you want to keep maintaining big, complex Free Software projects. And even Mozilla, once shown as a core pillar of Free Software paid development, has shown this year how hard it is to keep “running the show” without a sustainable plan on the long term.

An organization focused on sustainability in Free Software should, at least in my hopes, focus on providing this kind of support. Providing blueprints for business engagements, providing outreach on license compliance to the benefit of Free Software, but also providing the pragmatic tools for Free Software enthusiast consultants to engage with their customers and take down the market barriers that make it so hard for single developers to find customers.

FSFE has lots of public policy engagements particularly with the European Union — and some of those are extremely valuable. They are required to level the playing field between Free Software developers and big corporations with entire organizations of lawyers and marketers. But they shouldn’t be the only think that an European organization focusing on Free Software should be remembered for.