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.

Moving Notes #3: Paperwork, Service Providers, Xenophobia

This is part 3 of a series of posts talking about moving apartments, after me and my wife moved, the past October.

So, in spite of most agents we worked with, and in spite of Rightmove letting them lie out of their teeth on their pages, we eventually found a place we liked, and that we could actually rent. To be honest, we were a bit scared because we ended up renting on the higher end of our budget despite finding only a two bedroom flat, but it gave us a good impression, and in particular it didn’t involve dealing with a property management agency.

Unfortunately, it still required dealing with the real estate agency to make sure the paperwork was taken care of: referencing, credit check, and finally rental agreement. Even more so because our actual landlord is once again overseas, and they instead rely on a family member to look after the apartment.

Tenancy Agreements

As I already noted previously, this agency required us to pay a deposit when making an offer — the only one that we have found doing that. This deposit would have been refundable if our offer was not accepted, or if they proven to be “unreasonable” in their demands during the rental negotiations. If we decided to withdraw the offer, then we would have lost the deposit. But if the offer was accepted, and we completed the paperwork, that deposit would add up to the normal rental hold.

As we completed the offer, and the landlord had been reasonable throughout, we had no problem with this particular hold. It also seemed to give the whole process a bit more “propriety”, although obviously it’s also a privilege to be able to just provide the hold deposit on the spot without knowing that beforehand.

But of course, it wouldn’t just go completely smooth. After the offer was accepted we had two main objectives: completing the referencing process, and signing the contract. Neither was successful on the first try.

The Referencing Process

The referencing process was something that we partially feared, due both to our previous experience with Dexters, and because of at least one of the previous agents saying that me being on probation at work would be an issue. Unsurprising, given the current situation between lockdowns and Brexit, my wife had been left without a job at the time, and we were wondering how that would fly through — as it turns out, that was not an issue, possibly because we have been married for nearly a year already when we started the process.

What turned out to be a problem there was our “old friend” institutional xenophobia. The referencing process needs to be started directly by the agency, who types in your name, and the system does not let you amend it, but rather just note additional names you may be known by. Turns out that English agents are not very good at either typing, or splitting in different components, foreign names. Not that it it is a surprise, and that’s not something I would call xenophobia in and by itself, but you can see how it becomes an extra burden, after receiving a half filled-in form, having to go back and say “Yeah, no, that’s not my name, please write such-and-such into it.”

Where I do apply the label of xenophobia is the service provider not even considering this option, and not allowing for the referenced person to correct the spelling of their name, despite requesting them to swear they are providing truthful information. And just like I said previously about the three years of addresses in the energy supply switch group, that’s not to say that it would have been a problem for me to fill it in as “Diego Pettenò” instead of “Diego Elio Pettenò” – half of everything appears to know me as the former, and that sweet tech bubble job insulates me from most of those problems – but there will be people who get in trouble for silly stuff like that.

Thankfully, of the two sets of referencing issues, only mine had further problems, and for once they had nothing to do with my nationality — just my place of work. When they asked me to provide the address of my employer, it was through a postcode lookup…

Let me explain postcode lookup for those who are not aware of this works in the UK, as it’s not common in many other countries. Postcodes in the UK designate a very limited space — a handful of buildings in most cases. In other cases, they may designate a single building, or – like is the case for my employer’s London HQ – a single address. Which means it’s not uncommon for services to ask you for your postcode first, then show you the list of addresses that correspond to that postcode. In our flat’s case, this means around eighty different addresses for the 80 flats in the building.

… and, since the postcode in my contract only has one valid address, that should have been easy. Except, when I tried submitting that, the second postcode field – not the one for the search, but the one in the actual address – complained that it was not valid. Well, turns out that the reason is that the postcode was a non-geographical postcode, because the office used to be the Royal Mail’s headquarters, and so it was issued a custom postcode to replace their original W1A 1HQ special one.

Quite a few back-and-forth with the agency later we managed to get all of the paperwork through and we got our references, so it was time to look into signing the tenancy agreements.

Tenancy Agreement Templates

So it turns out most tenancy agreements are based on some kind of standard template, which is not surprising. Even in Ireland, the Private Rental Tenancy Board (PRTB) provides a base template for the landlords to use. But here, it looks like different agencies use significantly different templates with similar, but not identical terms.

Most of these templates have a specified section for an “additional schedule”, which include additional requests from the offer – e.g. we wanted a couple of rooms emptied out, a new mattress, and authorization for a few changes – but what is not obvious to many is that additional clauses can also be waived if you agree to it. And indeed, on the original tenancy agreement when I moved to London, the consultancy company that was helping me asked a number of clauses to be explicitly voided, including all of those that wouldn’t apply anyway, such as talking about gardens.

So when I received the agreement draft, I went through with the fine comb to figure out if any of the clauses would make sense to remove. And I did find a few interesting ones. For instance, the tenancy agreement required us to be cleaning internal and external windows every month. We live on the twelfth floor of a high raiser — there is no way for us to clean the external windows and even if there was it wouldn’t make sense for us to be responsible for that. I got the clause removed, together with a number of other ones.

Most importantly, I was looking for references to the headlease. And this is yet another thing that appears to be very UK specific and not sure if I have all the context to explain. You see, in the UK most flats are not outright owned by the landlords who rent them out, but they are on a so-called “leasehold” for often hundreds of years. Add to that a complex system of shell companies in partnership between the leaseholder of the land, the development company, the management company, and the whole set of leaseholders of the flats in the building, and in addition to the tenancy agreement you’re subject to the terms of the headlease between the … nebulous set of shell companies and your landlord.

I found this out by chance, by the way. When I moved, the consultancy company didn’t say much about it. When Dexters then eventually sent me a hot water charge bill, and I fell of the sky without having heard about anything like that before, I was informed that most likely that bill was referenced in the headlease, and as a tenant it was my right to request a copy of it, to verify it. I did request the copy — Dexters sent me a scanned PDF, except that whoever scanned it put it through the machine in the wrong angle, so it was showing a “landscape” page on screen, with only two thirds of the page visible, while the right side was blank. They had to get a new copy for it — they didn’t even check before mailing it out.

So of course the tenancy agreement had a clause that said “If this tenancy agreement is subordinated to a headlease, you will find this attached” (phrasing to the best of my knowledge). Except that no headlease was attached, so I asked for it, only to be told that no headlease was involved in the agreement. That would be surprising! Buying out a leasehold into a “freehold” is expensive, and not usually done for flats in high-raisers. But so be it, I asked then, if they are absolutely certain that no headlease would be involved, to remove the clause… which they did!

But here’s a trick a former colleague (Andrew) told me about: in the UK, you can find information about leases via the HM Land Registry, for a nominal fee (of £3 when I used this). With that, you can find out who holds the chain of lease of an apartment. While this did not answer the question of “is a headlease involved?” it did make it make clear that it was not a freehold, and at that point the agency was convinced to ask the landlord whether a headlease was involved, received it, and forwarded it over. The clause in the tenancy agreement was not re-established, though — they had already sent the lease to sign, and they didn’t want to wait the turnaround of re-signing the contract.

And just to make this clear, that doesn’t mean that we want to ignore the headlease — we just wanted to make sure we wouldn’t be surprised if requests came through that we were not aware of. Your mileage is likely to vary, but I hope that this kind of information might help someone else in the future. It’s not all of my own invention — it’s applying the lessons from Getting More: I did my homework and showed it to the agency, and instead of circling around whether something was immutable or not, we made it business.

Suppliers, Addresses, Banks

Once we signed the agreement, it was time to sort out the various bills, addresses, and stuff like that. These mainly fell into three categories: utilities, banks, and stores. There’s a few other cases beside those, but those are the big ones. The ease of updating addresses between these ranged… drastically.

When it comes to utilities in particular, it’s important to know the start and end date for the services, and most of the providers that supply a flat will handle overlaps in the supply, with more or less care.

So Energy (affiliate link because I like them, and recommend them for a simple and ease to use interface) requires at least six weeks notice to the start of the new furniture, allows overlap and will roll-up the due on the old account into the new one, but it required all the interaction to happen with a person, rather than through any automated system. This was not terrible — once I gave them enough notice and the address of the new supply, they didn’t have any hurry in providing the remaining details, since they were just accounting issues. Also they preferred email over phone, which as a millennial, is always a plus.

Thames Water also supported overlapping supply, but in their case the start date had to be no more than four weeks in the future, when requesting the move. And while the process can be kicked off from their website, their website is prone to crashing. Like So Energy, Thames Water creates different “accounts” per supply – even if you only have one online account – but unlike the other supplier, they don’t carry over the amount due, and indeed require a different direct debit to be set up, which I nearly missed.

Hyperoptic, which is an awesome Internet provider, doesn’t support overlapping supply. But on the other hand they did switch the supply from one port to the other while on the phone. Yeah the irony of the Internet provider being the one requiring me to stay on the phone is not lost on me. But the whole thing took less than half an hour start to finish. Except for one issue with the MAC address.

Indeed, the MAC address of my UniFi Security Gateway appears not to work to connect to their network — I solved the problem by changing the address on the gateway. I actually have been convinced there might have been some MAC filtering going on, though Hyperoptic has repeatedly told me they have none… until the last time I rebooted the gateway and realized it’s not that it needs the MAC that they used to have over here — it just doesn’t work with the MAC of the gateway itself. I now start wondering if it might be a routing table cache somewhere.

Most banks (and yes, between the two of us that’s… a few of them, because it’s not usually worth closing old accounts) were not eventful at all. Except for two, in both direction. M&S Bank, which is operated by HSBC, was the only bank that allowed you to provide a date from when to change the address on file. I wish I had noticed that earlier, because then I would have put it on in time to get at least one starting proof of address.

The other case was the Metro Bank, and this is worth talking a moment about. All of the other banks we had to update the account on allowed us to request the change online. Except Metro Bank. Their solution involved either going into one of their “stores” (branches), or calling them on the phone. Given that I’m still avoiding going out, I opted to call them. Unfortunately when you call, they need to confirm your identity with a bunch of questions followed by an SMS OTP. The SMS didn’t arrive within their expected timeframe, and they pretty much just said goodbye and told me to show up in store.

I’m not sure if the problem was due to coverage, or if the 4G/LTE support on my phone means I can’t receive SMS while on the phone (I heard rumors of that, but it’s outside the area of my expertise). But the end result was that the messages only reached me the moment I disconnected the call. So I had a decision to make — clearly, with the current pandemic, going to a branch to fix the address wouldn’t be a good idea.

I could have ignored the address change until the pandemic situation improved, since most of the mail would be forwarded by Royal Mail at least for the next year. But then I looked around, and found that at that point NatWest had a £125-one-off offer for new customers (even those with other NatWest group accounts, like me — I still have my Northern Irish Ulster Bank account), when requesting a current account switch (which implies, closing an old account).

And yes, I managed to open a new account – a joint account while we were at it – with NatWest without having to talk with anyone on the phone. It did take a lot longer than a simple address update would have taken, and now we have two more of the annoying EMV-CAP devices, but it also meant that the new account paid itself for the time taken — and it didn’t require us to leave the flat, or even speak with anyone on the phone.

Oh Yeah, The Stores

So I said above that we had to make sure to update the addresses for stores as well (and a few other things). Well, that’s not the hardest problem of course — most of the communication we get is electronic, very few of the stores will send us mail. So instead of proactively going out of our way to update stuff, we did what everyone does: we procrastinated. With exceptions. I wrote down on a piece of paper all of the sources of mail that sent us something in the last month at our old address, and those, together with whatever would be forwarded to the new address, would get their address updated immediately.

I say immediately of course, but it still takes time. My wife’s membership of Cats Protection was updated fairly quickly on their backend, but the mail merge source they use to send the membership letters out takes a few weeks to update. So we received a few of those letters addressed to the old place. The only annoying part is the waste of purrfectly lovely return address labels that are for the wrong address now.

After those are tackled, there’s the matter of the mail arriving for the previous occupants of the flat, who did not set up Royal Mail redirection. As it turns out, we didn’t have to do much work for that — they have a friend living in the same building (just as we have in the old building), so we were just asked to drop it off on the other mailbox. But we noticed that we kept receiving, every fortnight or so, the Harrods catalogue.

So here’s another trick for those who might not be aware: if you moved into a flat, and the previous occupier keeps receiving subscriptions, offers, discount, and similar things, it’s perfectly reasonable to contact the senders and ask them to cancel those mail. Most will ask you to prove you have access to the mail (not your proof of address, but the proof of having the other person’s mail) and will then remove the address from the file. Turning this around, if there’s something you really care about and don’t want someone else to unsubscribe you from, make sure not to throw away the address label in one piece. If you don’t have a shredder at home, at least make sure to tear up the address in half.

And to finish off the post with a note of levity, in December I also received a surprising letter from Amazon, to our old address. I say surprising, because we made a number of purchases to the new flat (even the week before moving into it), and so there’s no reason for them to reach at the old address. Even the credit card I got from them just before Prime Day had its address updated on file very quickly after receiving it.

Well, it turned out to be addressed to me, but not quite to the old address. It was addressed to the address I used on AliExpress — slightly different formatting. It was addressed to the Diego Elio Pettenò who has an account to leave review of terrible, cheap products, as part of the usual brushing scam. Once again, Amazon is unable to deactivate the account created in bad faith that happen to use my name (and possibly my profile picture, I cannot tell).

Moving Notes #2: Sigh, Agents

This is part two in a series. See the previous post for a bit more context.

When we embarked into this whole process, I had very little experience with moving and flathunting: I’ve lived in my mother’s house back in Italy, in Ireland I found an apartment fairly quickly thanks to a colleague “passing on” a viewing he didn’t need, and in London I found the flat through the relocation consultants that were assigned to me after the move. The same was true for my wife, who’s been mostly living in flatshares before.

And in the middle of a pandemic, the flathunting process seemed even more annoying, as it had a number of immediate and delayed effects. The first one was restricting our options in how far we wanted to move. While the whole situation meant that work is not expecting me back to the office for quite a while longer, and that meant we could have looked at options further away from London, such as Birmingham (which we had considered briefly before, particularly as I was looking for a new job earlier in the year), going and finding a place would still have involved a significant travel on mass transit (trains) and spending time in shared accommodation (hotel). Plus risking of being locked up there if a new lockdown was announced before we would have found a place.

So at the end of the day, we decided to focus in the same area in West London where we’ve been living. This had the non-negligible advantage of letting us keep the “support network” of friends we found here – most of them while playing Pokémon Go, of all things – and of sensible takeaways, shops, delivery services, …

It also had an effect that I hadn’t figured out when we started. As we knew that virtual viewings weren’t going to be particularly useful to gauge a new place, including the feeling of the area or neighbourhood, we had to take a difficult decision: as my health issues make me particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, my wife would be taking the vast majority of the viewings. What we didn’t realize then, is that the real estate agents wouldn’t be able to drive her to the apartments they selected — and they totally failed to account for walking between different flats.

While she’s perfectly capable of walking miles, and she did – including hatching a number of Pokémon eggs! – when an agent books two flats that are 40 minutes walk apart to be viewed within 20 minutes of each other, you know that something is wrong. If something could have managed to make me more annoyed at car users who can’t figure out not everyone wants to be in a car all the time.

Eyes On The Prize

Before I start rambling on about the horrible services provided by most agencies I dealt with, let me explain what was that we have been looking for.

When we started the process, we weren’t sure we would leave the apartment. We were just informed that our landlord was trying to sell the apartment, and if he did we would have some time after the sale process starts to find a new place. Then again, as I did say in the previous part, we got to the point where the agency dropped so many balls, that we felt compelled to leave anyway.

And while the apartment we were living in was doing okay for us, beside the noise and the agency, there were a few things we were happy to change when moving. The flat we had been living was what I chose myself when I moved to London: a bachelor working at an office, with an occasional need to work from home, and with the far-fetched possibility of hosting guests for board games (only happened a handful of times in three years) and an even less likely chance of hosting friends visiting from abroad (I did technically have space to host one person sleeping over, but then turns out that living sandwiched between three hotels, it’s much easier to just let them have their own space).

As by then it was clear that for at least another year there wouldn’t be a commute to the office in my plans, it was clear that the office needed more space (particularly, storage space) and that it would be used nearly exclusively for working, rather than gaming. Turns out that after spending eight hours in the same room having meetings and writing docs, you don’t get to feel very good about sitting in the same chair and fire up a game, even one you like a lot.

What we definitely wanted was to keep Hyperoptic as ISP, or if that wouldn’t have been possible, at least have another gigabit fiber provider. It turns out to be very useful to not have to worry about my wife’s streaming lectures while I would be having a meeting. Plus the Hyperoptic support has been one of the best ones I’ve ever dealt with, and I know how annoying ISPs can be.

So our aim was, if possible, to find a three-bedroom flat – that way we could each have our home office, and we would have more space to “change the view” – with Hyperoptic. But we also would have been happy to settle for a more spacious, or more comfortable two-bedroom, particularly one where the master bedroom is not shaped like an S-tetromino like our previous flat.

It’s 2020, Learn Your ISPs!

I hate the words “unskilled labour”, because they fail to convey the importance of a variety of skills, but I would lie if I said I hadn’t chuckled at people calling real estate agents such in the past. The reason for it was that three years ago I had significantly different experience between the best and the worst agents I interacted with. This time wasn’t an improvement. But before I go on ranting, let me say that there’s plenty of skill in being a successful real estate agent — we could tell who was safe to deal with and who to run away from fairly quickly. So, kudos to the good ones, it’s not an easy job.

The first problem with pretty much all of the agencies (except one) has been that going through an aggregator such as Rightmove, they will ignore the details you provide in the contact form. I had explicitly sent a message stating that I’d like to book a viewing for the shown property, and possibly a selection of similar flats with Hyperoptic or similar level of connectivity. I also stated how I was busy with work and meetings, and wouldn’t be able to take phone calls easily, so email would be my preferred contact method.

Only one agency read the message and followed up on it. And turned out to be the most professional agent we have dealt with. So let me praise them: riverhomes and Tamir Gotfried in particular, did an exceptional job in taking in our requirements, and not wasting our time showing us unrelated or unsuitable flats. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a flat that fitted our requirements (Virgin Media being the best ISP they had available at that point — and I have personal reasons to sticking to Hyperoptic at least).

From nearly every other agent, we got the same type of excuses of not knowing what ISPs would be available — or not knowing how to check. Let me be clear here, I have no problem with checking that myself, but most of the agents refused to give the address of the flats they wanted to show us until the day, if not after the viewings. So instead of being given a list that we could pre-filter, they insisted in showing us a lot of flats that had vDSL as the best connectivity option.

Now, the Rightmove website (but at the time not their mobile app) had a drop-down from CompareTheMarket that shows the average speed available “at the postcode” — which for us would have been a good proxy, as we were looking for a flat in an apartment building, and buildings generally get their own postcodes. Unfortunately, most agencies lie out of their teeth on Rightmove (we’ll get back to that in a moment).

This is not particularly new. When I moved here, I had one agent insisting that a 25Mbit DSL line, that the landlord subscribed to the flat, and couldn’t be changed, was “fiber”. She wouldn’t accept my point that “That’s not fiber”. Sure the marketing material may call it “fiber-powered” or “SuperFast”, but it’s not fiber in any way shape or form. And in 2017 I expected an agent able to tell me whether a flat has floor heating or radiators should be able to tell me if a flat has DSL or fiber.

On the other hand, the agent that showed us the apartment we eventually rented said it had floor heating, while the only heating we have is heatpump based.

Do You Even Rent?

As I said, most agencies beside one ended up being a lost cause. Overall, the worst experience we had was with Foxtons — and it feels like we dodged a bullet of an agency worse than Dexters. But similar problems appeared with many.

Among the selections of flats we saw, with different agencies, there was one flat one floor up from a nursery, with the balcony overlooking into their back lot. We’re a childfree couple – as I noted talking about Sarah Millican as she makes us feel quite a bit more welcome than others – and that kind of flat would be a very bad fit. And, by the way, that’s an important part: if I did choose a flat knowing that there’s a nursery literally under my feet, and then complained about the noise, I would be a horrible person. Instead, I just want my peace and quiet and will avoid that location, stop.

Another flat had a thermostat (or possibly AC control unit) that was enclosed on all sides by the back wall of a “built-in” cabinet. With no separate sensor. It’s a great way to have basically no control over the heating in your bedroom, but the agent couldn’t even tell that this would be a problem. Maybe not even the landlord. As we saw a different flat in the same building with Foxtons, we also found that the built-in wardrobe was not part of the first flat at all — it was probably added to look like the flats in the upper floors, but for those, the thermostat is by the door, and outside of the cabinet.

Speaking of Foxtons, the first few options they showed us were not exactly what we were looking for. When they asked us our “approximate budget”, I gave them a bit of leeway in what to show us, and said there would be a bit of room to stretch. The stuff they showed us at first was well within the budget, even conservative I’d say… but smaller (and significantly so) than the place we were living in. So I explicitly pointed at one of their properties and said “Here’s more of what we’ve been looking for — this one seems well out of our budget right now, but if there’s any chance for it to drop by 10%, we’d be happy to stretch our budget to meet it.” And that kind-of helped.

Aside: the reason why I pointed at a flat outside of the budget and asked if it could come down is to apply a bit more of the techniques discussed by Getting More. We did our homework: we knew that the rent demanded for the property was on the high side of the market at that point, and we could tell the flat hadn’t moved in a number of months according to Rightmove. There was a chance that the 10% discount could still be lower than the loss in not finding anyone to rent the flat.

I say kind of, because the agent then did propose showing us a few more flats that, overall, did fit our needs a bit better — except that only the one we pointed at had Hyperoptic available. One of them was still tempting, and we were very disappointed by the lack of ISP options, given we knew the building right next door was Hyperoptic-ready, but it also was a “duplex” (which in this country means on two floors, but is a word that would confuse most Italians), and my wife was (reasonably) worried about me trying to go downstairs to grab sugars during a sugar low. I already nearly fell on the stairs during the visit.

But we did end up seeing the flat that we pointed at at first. It turned out to be even more spacious than the images shown, but it was also… dirty. I can’t use any other word, the wall over the cabinets was full of black spots that looked like mold, the extraction fans had dustbunnies visible inside, and in general it seemed to have quite the layer of grime all over, but that was partially understandable given that it still had tenants inside. We still put in an offer for a rent a bit higher than we were hoping for, but still in the “stretchable” part of the budget, and on the advice of the agent, we suggested a three years contract — the landlord was supposedly looking for someone to stay long term.

“I don’t feel comfortable renting from your agency”

After we put in the offer, the trouble started — the first call (from another agent at a different office) was to tell us that the landlord wouldn’t accept a three years contract, and requested a single year renewable contract. They also wouldn’t accept our first rent offer, and so they asked what would be our best for it. I did say we could go up £50/month but no more, but since that was enough they tried convincing me reminding me that I wouldn’t have to pay for heating — because that’s part of the service charge and so paid by the landlord. And according to them the law changed so that wouldn’t be possible to do anymore. It started smelling fishy, but then I relented, and accepted to raise up to £100 from our original offer.

The second call, informed us that the tenants of the time wouldn’t be leaving on the 1st of October as originally intended, so we wouldn’t be able to enter the property on the 15th as discussed. Instead the tenants would be leaving (hopefully) on the 1st of November. This is, unsurprisingly, Covid-19 related: the tenants were going to be flying back to their country, but the flights for October were cancelled, so hopefully they’d make it for November. I was back then sceptical, but I have not bothered checking if those flights reopened at all. That had us a bit worried, but since at that point we hadn’t given notice for the flat yet, we were okay to moving it to one more month later. Ensue call number three, asking us to move in on the 1st of November rather than 15th — despite the fact that our tenancy was terminating on the 26th, so the options would have been no overlap, or a much longer overlap than expected.

The fourth, but not final, call was to let us know that once the agents explained to the landlord that they wouldn’t be able to charge the hot water to us anymore, the landlord decided that our offer was not just too low, but even the advertised rent was too low! Indeed, they decided to ask more than 10% more money for the rent than originally advertised. We said we were no longer interested in the property, and thought we left it at that.

Yet another call, this time from the agent that showed us around had her just short of begging us to reconsider — saying that the rent would be “all bills inclusive, except council tax”. I said I wouldn’t trust it but we’d think on it, while I did the math. The only way that the increase in rent would be even covering the costs of bills would be if the heating would cost more than double what we were paying for the two bed (which sounded unlikely) and if they also paid for the same Hyperoptic service we had. But that also meant that we wouldn’t have control over the bills, which sounded very unlikely.

In particular, the thing they said about the hot water not being chargeable to the tenants was totally a lie. While the management company for the development (which is still the same for the old apartment, our current apartment, and the apartment we were discussing) did make things more complicated by not issuing separate hot water bills, hot water is counted as an utility and can be charged to the tenants. So, I really doubt that it was going to be “all bills included”.

Anyway, at that point we started looking further afield, and given we had done the math for the budget stretching, we started looking at slightly higher rents too, as options. That turned out to find other snags, which you can continue reading about afterwards, but also meant we found the flat we currently live in through another agency altogether. That agency, by the way, requires you to pay a deposit when you make an offer, which is only refundable if the offer is not accepted, and not if you withdraw the offer.

After that, the Foxtons agent who showed us around contacted us asking to show us three more flats, one in the same development, one across the street, and one… well, the last one we don’t know, because from the night before to the day we were supposed to see the flat, it was taken off the market. But this time, we were promised no more back-and-forths: the flats were managed from the same office as the agent, and her own manager would be the point of contact.

One of the flats was actually interesting. While the total square footage was not higher than the one we did end up renting, it was a three-bedrooms apartment — so smaller rooms, but with more space for privacy. And supposedly we could have had it for a bit less than we ended up renting (even considering the lost offer deposit). We considered it, and put in an offer with a couple of requirements (namely to remove the furniture that would be redundant to us, and to get the Hyperoptic socket installed — the flat was “ready” but the socket was never installed).

Then we got another one of those calls that we started dreading from them: the landlord appeared to have accepted the offer from another couple some time before with a different agency, but then some money didn’t change hands, and so it wasn’t clear if the place was officially rented or not. She would call us back by afternoon to confirm. We heard nothing until 8pm, by which time we sent an email pointing out that we weren’t interested in the property anymore, and that we would take an offer elsewhere.

The day after, the agent tried to call me (I was in a meeting, couldn’t pick up), texted me, spoke with my wife, texted her, trying to convince us to see a few more properties. I had to be rude and state explicitly that we wouldn’t feel comfortable to rent a property from Foxtons by that point, since two of the flats that we considered with them ended up having so much drama.

Agents, Lies, and Rightmove

Rightmove is probably the most commonly used website to look for housing, to rent or buy, in this country. It aggregates listings from any agency that would publish (I assume, for a fee), and provides a way to contact the agencies without exposing too much personal information up front.

Unfortunately, it’s also a nest of liars.

Since we have been looking for properties not too far from where we were living, we knew quite a bit about the area already. So when we would see a listing with a GPS point attached to one of the fancy, posh buildings of the development, but with the name referencing one of the older, still-to-be-fixed for cladding buildings, we knew we were made fun of.

Some of the listings are just slightly confusing. The flat we used to live in was advertised as having a “residents’ gym”, which turned out to be a half-truth: there’s a residents’ gym, and technically we could have gotten access to it, but as my wife went to check, the management company asked her to pay around £200. Turns out that being a resident is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. Leaseholders do get free access by virtue of paying the service charge, but tenants need to pay separately. Except some tenants might have access already because the landlord already got the fob on the accesslist, and nobody is checking. Our fobs were not in the accesslist.

The same flat was advertised for sale (and still is at the time of writing) as having a concierge service. There is no concierge service for the building we lived in. I think it was meant to be there, as there is a strange door on the corner that looks like it could have been a concierge, but it wasn’t — only two buildings in the development have a concierge, and that was not one of them.

But the biggest lie is for properties that are not actually on the market at all! We found lots of those, and I complained to Rightmove about it. The first one we saw with Foxtons was from a building that’s still being finished, so they are releasing flats in “drops” — when my wife went there with the agent, the building’s concierge told them that they didn’t have any available flats to show. When we contacted another agency because of a very nice looking, spacious apartment down the road, we found out that it was not available at all.

Turns out that my complaints to Rightmove fell on deaf ears: according to them, even if a flat is already off the market because someone sighed up on it, the agencies are not required to take them off their site at all. They may mark it as “let agreed”, but they are not required to by their Terms of Service. The only moment when they are required to remove it from the site is when the new tenants move in.

So it seems like most agencies have incentive to sign up their best properties to be rented months before they are to be resided in, and keep them on Rightmove as a way to catch contacts. That way they will show you something else, which might not be what you’re looking for, but they might have more margins on.

Final Results

At the end we settled for a two bedrooms apartment, like we had before. We stretched our budget, I want to say, significantly, in part considering the likeliness to spend at least one year, possibly more, working from home, and so wanting to have a more comfortable living for the time being. We didn’t move very far — we literally are in the next building over, and the savings in doing the move mostly ourselves (more to that in a future most) probably made up for the first year of extra rent.

The agency we found the flat with was one of those with the trap listings, but they acted more professionally than Foxtons overall (again, there will be more to say about that), and we no longer have to deal with a property management agency.

But of course the trouble, or the annoyances, didn’t just disappear after finding a flat, so you’ll be able to read more notes and more trouble later on.

Moving Notes #1: The Reasons

As I noted when I took a break, this past October me and my wife moved out of the apartment I rented when I moved to London. The reasons of why we moved are a bit complicated, and not entirely connected with the global pandemic and subsequent lockdown. But more importantly, we learned a few lessons that, despite probably not being totally uncommon, I think might be worth writing about, just in case they can save time to someone else down the road.

So first of all, let’s make it clear that the main reason why we moved is that the property management agency that we have been dealing with (Dexters) was just so unprofessional that we couldn’t possibly salvage the relationship. I’ve had issues with them since I started renting here (you may remember I complained how they charged me for the costs that their bank attached to Fineco transfers), but usually they got solved, eventually. Unfortunately with the whole pandemic happening, they seem to have reduced the personnel to the point that their already oversubscribed agents couldn’t deal with issues reasonably anymore.

The year started badly with their finance department calling us three times in four months demanding we pay our hot water charges (the building we lived in has a “communal hot water system”, rather than an electric or gas heating system). This was caused by the property manager incorrectly adding the hot water charge as a monthly expense rather than a one-off — it was usually a one-off bill, but due to shenanigans with the development management company, this was also a six-months bill for once.

You would expect that it would be easy to reason with a human “Send us the bill, we’ll pay. Oh there’s no bill? Have a nice day, then.” But the folks from the finance department didn’t seem to understand such logic, and required us to argue with the property manager, who finally recognized we were overcharged (the first repeat we paid before arguing), supposedly credited us for it, and stopped the repeat. Except that at the end of March, right at the start of the new lockdown, they insisted on another payment, and I ended up spending six weeks arguing with the new “senior” property manager over those charges. Arguing that included at some point me printing out a copy of the statement she provided to me, taking a pen to enclose a couple of rows into a bright red box, scanning it and mailing it out, as a single line reply to “I don’t see any transaction for that amount on that date in the statement.”

But as bewildering this was, particularly with the dehumanizing experience of arguing with a finance office who is unable to accept the “no bill, no pay” concept, this was definitely not enough for us to decide to change apartment in the middle of a pandemic.

To add to the problem, we had not one, but two separate ventilation issues. One that we have been complaining for a while, and just became unacceptable during the lockdown, and one that was just unacceptable at any time: we spent nearly two months without extraction fans working in the bathrooms and the kitchen — getting instead the “reflux” of smells from someone else’s bathrooms (don’t ask how we know it’s bathrooms). The agency failed at dealing with either in time for them to leverage the constructor’s warranty.

After the first part of the lockdown, we also had to get installers in to replace the louvres on the windows — the original wood ones are no longer considered safe, and they had to replace them with metal. Which was fun, because they had to figure out how to open the second window, which we reported a year before as not opening, and needing to be fixed. The end result was a drilled out lock, which was not replaced up until we left. But hey, during the big heatwave we had both windows open, so we got that going on for us.

But the last drop for us was the last property manager we were assigned — as usual, neither he nor his predecessor informed us of a change as our agent. We found out about him after some new person asked us to book time for “pictures to be taken” for the apartment, which we thought was meant as the usual yearly inspection. No, it was a photographer coming to take pictures for marketing purposes so that they could advertise the flat to be sold on the market… except that we rented the flat unfurnished, and we were not going to agree to use the pictures of our furniture and art for marketing purposes.

Clearly the agency had no incentive to address our concern while trying to sell the flat, and at the same time we had to accept strangers coming into our apartment in the middle of a pandemic and sometimes not following health protocols either. We might have barked more than needed at the first agent that came with prospective buyers when she let herself in without knocking on the door!

So after a number of weeks and a few viewings, with the apartment not moving, the owner was satisfied to keep renting to us, but we weren’t satisfied to keep having that agency. We had already started looking around and found something we liked, prepared the paperwork and in parallel we gave notice in writing to the agency, and (with what in hindsight was a fortunate move) we reached out to our landlord via the only address we had, which was an accountancy firm.

It took two weeks for the agent at Dexters to realize we gave notice, and he spent another week pretty much ignoring it, and telling us “The problem with the ventilation will be fixed shortly [It wasn’t] so you can stay!”

You can imagine that things didn’t get much better after that. We had more people in and out of the apartment for the viewings, once the agent called us three minutes before the end of the slot they gave us for a viewing, saying they would be some more ten minutes late, expecting us to be play with it. I had a meeting coming up, so I told them in short order to not dare ringing us up at that point.

Indeed, after a few weeks of this, and with the extractions fan fix deadline lapsing twice, we told them not to come up with more viewings — yes that would have put us in breach of the tenancy agreement as they stipulate they’re allowed to enter your apartment in the last two months of tenancy, but given the failure on their part to provide a habitable flat we were getting miffed. The agent who called pretty much begged us to let them show the flat around — and failing being able to offer us anything for it, he promised a case of wine once the whole situation was over. You can imagine they didn’t keep their word.

As I said, in parallel we had reached out to our landlord. When I rented the apartment I was informed the landlord was overseas, and that we would not be in contact with him directly at all. And despite a couple of requests on our part to have his contact details, we still had no way to reach him except for the accountancy firm listed in the lease agreement. We hadn’t tried the firm before, because we were afraid we’d be complicating our position, by contacting someone who wouldn’t want to be contacted. Turned out that was not the case.

Indeed, once we got in touch with the landlord and explained the situation, showing the various communications and attempt at getting issues addressed, the situation became much more bearable to us. So win one for trying to talk to an actual human, rather than an inhuman company machinery.

The final cherry on top, was with the cleaning. As norm, we intended to have the flat professionally cleaned before moving out. Dexters suggests asking them for a recommended cleaner, so we did that, and we were given the name of a company that they usually asked to clean apartments to. We ask a quote, accept it, set up appointment for one day after we would have moved our stuff already… and then we found out that on the day we wouldn’t have water in the old building, so at last minute we had to push it out one more day.

On the day, my wife waited at the old flat, to no avail. She contacted the one person we spoke with, who apologized and would say he’d text when he would be available for the day after. Not hearing anything back for the day, we looked up another cleaner last minute, who accepted the job and confirmed availability for the day after. On that day, after the second cleaner was already through half of the flat, the first cleaner let himself in, with the keys to the apartment.

Dexters habitually hands out the keys to the flat they manage to their “known” contractors, without informing either tenants or landlords that the keys would be surrendered to a third party. The only “proof” they required was that we agreed to let the first cleaner clean the apartment, despite the fact that this was a communication between me and him, with no indication that Dexters would be asked to surrender the key. And according to the folks at Dexters, this is not a breach of the tenancy agreement (I wonder if anyone would be interested to try that out in court).

Of course, the agency wasn’t the only reason to leave. There were a few other issues that went beyond the control of agency and landlord, including one neighbouring family not accepting the idea that there might be people living next door that would like to have quiet evenings from time to time — I do totally understand the pain of being in lockdown, and how much it impacts families with kids, but when for two hours straight all we can hear is bam bam bam bam bam on the wall, and when bringing it up the only answer is “They’re kids, what can we do?”… well it’s too much for a civil engagement.

And at the same time, both towards the end of the first lockdown, and after it was originally lifted, the presence of short-term rentals in the building made life hard. We had one party that kept going until 3am. We had drunken people coming and going on our floor every other weekend. We had police coming to check the place, but it always came to nothing.

Even the building security was out of options — we were advised that they could only act and report on noise and nuisance that they could hear from the door, as they would be unable to enter the premises even if invited. The result was that for a few days we couldn’t go to bed before 1am, because the flat directly below us had kids that decided to play indoor soccer. Eventually I can only guess the estate office got bored of us keeping them up as much as we were.

So, with all of this mix going on, while already in the stressful situation of having started a new job, and learning yet another programming language, we decided to hunt for a new flat to rent. Which turned out to be a much more stressful process than I expected.

I No Longer Support FSFE

This post replaced a technical post that is now scheduled for some time in January, but for once, breaking news took precedence, and given my past writing on the topic, I thought I should state this explicitly as soon as possible.

You may remember that I have, many times, singled out FSFE (Free Software Foundation Europe) from FSF (Free Software Foundation — the original one). They (used to) have a positive attitude to Free Software, contrasting the “attack ads” strategy of their USA-based peers, and that alone set them aside in my views. And despite me having had doubts at times, I thought that active, positive engagement such as Public Money, Public Code, and REUSE were worth ignoring other “side projects” that I would disagree with, when it comes to Cloud solutions.

Well, today something entirely different (and yet something that didn’t surprise me) came to light:

Edit: you can also read the long form text, which is definitely easier to read through than the images.

I have no reason to disbelief this summary. I never interacted with Matthias face to face – though we have exchanged polite email before – so I cannot reconcile this with his character, but a significant bias against foreigners in the FSFE? Yeah I don’t need to stretch my mind to accept that.

Indeed I have twice raised my concerns with FSFE about how much focus was given to German issues overall, compared to more Free Sofware related issues. Both times I ended up not publicly ranting about this because of the Public Money, Public Code project (once because I was told it was coming, and the second time because it actually was announced), despite fairly unconvincing arguments that felt like “Well, it’s not my fault that it’s mostly Germans who get involved.”

While I would have loved to be involved more myself, there were problems with that. The first being that, since my previous employer was nearly directly targeted by one of their campaigns, it would be a difficult conflict to solve. The other being that, in an all too common play in Free Software community, there’s been a purity test on how to engage — in-person meetings are obviously not the easiest to attend, and with the strict constraints of privacy, finding a proper medium for discussion is always hard.

This is not to move the attention over from gama’s story — but to show that the attitude of “Yeah, there’s a problem, but can’t really fix it, can we?” in that story is not a surprise to me, and I can totally accept it.

And given the way their peer organizations in the USA and Latin America have been behaving over the past few years, particularly in defending Stallman’s behaviour as if he was a religious leader, and the still strong connections between them, I guess it’s time I publicly distance myself from FSFE – just as much as I did over the years with FSF — which fits with having been called an “enemy of Free Software” before.

I guess this is yet another community I don’t belong to, being a fan of nuance, and seeing that there’s a lot of good coming out of things that are not perfect. On both sides.

The Cat Who Reviewed Some Books

As promised, I am still doing sARTSurday posts about arts, including book reviews. In this case it’s not the review of a book but a review of a series. Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who… series, to be precise. So sit down and relax for a bit of feline whodunit review.

Personal History

This is a very special series for me. I was in primary school when I read a book from the series for the first time — not the first book in the series, though, but rather the 16th book, The Cat Who Came to Breakfast, titled in Italian Il Gatto Che Giocava a Domino (“The Cat Who Played Dominoes”). For a kid that was already into Agatha Christie novels, it felt so nice to read something more modern, and despite this not being something that my parents or my sisters ever cared about, it turns out the series is also fairly age-appropriate, at least most of the time.

I did manage to read four of the books in Italian – plus one of the unrelated short stories by Braun – but anything more was a lost cause. I went into so many different bookstores, even second hand bookstores, and I never found more than those. I even wrote to the publisher (Mondadori) asking them if they published more of the books, and how to find them and order them… this is before Amazon, and before most online bookstores, you need to understand. When I say I wrote to them, I mean that I typed it on an Olivetti typerwriter, and sent it over by snail mail. They did reply, by the way — but they also had no idea how to find any of the other books; I’m fairly sure the impression I got was that they didn’t print any of the other books, but Italian Wikipedia appears to disagree with me. Instead, they sent me over an anthology of short stories about cats and mysteries (or deaths), that included one story by Braun.

As an extra fun aside, some of you out there might remember a toy called 2-XL – not the 8-track version but the compact cassette one – which was available in Italy as well as a number of other countries. I loved that toy as a kid, and I think I might still have it somewhere at my mother’s house. It was pretty much just a tape player with trivia questions. One of the tapes I was given for that toy was about mysteries, and it had a question about this series of books! With hindsight, I guess they just translated the original Tiger Electronics cassette to Italian, because the series clearly had much more success in the USA than in Italy.

Anyway, when I decided I really wanted to be able to read English – after high school, when I didn’t have terrible teachers thinking they were helping while making us hate the language – I turned to these novels again, and bought a few books from one of the first Internet bookshops in Italy that actually sold English editions. Unfortunately even then it was not something I could read start-to-finish, because of the availability of the physical books. So it wasn’t until earlier this year that I decided to read the whole series, in order. It was a quarantine project.

This is one of the reasons why I feel that eBooks are still extremely empowering, despite the whole problems of artificial regions, DRMs, and so on. With very few exceptions, eBooks, like all digital goods, are removing the wall of scarcity that physical books have to live with. For good or bad, there’s no hunting down a second hand copy of the Italian translation in a bin in a small bookshop on the outskirt of Treviso — you go online, and get a copy of the book.

Well, at least most of the time. I know that some authors have explicitly boasted setting up deals selling only a limited amount of eBooks copies, to make an artificial scarcity that reproduces the physical world’s rarity into the digital world. I don’t particularly like this, but it’s their art and it’s their choice — I’ll just avoid playing to those notes myself, and not buy “limited edition” eBooks.

400 Miles North of Everywhere… or Not

So let’s talk setting for a moment, because this is a series that is fairly interesting. First of all, these are mystery novels, and they are generally light mystery novels. With a handful of exceptions, there’s no description of gruesome deaths, and while there’s fairly obvious references to characters sleeping around, they are only obvious to an adult, and I’m sure I had not picked up on any of them when I was younger.

The protagonist is Jim Qwilleran, a journalist from Chicago, and his cat companion Koko, who are later joined by another cat, Yum Yum. These are the only constants throughout the series, because the rest of the characters are not only varied, but they are also fairly disposable: I have not calculated the body count of each books, but there’s a lot of characters that, despite surviving for a number of books, end up dying some times “off stage”, for all different type of reasons: accidents, malfeasance, old age, health issues, …

The location of where the main action takes place is also not constant. When I read the four books as a kid, they all took place in the fictional rural community of “Moose County”, which is described as being 400 miles North of everywhere. But that’s not where the series started.

Indeed, the first few books take place “Down Below” in a city that could very well be Chicago, but is never specified. That’s where we get introduced to recovering alcoholic Qwill, and the posh Siamese cat Koko, and the first characters in the cast, some of which will stay around until the very end of the series. Then after twenty years from the first book, Moose County is introduced, which became the permanent setting for the series — well, with a couple of exceptions.

The different setting doesn’t really change the main feeling of the series, except for the fact that book number four The Cat Who Saw Red, the first book after the 18 year hiatus of the series, and the last one in the big city, that contains the only death that made me sick in my stomach when reading. Otherwise, the main difference between the two settings is that the cast stopped cycling, and started “building up”.

As for the cats… they feature prominently in the stories, not just as human companions but as raison d’être, at times, with most of the “good folks” sharing their life with a cat. The titular character, Koko, is a normal, pampered Siamese cat, that somehow acts just the right way to make Qwill see through misdirection and mysteries, and solve whichever murder just happened around him. While there’s the usual need for a suspension of disbelief of the typical whodunit series – why did people still invite Jessica Fletcher for events, knowing full well that someone will die just before or just after dinner? – Braun made a point that none of Koko’s behaviour was not out of the ordinary for a cat… just a lot of coincidence.

While the cast is far from diverse, and you can probably tell that Braun had not been mingling much with people outside of the USA, except maybe for Scots, it gives a warm feeling of rural closed communities, with a lot of time dedicated to the fictional history of the county, with immigrants from… a bunch of white European places. It’s definitely the product of its time in this regard — the only character that is described as being not white is a woman with not-well-defined “Mediterranean” origin.

A more interesting point is that, unlike a lot of other books I have read when I was a kid, the cast is generally older. Qwill himself is middle-aged to older, having gone through a nasty divorce before the events of the first book, and being a recovering alcoholic, and most of the friends he makes in the whole series are older than him. Any character that is described as being less than thirty is pretty much described as a youngster, if not a delinquent!

Qwill also appear to be – like me, my wife, and Sarah Millican – a “cheery childless”, not having particular fondness for children, avoiding babies, and having a short temper with their “nonsense”, which I totally relate to. While there’s a number of babies being born in Moose County, they usually stay off-screen, until at least they are grown up enough to at least say something.

And being a recovering alcoholic, he’s also the character that always goes for a mocktail — although I wonder if that word was even used at the time. But the Squunk Water with cranberry juice sounds pretty much like it. Once again, relatable.

As I said already, there’s a couple of exceptions about all the action happening in Moose County. Two of the books – The Cat Who Lived High and The Cat Who Moved a Mountain – have a different settings, Down Below and a different rural community, respectively. But at the same time, they are very clearly books that remind the reader why the action will stay in Moose County. So not really “pilots in disguise” for any reboot.

29 25 Delightful Novels.

The Cat Who… series includes 29 novels. Of these, I would recommend stopping after the 25th, The Cat Who Brought Down the House. There are repeated rumors that Braun, who was getting on with age herself, had not been writing the last few books — I have no idea nor proof about the situation with this, but the last four books definitely have lost their shine, and would not recommend reading them. Indeed, as I’m typing this review I’m still not done with The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, but I thought it wouldn’t be important to actually finish it, as already the previous book was hard to swallow.

It’s not just the writing going a bit off-style — Braun has definitely played with different writing styles between books – in a way that reminds me a bit of the first few books in Charles Stross’s Laundry Files – but her characters have always behaved… in-character. While many of them have not been particularly well developed, they have at least always acted consistently between books… until those four books.

My honest, personal impression is that Braun might have had a general outline of where she wanted to bring a bunch of stories and threads, and a ghost writer took care of fleshing it out. The reason why I say that, is the number of inconsistencies, the characters that appear to be completely forgotten, other characters that appear and disappear out of nowhere, instead of being at least introduced and discussed.

I’ll give you a few examples with spoilers, so be careful about this section.

In the Moose County books, the unofficial historian throughout is a character named Homer Tibbitt — who became clearly a dear friend of Qwill. Indeed, Braun at times talk about how the latter never met his grandparents, and that’s why he gravitates around older people, such as Homer. As of Turkey, the title of county historian has been passed on to a different character (Thornton Haggis), and there’s no hearing about Homer until Bombshell, in which he dies, off-stage, announced by a phone call — not to Qwill, but to the plumber, never heard of before, and never heard of since, who came visiting the barn just right then. And despite the long-running job that funerals are big deals in Pickax, and that Homer was like a grandfather to Qwill, there’s no discussion of funeral arrangements, no discussion of wills, no call to his widow, … it isn’t until Whiskers (the last book), that Qwill even appears to care about Homer being dead!

This is just one of the reasons why I think Braun might have left notes about her wanting to “kill off” Homer before the 150th anniversary of the city, but it wasn’t her actually writing the whole treatment. And similarly, once people complained about not having heard anything about Homer’s funeral, the following book tried addressing that.

Similarly, at the end of Bombshell, another, much younger, character dies, that has a relationship with a close friend of Qwill — and neither him nor anybody else that talks about how that death will reflect on the friend! Not even a quick call to express regrets, no talk about funeral arrangements… despite, once again, the local tradition of funerary prowess.

And to top it off, the reason why I’m slow at finishing Whiskers is that I’m now reading descriptions of how Qwill, a columnist that prided himself to be able to write a thousand words on the colour green, is having trouble finding new topics, and can’t extract a good column on… viticulture. I mean, sure, he’s not had a drink for half a century by then, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped him before mixing cocktails and talking shop. This is all so out of character that it makes reading the book just painful.

Speaking of out of character… in the last four books, Koko becomes a caricature of himself — while there’s always been the tension and mystery of whether Koko actually had supernatural powers, or just happened to be doing stuff that Qwill would read too much into (which, I found out recently, is called apophenia)… but in the last four books it became much more paradoxical, including suggestions that he would be able to send wrongdoings pretty much unrelated to anyone in the books at all — come on, someone “firebombs” city hall, Koko senses it before it happens, and it’s dismissed with a call of the police chief?

There’s more — the attorney that would rarely be spoken about except when something bad happened suddenly becomes “Uncle George” and appears every third chapter — the multiple young women that appear out of nowhere, drop the answer to the current mystery, and disappear — the young sidekick that joins the newspaper under false name, and then disappears without a trace — Lisa Compton nearly flirting with Qwill, or vice versa, despite them knowing each other for years by then.

I can see why the rumors spread, and I’m willing to believe them. As I said, my impression is that some time during the writing of Turkey (which starts fairly on par with everything else, but then degenerates), Braun started being unwell, and the publisher brought in someone to help. Someone who only gave a superficial reading of the plots of the series, and maybe a character sheet, but couldn’t keep them straight enough to write as well as Braun.

There’s a missing closure for Turkey, there’s missing characters in Bananas, there’s just plain bad writing in Bombshell, and Whiskers feels like a hackjob to the point I ‘m not sure how else to describe it.

Personal Views and Impact

I really enjoyed the “trip down memory lane” with reading The Cat Who… back to back. I wished there was a bit more closure towards the end of the series. I have a feeling that it was planned for it, but it just didn’t manage to materialize.

I can’t say for sure that the books have directly influenced me. But they definitely have left an impression in my memory, with the whole experience of trying to find a copy, writing to the Italian publisher, starting to read English books with it, and so on.

And maybe a bit of a subtle, subconscious influence made me worry less about old age and loneliness — even though I’m very unlikely to inherit billions of dollars like Qwill, particularly after reading the whole series, I can feel that there’s plenty to do in my later years to feel satisfaction, even without kids of our own.

While the journalistic profession is not really something I’m interested in, you can see from this blog that writing is something that I ended up doing quite a bit for. Was I impressed as a kid that from Qwill’s lifestyle? Did I miss the part where he could afford it because he inherited billions and owned the newspaper he wrote on? I don’t think it’s that easy, but I guess it might have been in the back of my mind growing up after all.

And of course, reading this now, that I’m not quite that young, that I can’t be drinking (and don’t care for), and that I share my life with a person I love, with no intention of having kids, I can definitely feel closer to Qwill, although clearly not entirely, and not just for the money.

Generally, if you’d like a reading that “feels” like the early seasons of Murder, She Wrote, then this might be the series for you. For the most part, I’d say it’s also a kid-friendly read, since there’s very little explicit violence – beside the murders, of course – and as I said, not really any explicit sex. Indeed, at most it’s said that Qwilleran and Polly just happen to lose track of time, since at many points Braun wrote they met after dinner for a quick chat, and one or the other left when it was quite dark out there — this was totally lost of ten years old me, since the concept of “after dinner” in Italy would imply darkness anyway. It wasn’t until I lived in Los Angeles, and then Dublin, that I realized how early Anglosaxons eat!

There’s a lot of nice pearls to dig around; Braun seems to have been predicting a lot of the banes of modern life, including smartphones’ autocorrects. And while she sounds a lot like a technophobe, you also need to keep in mind that most of the books predates “modernity” by quite a bit. And is aimed at a generally older audience.

I’m happy I read these books in a binge – and I hope that, if you pick up the series yourself, you’ll enjoy it as well. Given it’s now “winter lockdown” up here, I would suggest reading it while wrapped up in a blanket while drinking a strong, black coffee — just like Qwill would like it!

You can’t program the world to suit you

Last year, I was drafting more notes regarding the Free Software for SMB that I talked about before. While doing so I recognized that one of the biggest takeaway for myself is that successfully making a software project thrive takes a lot more than just good programmers, developers, designers. If you have customers you need people who know how to make a business work, you need people who can market your product, and you need people to remind you what the customers actually want as well as what they need.

It’s not an entirely new lesson — I wrote (in Italian) about helping Free Software without being a programmer fifteen years ago. I also wrote about the importance of teamwork two years ago. And I have spent a good chunk of my opensource and professional careers knee-deep in documentation matters.

I actually want to go back to the tweet that spawned the teamwork post:

Most things don’t work the way I think they work. That’s why I’m a programmer, so I can make them work the way I think they should work.

This is not meant to single out the author of the quoted phrase, but just to take it as an example of a feeling I get from many talks, and discussions, and in general just people out there. The idea that you can tech your way out of a problem. That by being a programmer you can change the way most things work.

And that’s not true, because the world is not running on servers, unless you found the Repository and I don’t know that. Indeed wielding “the power of programming”, thinking of changing the world just with that, sounds to me like a recipe for either failure or disaster.

I heard all kind of possible “solutions” to this — from insisting on teaching ethics in Software Engineering courses (with reasonable doubts about it), to regulating the heck out of any action businesses can take. I think the closest I have seen to something I would like (with all my biases of course) would be to make sure there is a mix of non-programming subjects in every university or high school that teaches programming as well. But even that has its own limitations, and I can totally say that I would probably have been frustrated by that and just ignored everything that’s not programming-related, when I was that age.

To make the example of Italy, that is under political turmoils most of the time, I could see a number of critiques of (in my opinion horrible) politicians based on where they went to school. In particular I saw some left-wing intellectuals criticising ministers (who have enough to be criticised about in deeds) based on the fact that they didn’t study in a lyceum but rather on a technical (or professional) school. Well, turns out I studied at a tech school, and I studied basic economics and (very basic) civic education for two years, and I found out the hard way that I know how VAT works much better than most of my local acquaintances who got an university degree after a lyceum: they never were introduced to the concept of VAT, the difference between types of taxes, and so on.

You could argue that there is no reason to know this particular tidbit, which is where I’m actually going to end up: there is no perfect education, the same way as there is no perfect solution. People need to learn to work with each other and they should know how to play each other’s strengths instead.

What I really would like to see proposed more often is focusing a lot more on teamwork. And not in the sense of “Here’s a topic for research, now work on it with your team”, which I had to do in high school — many of us have had the experience of being the only person working for a group assignment. What I would have loved to have would be cross-school year-long projects. Not competitions, but rather something that requires more than one type of expertise: trying to get three programming students in a room to work together, in my experience, turned to either two of them slacking off, because one of them actually enjoy doing the work, or if you’re lucky having someone with actual leadership skills telling them how to do their job… but still gives the impression that you just need programmers to do something like that.

In hindsight I would have loved instead if I had a project shared with some of my colleagues from electronics, mechanical and business tech-schools. Come up with a solution for a problem, that requires hardware and software, and a product plan that would include optimising the bill of material for small batch production and still make profits.

Sounds complicated? It is. Having had my own company, alone, for four years, made it very clear that there is a lot more than just being a programmer if you want to succeed. If you want to change the world, and in particular if you want to make the world a better place, then it takes even more energy, and a bigger group of people who can work together.

It also takes leadership. And that’s not something that I feel can be taught, and it’s the one that makes the most difference on whether the change is for good or not. I’m not good at leading people. I don’t have the right mindset most likely. I have trouble rallying people towards a common goal. I know that. I just hope that at some point, when I’ll be looking at more meaning in my work, I’ll find the right leader that can take what I can add to a good team, and let me shine through that.

I know it’s going to be repeating myself, but that is also what I mean with “there is no perfect solution”. If we decided that leadership is something that is important to score people, whether it is with school results, or with performance review at work, then we would be pretty much excluding a significant part of the population: not everyone wants to be a leader, are people who don’t want to be a leader worth less to society? Hint: this is not far from the question of how many multiples of a line worker a CEO should be worth.

And if you need a proper example of how “tech will not solve it”, just look at 2020 in general: tech is not really solving the Covid-19 world crisis. It does help, of course: videopresence, social network and chat services (including my employer’s), online “tabletop” games, shared documents infrastructure, online shopping, and so on… they all allowed people, isolating or not, to feel closer together. But it did not solve the problem. Even if we including medical sciences as “tech”, they still have not managed to find a way to deal with the crisis, because the crisis is not just medical.

People don’t ignore the lockdown requirements because they don’t have enough tech: it’s because there are other things in this world! It’s one thing to talk to my mother on the big screen of Portal, and another thing to spend a week at her house — including the fact that I can’t fix her house’s wiring while physically in another country. And then there is the big elephant in the room: the economy — tech can’t solve that problem, people working in industries that had to shut down because of the lockdown can’t just be “teched” into new roles; they can’t magically be vaccinated overnight; they need political leaders to make tough decisions around supporting them.

So no, you can’t program the world to suit your needs. Great for you if you have more tools in your toolbox – and there’s a lot more use for even basic programming literacy that has nothing to do with working as a programmer – but that doesn’t make you super-human, nor it allows you to ignore what’s going on in the world. If “being a programmer” is providing a superiority complex, I feel it’s more related to the fact that we’ve been well paid for a number of years now, and money makes the difference.

But that’s a topic for an entirely new rant, later on.

Why Am I Writing This Blog?

When I decided to take a break from the blog, I decided that the first thing I would be reflecting upon, and posting about, is my reasons to keep this blog running, and to keep writing on it. Because the answer to that should definitely feed into the decision of returning from the break and writing again.

The reasons why I started, continued, and am currently writing are all different. The only constant part is that I always wanted to make something that would be read or used by others. And while I hated writing essays for school, I always liked sitting down and writing on a topic I cared about. I remember before blogs were easy to get a start with, I wrote “articles” in LaTeX and posted it as PDF to the local Linux Users Group mailing list¹.

But the truth is that those “articles” were pretty much the same (low) quality of blog posts — as I already wrote about, blog posts are not very involved. I have written articles for actual publications: NewsForge back when it existed, the Italian Linux Journal (also gone), and LWN.net. The amount of work put on by the editors varied widely, with LWN having taught me lots, and being also the only one who paid for the articles — I feel it’s unfair, they did the most work and they gave money to me rather than the other way around.

Most of the readers of this blog probably know it from my blogging related to Gentoo Linux, but before I held a Planet Gentoo blog, I had a blog in Italian on Blogspot (for which I lost the backups, and only recovered some sparse posts thanks to the Wayback Machine), and in between the two I had a few posts on a KDE-sponsored shared blog (KDevelopers), which I have folded into this site, together with the few guest posts I did for Axant and for David’s Boycott Boycott Novell.

When I started blogging regularly for Gentoo Linux, it was mostly daily updates on the work I had been doing there. Whether it was multimedia packages changes or the Gentoo/FreeBSD progress — and that’s why a lot of the early blog posts look more like Twitter than the current blog, particularly those that predate Twitter. I still use this blog for updating the progress of various projects I’m involved in, but Twitter took over the “daily” updates, and the blog only includes “milestone” updates. Also, I have much fewer public projects compared to what I used to contribute to ten to fifteen years ago, for good or bad.

At some point, in addition to providing a status update, I used the blog also as a “showroom” — as a way to find work. Turns out that when I was a contractor I did indeed find a few gigs thanks to the blog itself — but since I have been working full time for many years now, that’s no longer a reason. Similarly, while before having a stable job, I have experimented with different ways to monetize the blog, from various referral systems to ads — none ever managed to cover the costs of running the blog at all, but in particular they would all now fit into the category of “rounding error”, as a former colleague would call them.

These last two points are important to the motivations discussion — a monetized blog, or a blog of someone who’s struggling to find a job, are very good reason to want more eyeballs on the posts, but both are not reasons I care for, at least not at this point in time. So why am I feeling disappointed that there aren’t more visitors, beside the psychological effects of counters and stats?

I guess the answer is that I have strong opinions, and the main motivation for me to write this blog nowadays is to voice them, and try to sway others — or be proven wrong and be swayed myself to a more positive and optimistic view of the world. Some are more active opinions than other: comments on working from home are very general and with the only action item to please consider the effect of it on others with different experiences and problems, while my repeated rants about licensing have action items that you can all pick up on.

I also still want to write so that other people can find out how to do stuff — because I love finding out how stuff works, and sometimes I even get to make use of that knowledge. I said this some time ago, that there’s significant value to spread the word, and share how things are done with others. Most of the stuff I have produced myself is not an invention of mine — it’s a refinement of someone else’s idea. Yes, even the free ideas that I have thrown out there but never managed to work on myself.

And then, there’s been quite a few personal posts on this blog over time – as I said before when sharing it at work, «there is a whole lot of me in [this] blog» – and those are there for… different reasons. Sometimes it’s personal therapy, sometimes a reminder to myself that I went through stuff, and I don’t need to squander opportunities. In many cases, it’s to share my experiences with others who might go through similar troubles. When I complained the first time about alcohol culture in Free Software, I was a very dissonant voice — nowadays this is a much more common complaint, and a number of conferences replaces beer parties with tea parties, though sometimes more to make fun of the complains… except the joke’s on them.

So what does all of this come down to, when it comes to the blog? Well, not really much to be honest. It means that there will still be project reports, opinions (and rants), explanations, and some personal point of view posts. I’ll also probably keep posting sARTSurday – even if not as regular as I tried at the beginning of the lockdown – including personal reviews of books and videogames, because I did write those before, and I see no reason not to keep doing that.

What it does say to me, is that my focus on the tight two-posts-per-week schedule is misplaced. While it did work great to keep my mind off the pandemic, particularly during the two months sabbatical between jobs, it’s proving more of a chore than a relief now that I’m back working full time and (mostly) ramped up in my new position. The tight schedule would have made sense if I tried to keep as many eyeballs on the blog as possible – which again is not really an useful goal to have for my motivations – but it also can reduce the quality of posts if I’m posting something early just so that I have a paced release of it.

So from now on, the schedule of blog posts will be once per week, on Tuesday, for regular post. sARTSurday posts will not be regular, but will appear when I find something particularly interesting to share with all. I’ll stop chasing timing and opportunities, and will instead post just what is ready to be posted, with no particular regard to scheduling the posts.

While thinking the blog’s motivation over, I also started wondering on whether I should spend more time on doing something… different. You might remember I have now a few times streamed on Twitch (and once on Facebook Live) — that started mostly as me trying to figure out how to convey information over the Internet that I would usually convey on a whiteboard. I still haven’t found a good answer to that, so I might end up doing more of that as time goes by, to experiment and find something that will work as well for work meetings. But it’s not going to be the kind of thing I expect people to care about or follow — after all, I have tried this before, over 11 years ago, and it wasn’t my cup of tea to continue.

What I might want to try is to prepare a “talk” out of some of the knowledge I have. Somewhere between a blog post and a conference talk, with a few of the things that I learnt over time and that might be worth sharing… but the motivation for that is less to become a famous streamer, and more that I might need to do that at work, and it’s worth trying to learn to make content in a way that can be used for training the newbies arriving. But don’t hold your breath on that, and don’t expect it to be any high quality to begin with.

Rather, if you find anything here, new or old that it might be, that is worth discussing further, feel free to bring it up — I might do a whiteboarding session about it, or I might take it for a jumpstart topic for a talk. Or at the very least I might write a refresher blog post to correct mistakes or update information of how things evolved in the meantime. And feel free to share it on aggregation sites like Reddit and Lobsters, just don’t expect me to be proactively there to answer questions — ask them here!

¹ Those articles are still to be found in this blog! I used to keep them on a page of my site, but have eventually folded them into blog posts. Which is how the archives go back to 2004!

It’s Time For A Break

Since before the beginning of the lockdown, I’ve been striving to keep a two-posts-per-week schedule to the blog, talking about my work philosophy, my electronics projects, and even trying a third post a week for a while with sARTSurday. Keeping the schedule was not easy, but I tried and only messed it twice: once when I mis-scheduled a post, and once when Microsoft “stole” my thunder.

About six months later, I’m running out of steam to keep the schedule. It might be because I spent the last few weeks worrying about whether we would have a flat to stay in as a new lockdown started. Or it might be that I’m now engaging gears with my new dayjob and it’s using all of my mental capacity.

I even tried whiteboarding — both with a physical whiteboard and on Twitch with Microsoft Whiteboard. Part of the reason why I did that is that with the lack of an office, I was looking for better venue to engage with my colleagues to discuss ideas and come up with plans. I can’t say it worked.

I have been mulling about options. I even briefly considered figuring out how much it would cost me to hire an editor to make the blog post more… polished. But the truth is that it wouldn’t make much sense — while I have been known for the blog in the past, blogs are the past. I never became a speaker when conferences were at their highest point, and I’ll never be a streamer now that they have been replaced by virtual events. I described myself recently as a C-list blogger – and I meant that. It seems nowadays to be B-list you need to have statically generated blog with no comments, and to be A-list you need to have not your own blog but just a Medium account. I don’t fit, nor I care to fit, into that world.

I guess I’m like a sportsman who’s too old to keep playing, but not well known enough to become a coach or a celebrity. And you know what? That’s okay. I’ll keep focusing on my dayjob as a “software mechanic” for as long as I can at least keep up to date to the new bubble’s stack. And maybe I can still get an idea or two out in the future, even when I won’t be able to do anything good with it myself.

This is not a goodbye, it’s just a “see you later” — I’ve been blogging for over 15 years and I’m not going to fully stopping now. If you have any questions or comments or suggestions on any of my old blog posts, feel free to leave a comment there, as I will be monitoring those, although possibly not as closely as before.

Update 2020-09-25: A couple of weeks into the break, I feel I’m finding myself more relaxed, and trying to get myself into a better position to get back to blogging later. Also in the meantime we finally finalized the paperwork for moving to a new apartment (that will also be a tale for later on in the blog), which means that we have a timeline for when we’ll have even less time.

So the current plan is that I’ll be taking time off posting until November 2020. After which I’ll come back on a one post per week schedule, until further notice. With the post going out likely on Tuesday or Wednesday, not sure yet. The reason for reducing frequency is to give myself some more time to work on content without rushing through incomplete posts.