Musings after buying a smart plug

I know that people will go and start ranting on using terms like “Internet of Shit” just for the title I’m using here. Despite being as wary and cynical about the subject of connected appliances as the next security-aware engineer, I want to point out that those reactions are blind and lacking empathy. So if your answer is to think that you’re smarter than the plug and me combined, there’s maybe no reason for you to stay around to read the post.

I also need to put the usual disclaimer forward: I work for Google, a company that produces “smart” appliances. I don’t have anything to do with the hardware products, have no special insight into them, and I am her talking about things as myself alone. I’m also not really talking about Google hardware beside for a few references to the Assistant here and there, and that’s simply because I happen to be using Google Home as my hub.

As I said I’m fairly cynical about smart appliances. It took quite a bit for me to even buy a single one, but I’m now a very happy user of a LIFX Mini Colour smart bulb. It was probably this year’s best gadget buy for me, and it is not just about the ability to control the light with an app on my phone — or with the Assistant. The bulb can dim, change colours, and can be set onto a dynamic schedule. It’s extremely convenient, and an improvement in my quality of life, particularly by setting it to red as I go to sleep, instead of keeping it bright white.

Of course, like always when buying a device that relies on external services to work (the infamous “cloud”), I am still worried about the risk of the company going under, or dropping support for my specific device, and letting me deal with the broken pieces. But quite honestly, if you tried to avoid all the cloud-based services and hardware nowadays, you will end up a luddite. And maybe you want that. Besides IKEA, that requires their full bridge, I don’t know of any other smart home brand that provides local-only controls — and local-only means no talking to the Assistant to turn on the light as part of the morning routine.

I’m happy enough that my LIFX can be controlled without an active Internet connection (this happened before). Maybe I’ll follow Matthew Garrett’s example and start reverse engineering it into a Python script for the rainy days.

But I digressed enough. What I wanted to talk about was rather smart plugs. Because that’s a device I’m not entirely sold on the idea of smart plugs, I started the original draft of this post because I thought they were completely useless. I changed my own mind as I was writing this, and that’s why I actually wanted to post this.

So why did I buy a smart plug if I am not sold on the idea? Well, since this is our first Christmas together, my girlfriend wants to have a proper Christmas tree at home. And since I would like to see the tree while I approach the apartment on the bus or on foot (hey, I have not had a Christmas Tree for more than a decade, I can have some fun!), I would like to have IFTTT turn it on for me.1

I ended up buying a TP-Link Smart Plug (UK version), which comes with their own app, and integration with the various services including IFTTT and Google Assistant. Which means we’ll be able to say “Hey Google, turn on the Christmas Tree!”

There are differences between a smart bulb and a plug though. The former adds a significant amount of value add, with things like dimming, different colours, and so on. A smart plug is still only a binary operator, it’s either on, or off. You cannot do fine-grained control over that, you can only turn things on or off.

So after thinking about this, I realized there are a few requirements for something to make sense to have connected to a smart plug:

It needs to be something that cannot stay on standby the whole day. Because if it can, there’s no real advantage in having a smart plug for it, keeping it in stand by is easier, and can easily be cheaper, as the stand-by of the plug connected to WiFi might be higher consumption than the device itself.

It needs to be something that can be at least “readied” unattended. Turning on the plug for a hairdryer is not going to be very useful, if you’re not there to use it. Also if readying something unattended is too risky, it’s a bad idea to use a smart plug. This is the case for clothes irons for instance; I wouldn’t want to turn mine on if I’m not there to make sure that it’s not on top of something it shouldn’t be.

If it’s something that comes with consumables, it needs to have big enough reserves, or a way to feed itself. Going back to the clothes iron, the one I have does not have enough of a water tank. If I was to turn it on too soon, it would just waste all of it and I would go and find it empty, which is just as bad.

Given these considerations, one of the common suggestions I hear is coffee makers. At first I thought this was pointedly American, as indeed a percolator style coffee can be filled in in the evening, and then be set to turn on in the morning and make coffee for you to drink. When I spent extensive time in Los Angeles, I used the timer on a percolator to make sure I would have hot “coffee” ready immediately after waking up. But then I realized that this is very similar for Italian-style espresso machines, too: they have an internal boiler that takes a while to get to temperature and be usable, they usually have a tank big enough for a full day (or in some cases they may be connected to the water mains), and they consume enough power in standby that you wouldn’t want to keep it turned on overnight. For those who don’t drink coffee, the same can be true of automated teawakers or teamakers — I had one from Twinings back in Italy.

Another appliance that fits the bill fairly well is the electric bathroom heater, or towel rack. Heating in general is likely better suited by a smarter “whitebox” approach — indeed I have booked an appointment to install a Nest thermostat at my apartment, after getting my landlord’s permission, because I want to be able to automate hot water availability and easily tweak the temperature over the day. But in some cases, you have additional bathroom heating that has less control: I have on/off towel racks in my bathrooms in London, and my mother uses a small electric heater in Italy, after we messed up with the house’s heating plan by replacing a bulky and leaky boiler with a more modern and efficient one.

Now for both of these examples, smart plugs are not the only obvious solution. Indeed, percolators, teawakers, and espresso machines, as well as many small electric heater, often come with their own timer. This works great for the people who have a clear schedule and fixed routine. In my case that’s rarely the case: I wake up at a different time depending on what my day looks like, sometimes I oversleep because I had a bad night, sometimes I’m up earlier than average because my girlfriend is staying over and she has to go to work. A similar result exists for my mother due to different requirements: she lives alone and really doesn’t have any reason to get up a fixed time unless she’s waiting for deliveries, services, or stuff like that. And since the house is on two floors, and she has knee pain, being able to turn on the heating, get the bathroom ready, or make sure that the coffee machine is warmed up without having to get downstairs immediately, would be a very nice feature.

I can definitely see myself appreciating the idea of saying “Hey Google, Good Morning”, and know that by the time I finished listening to the BBC News headlines, the coffee is ready and still hot for me, while the bathroom is warm enough to take a shower in. Doesn’t really work for me here, because I make pour-over coffee, and the towel rack is not controlled by a normal plug, but I can dream can’t I?

By the way, Google Assistant can do that, although it’s a bit hidden: from the [Home](https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.android.apps.chromecast.app app, go into the Account tab (the last one on the right), click Settings, go to the Assistant tab, and then select Routines. From there you can set up the actions you want taken when you give it a specific hotphrase.

For most of other appliances, I would probably need more whitebox smartness. I already rely on the timer for my washing machine, but it would be nice to just put it into “standby”, loaded and locked, but not start it until I wake up, or until I’m actually leaving the apartment (I don’t get woken up by the noise of the one I have here in London, but I would have been by the one in Dublin). And something that can remind me was I get home (“Hey Google, I’m home”) that I need to unload the dishwasher.

One of the things that I actually nearly considered giving a smart plug to was the Air Wick freshner. While I would love having a fine grained intensity control that would keep a background fragrance during the day, but raise it just as I’m ready to get home, to make me feel good, just having the ability to turn it off the moment I leave and on again when I come back home, would be a very nice thing to have. On the other hand, it turns out that the plug-in device consumes significantly less power than the smart plug in stand-by, so it makes no sense as it is.

I guess using more sophisticated fragrance delivery devices, such as Yankee Candle’s Scenterpiece (that my mother has, at home) would make more sense. Alternatively, Muji has very nice oil burners, though they have a small tank for water, and candle warmers are getting more common (these are probably better than the Scenterpiece in my experience). Unfortunately these are usually table-top devices, rather than plug-in, and I don’t have the space where I would want to use it. So if someone from Air Wick or Ambi Pur is reading, consider that I would pay just as much as a smart plug to have a smart plug-in freshener that can be set to adjust the intensity over the day!

So to close it up, I’m somewhat skeptical about getting more smart plugs for myself, but I can definitely see a number of useful cases for them, as well as for smarter “whitebox” appliances. Indeed, if my mother had a decent Internet connection in 2018, I would probably set her up with quite a few of those, to make her life easier. Call them accessibility helpers, maybe.


  1. You may remember that I have some particular attachment to Christmas lights Rube Goldberg machinery. The idea of having my own IFTTT-compatible smart Chrimast light tube did pass through my head. 

Ads, spying, and my personal opinion

In the past year or so, I have seen multiple articles, even by authors who I thought would have more rational sense to them, over the impression that people get about being spied upon by technology and technology companies. I never got particularly bothered to talk about them, among other things because the company I work for (Google) is one that is often at the receiving end of those articles, and it would be disingenuous for me to “defend” it, even though I work in Site Realiability, which gives me much less insight in how tracking is done than, say, my friends who work in media at other companies.

But something happened a few weeks ago gave me an insight on one of the possible reasons why people think this, and I thought I would share my opinion on this. Before I start let me make clear that what I’m going to write about is something that is pieced together with public information only. As you’ll see soon, the commentary is not even involving my company’s products, and because of that I had access to no private information whatsoever.

As I said in other previous posts, I have had one huge change in my personal life over the past few months: I’m in a committed relationship. This means that there’s one other person beside me that spends time in the apartment, using the same WiFi. This is going to be an important consideration as we move on later.

Some weeks ago, my girlfriend commented on a recent tourism advertisement campaign by Lithuania (her country) on Facebook. A few hours later, I received that very advertisement on my stream. Was Facebook spying on us? Did they figure out that we have been talking a lot more together and thus thought that I should visit her country?

I didn’t overthink it too much because I know it can be an absolute coincidence.

Then a few weeks later, we were sitting on the sofa watching Hanayamata on Crunchyroll. I took a bathroom break between episodes (because Cruncyroll’s binge mode doesn’t work on Chromecast), and as I came back she showed me that Instagram started showing her Crunchyroll ads — “Why?!” We were using my phone to watch the anime, as I have the account. She’s not particularly into anime, this was almost a first as the material interested her. So why the ads?

I had to think a moment to give her an answer. I had to make a hypothesis because obviously I don’t have access to either Crunchyroll or Instagram ads tracking, but I think I’m likely to have hit close to the bullseye and when I realized what I was thinking of, I considered the implications with the previous Facebook ads, and the whole lot of articles about spying.

One more important aspect that I have not revealed yet, is that I requested my ISP to give me a static, public IPv4 address instead of the default CGNAT one. I fell for the wet dream, despite not really having used the feature since. It’s handy, don’t get me wrong, if I was to use it. But the truth is that I probably could have not done so and I wouldn’t have noticed a difference.

Except for the ads of course. Because here’s how I can imagine these two cases to have happened.

My girlfriend reads Lithuanian news from her phone, which is connected to my WiFi when she’s here. And we both use Facebook on the same network. It’s not terribly far-fetched to expect that some of the trackers on the Lithuanian news sites she visits are causing the apartment’s stable, static, public IP address to be added to a list of people possibly interested in the country.

Similarly, when we were watching Crunchyroll, we were doing so from the same IP address she was checking Instagram. Connect the two dots and now you have the reason why Instagram thought she’d be a good candidate for seeing an advert for Crunchyroll. Which honestly would make more sense if they intended to exclude those who do have an account, in which case I would not have them trying to convince me to… give them the money I already give them.

Why do I expect this to be IP tracking? Because it’s the only thing that makes sense. We haven’t used Facebook or Messenger to chat in months, so they can’t get signal from that. She does not have the Assistant turned on on her phone, and while I do, I’m reasonably sure that even if it was used for advertisement (and as far as I know, it isn’t), it would not be for Facebook and Instagram.

IP-based tracking is the oldest trick in the book. I would argue that it’s the first tracking that was done, and probably one of the least effective. But at the same time it’s mostly a passive tracking system, which means it’s much easier to accomplish under the current limits and regulations, including but not limited to GDPR.

This obviously has side effects that are even more annoying. If the advertisers start to target IP address indiscriminately, it would be impossible for me or my girlfriend to search for surprises for each other. Just to be on the safe side, I ordered flowers for our half-year anniversary from the office, in the off-chance that the site would put me on a targeting list for flower ads and she could guess about it.

This is probably a lot less effective for people who have not set up static IP addresses, since there should be a daily or so rotation of IP addresses that confuses the tracking enough. But I can definitely see how this can also go very wrong when a household dynamic are pathological, if the previous holder of the address managed to get the IP on targeted lists for unexpected announces.

I have to say that in these cases I do prefer when ads are at least correctly targeted. You can check your Ads preferences for Google and Facebook if you want to actually figure out if they know anything about you that you don’t want them to. I have yet to find out how to stop the dozens of “{Buzzword} {Category} Crowdfunding Videos” pages that keep spamming me on Facebook though.

Updated “Social” contacts

Given the announcement of Google+ shutdown (for consumer accounts, which mine actually was not), I decided to take some time to clean up my own house and thought it would be good to provide an update of where and why you would find me somewhere.

First of all, you won’t find me on Google+ even during the next few months of transition: I fully deleted the account after using the Takeout interface that Google provides. I have not been using it except for a random rant here and there, or to reach some of my colleagues from the Dublin office.

If you want to follow my daily rants and figure out what I actually complain the most loudly about, you’re welcome to follow me on Twitter. Be warned that a good chunk of it might just be first-world London problems.

The Twitter feed also gets the auto-share of whatever I share on NewsBlur, which is, by the way, what I point everyone to when they keep complaining about Google Reader. Everybody: stop complaining and just feel how much better polished Samuel’s work is.

I have a Facebook account, but I have (particularly in the past couple of years), restricted it to the people I actually interact with heavily, so unless we know each other (online or in person) well enough, it’s unlikely I would accept a friend request. It’s not a matter of privacy, given that I have written about my “privacy policy”, it’s more about wanting to have a safe space I can talk with my family and friends without discussions veering towards nerd-rage.

Also, a few years ago I decided that most of my colleagues, awesome as they are, should rather stay at arms’ length. So with the exception of a handful of people who I do go out with outside the office, I do not add colleagues to Facebook. Former colleagues are more likely.

If you like receiving your news through Facebook (a negative idea for most of tech people I know, but something that the non-tech folks still widely prefer it seems), you can “like” my page, which is just a way for WordPress to be able to share the posts to Facebook (it can share to pages, but not to personal accounts, following what I already complained before about photos). The page also gets the same NewsBlur shared links as Twitter.

Talking about photos, when Facebook removed the APIs, I started focusing on posting only on Flickr. This turned out to be a bit annoying for a few of my friends, so I also set up a page for it. You’re welcome to follow it if you want to have random pictures from my trips, or squirrels, or bees.

One place where you won’t see me is Mastodon or other “distributed social networks” — the main reason for it is that I got already burnt by Identi.ca back in the days, and I’m not looking forward to have a repeat of the absolute filter bubble there, or the fact that, a few years later, all those “dents” got lost. As much as people complain how Twitter is ephemeral, I can still find my first tweet, while identi.ca just disappeared, as I see it, in the middle of nowhere.

And please stop even considering following me on Keybase please.

Passwords, password managers, and family life

Somehow, I always end up spending time writing about passwords when I even breach the subject on Twitter.

In this case, I’ve been asking around about password managers, as after many years with LastPass I want to reconsider if there is a better alternative, particularly as my needs have changed (or rather, are going to, in the not too distant future).

One of the thing that I’m looking for is a password manager that can generate diceware/xkcd-style passwords: a set of words in a certain language that are easy to say on (say) the phone, and type on systems where there is no password manager app. The reason for this is that there are a few places in which I need to be able to give the password to someone else who might not otherwise be trusted with the full password list. For instance the WiFi password for my apartment, or my mother’s house.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that. There are a number of situations where an account is not just an user. Or rather, you may want to allow h multiple users (people) to access the same account. Say for instance my energy provider’s dashboard. Or the phone provider. Or the online grocery shopping…

All of these things expect a single (billing) account, but they may rather be shared with a household than with a single individual. A few services do have a concept of a shared account, but very few do, and that makes less and less sense as the world progresses to such an everything-connected level.

I think it might be easy to figure out from the way I’ve been expressing this just above, but just to make sure not to leave “clues” rather than clear information that can be obviously be taken for public knowledge, I got to think about this because I have (finally, someone might say) found a soulmate. And while we don’t yet live together, I start to see the rough corners of these. We have not gotten to “What’s the Netflix password, again?” but I did end up changing the password to the account for Los Angeles transport card, to give her access, after setting it first with LastPass (we were visiting, and I added both of our TAP cards to the same account).

As I made clear earlier, part of this was a (minor) problem with my mother, too. But significantly less so: she never cared to have access to the power provider, phone company, and so on. Just as long as she had a copy of the invoices from time to time (which I solved by having a mailing list, which only the two of us subscribe to, as the contact address for all the services I use or used for the household in Italy).

Service providers take note: integrating with Google Drive or Dropbox so that the invoices get automatically added to a shared folder would be a lovely feature to have. And not just for households. I would love if it was easier to just have a copy of my invoices automatically added to, and indexed by, Google Drive.

But now, with a partner, it’s different. As the word implies, it’s a partnership, an equal standing. Once we will move in, we’ll share the expenses, and that means sharing the access to the accounts. Which means I don’t want to be the only one having the passwords. So I need a password manager that not only allows me to share the passwords easily, but also that allows her to use the passwords easily — which likely will translate to be able to read them off the phone, and type in a work computer’s incognito window (because she likely won’t be allowed to install the password manager on a work computer).

Which is why I’m looking for a new password manager: LastPass is actually fairly great when it comes to sharing passwords with other accounts. But it’s effectively useless when it comes to “typeable” passwords. Their “Make pronounceable” option is okay to make it easier to spell out, but I don’t want to have to use an eight-letters password to be able to type it easily, when I could just as easily use a three-words combination that is significantly stronger.

And while I could just use xkcdpass on my laptop and generate those shared passwords (which is what I did with my mother’s router), that does not really scale (it still keeps me as the gatekeeper), and it does not make the security usability for my SO. And it wouldn’t be fair to keep the password hygiene for me only.

Similarly, any solution that involves running personal infrastructure (servers, cron, git, whatever) is not an option: not only I’m increasingly not relying on it myself (I even gave up on running my own blog’s webapp!), but most of my family is not even slightly interested in figuring out how to do that. And I don’t blame the least, they have enough of their own things to care about.

If you have any suggestions for a new password manager, please do let me know. I think I may try 1Password next, if nothing else because I think Troy Hunt’s opinion is worth something, and if he backed 1Password, there has to be a reason.

Facebook, desktop apps, and photography

This is an interesting topic, particularly because I had not heard anything about it up to now, despite having many semi-pro and amateur photographer friends (I’m a wannabe). It appears that starting August 1st, Facebook will stop allowing desktop applications to upload photos to albums.

Since I have been uploading all of my Facebook albums through Lightroom, that’s quite a big deal for me. On Jeffrey Friedl’s website, there’s this note:

Warning: this plugin will likely cease to work as of August 1, 2018, because Facebook is revoking photo-upload privileges for all non-browser desktop apps like this.

As of June 2018, Adobe and I are in discussions with Facebook to see whether something might be worked out, but success is uncertain.

This is now less than a month before the deadline, and it appears there’s no update for this. Is it Facebook trying to convince people to just share all their photos as they were shot? Is it Adobe not paying attention trying to get people on their extremely-expensive Adobe CC Cloud products? (I have over 1TB of pictures shot, I can’t use their online service, it would cost me so much more in storage!) I don’t really know, but it clearly seems to be the case that my workflow is being deprecated.

Leaving aside the consideration of the impact of this on me alone, I would expect that most of the pro- and semi-pro-photographers would want to be able to upload their pictures without having to manually drag them with Facebook’s flaky interface. And it feels strange that Facebook wants to stop “owning” those photos altogether.

But there’s a bigger impact in my opinion, which should worry privacy-conscious users (as long as they don’t subscribe to the fantasy ideal of people giving up on sharing pictures): this moves erodes the strict access controls from picture publishing that defined social media up to now, for any of the users who have been relying on offline photo editing.

In my case, the vast majority of the pictures I take are actually landscapes, flowers, animals, or in general not private events. There’s the odd conference or con I bring my camera to (or should I say used to bring it to), or a birthday party or other celebration. Right now, I have been uploading all the non-people pictures as public (and copied to Flickr), and everything that involves people as friends-only (and only rarely uploaded to Flickr with “only me” access). Once the changes go into effect, I lose the ability to make simple access control decisions.

Indeed, if I was to upload the content to Flickr and use friends-only limited access, very few people would be able to see any of the pictures: Flickr has lost all of its pretension to be a social media platform once Yahoo stopped being relevant. And I doubt that the acquisition of SmugMug will change that part, as it would be just a matter of duplicating a social graph that Facebook already has. So I’m fairly sure a very common solution to that is going to be to make the photos public, and maybe the account not discoverable. After all who might be mining the Web for unlisted accounts of vulnerable people? (That’s sarcasm if it wasn’t clear.)

In my case it’s just going to be a matter of not bringing my camera to private events anymore. Not the end of the world, since I’m already not particularly good at portrait photography, and not my particular area of interest. But I do think that there’s going to be quite a bit of problems in the future.

And if you think this is not going to be a big deal at all, because most parties have pictures uploaded by people directly on their mobile phones… I disagree. Weddings, christenings, cons, sport matches, all these events usually have their share of professional photographers, and all these events need to have a way to share the output with not only the people who hired them, but also the friends of those, like the invitees at a wedding.

And I expect that for many professionals, it’s going to be a matter of finding a new service to upload the data to. Mark my words, as I expect we’ll find that there will be, in the future, leaks of wedding pictures used to dox notable people. And those will be due to insecure, or badly-secured, photo sharing websites, meant to replace Facebook after this change in terms.

Amazon, Project Gutenberg, and Italian Literature

This post starts in the strangest of places. The other night, my mother was complaining how few free Italian books are available on the Kindle Store.

Turns out, a friend of the family, who also has a Kindle, has been enjoying reading free English older books on hers. As my mother does not speak or read English, she’d been complaining that the same is not possible in Italian.

The books she’s referring to are older books, the copyright of which expired, and that are available on Project Gutenberg. Indeed, the selection of Italian books on that site is fairly limited, and it is something that I have indeed been sadden about before.

What has Project Gutenberg to do with Kindle? Well, Amazon appears to collect books from Project Gutenberg, convert them to Kindle’s native format, and “sell” them on the Kindle Store. I say “sell” because for the most part, these are available at $0.00, and are thus available for free.

While there is no reference to Project Gutenberg on their store pages, there’s usually a note on the book:

This book was converted from its physical edition to the digital format by a community of volunteers. You may find it for free on the web. Purchase of the Kindle edition includes wireless delivery.

Another important point is that (again, for the most part), the original language editions are also available! This is how I started reading Jules Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours while trying to brush up my French to workable levels.

Having these works available on the Kindle Store, free of both direct cost and delivery charge, is in my opinion a great step to distribute knowledge and culture. As my nephews (blood-related and otherwise) start reaching reading age, I’m sure that what I will give them as presents is going to be Kindle readers, because between having access to this wide range of free books, and the embedded touch-on dictionary, they feel like something I’d have thoroughly enjoyed using when I was a kid myself.

Unfortunately, this is not all roses. the Kindle Store still georestrict some books, so from my Kindle Store (which is set in the US), I cannot download Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso in Italian (though I can download the translation for free, or buy for $0.99 a non-Project Gutenberg version of the original Italian text). And of course there is the problem of coverage for the various languages.

Italian, as I said, appears to be a pretty bad one when it comes to coverage. If I look at Luigi Pirandello’s books there are only seven entries, one of which is in English, and another one being a duplicate. Compare this with the actual list of his works and you can see that it’s very lacking. And since Pirandello died in 1936, his works are already in the public domain.

Since I have not actually being active with Project Gutenberg, I only have second hand knowledge of why this type of problem happens. One of the thing I remember having been told about this, is that most of the books you buy in Italian stores are either annotated editions, or updated for modern Italian, which causes their copyright to be extended do the death of the editor, annotator or translator.

This lack of access to Italian literature is a big bother, and quite a bit of a showstopper to giving a Kindle to my Italian “nephews”. I really wish I could find a way to fix the problem, whether it is by technical or political means.

On the political side, one could expect that, with the focus on culture of the previous Italian government, and the focus of the current government on the free-as-in-beer options, it would be easy to convince them to release all of the Italian literature that is in the public domain for free. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t even know where to start to ask them to do that.

On the technical side, maybe it is well due time that I spend a significant amount of time on my now seven years old project of extracting a copy of the data from the data files of Zanichelli’s Italian literature software (likely developed at least in part with public funds).

The software was developed for Windows 3.1 and can’t be run on any modern computer. I should probably send the ISOs of it to the Internet Archive, and they may be able to keep it running there on DosBox with a real copy of Windows 3.1, since Wine appears to not support the 16-bit OLE interfaces that the software depends on.

If you wonder what would be a neat thing for Microsoft to release as open-source, I would probably suggest the whole Windows 3.1 source code would be a starting point. If nothing else, with the right license it would be possible to replace the half-complete 16-bit DLLs of Wine with official, or nearly-official copies.

I guess it’s time to learn more about Windows 3.1 in my “copious spare time” (h/t Charles Stross), and start digging into this. Maybe Ryan’s 2ine might help, as OS/2 and Windows 3.1 are closer than the latter is to modern Windows.

We need Free Software Co-operatives, but we probably won’t get any

The recent GitHub craze that got a number of Free Software fundamentalists to hurry away from GitHub towards other hosting solutions.

Whether it was GitLab (a fairly natural choice given the nature of the two services), BitBucket, or SourceForge (which is trying to rebuild a reputation as a Free Software friendly hosting company), there are a number of options of new SaaS providers.

At the same time, a number of projects have been boasting (and maybe a bit too smugly, in my opinion) that they self-host their own GitLab or similar software, and suggested other projects to do the same to be “really free”.

A lot of the discourse appears to be missing nuance on the compromises that using SaaS hosting providers, self-hosting for communities and self-hosting for single projects, and so I thought I would gather my thoughts around this in one single post.

First of all, you probably remember my thoughts on self-hosting in general. Any solution that involves self-hosting will require a significant amount of ongoing work. You need to make sure your services keep working, and keep safe and secure. Particularly for FLOSS source code hosting, it’s of primary importance that the integrity and safety of the source code is maintained.

As I already said in the previous post, this style of hosting works well for projects that have a community, in which one or more dedicated people can look after the services. And in particular for bigger communities, such as KDE, GNOME, FreeDesktop, and so on, this is a very effective way to keep stewardship of code and community.

But for one-person projects, such as unpaper or glucometerutils, self-hosting would be quite bad. Even for xine with a single person maintaining just site+bugzilla it got fairly bad. I’m trying to convince the remaining active maintainers to migrate this to VideoLAN, which is now probably the biggest Free Software multimedia project and community.

This is not a new problem. Indeed, before people rushed in to GitHub (or Gitorious), they rushed in to other services that provided similar integrated environments. When I became a FLOSS developer, the biggest of them was SourceForge — which, as I noted earlier, was recently bought by a company trying to rebuild its reputation after a significant loss of trust. These environments don’t only include SCM services, but also issue (bug) trackers, contact email and so on so forth.

Using one of these services is always a compromise: not only they require an account on each service to be able to interact with them, but they also have a level of lock-in, simply because of the nature of URLs. Indeed, as I wrote last year, just going through my old blog posts to identify those referencing dead links had reminded me of just how many project hosting services shut down, sometimes dragging along (Berlios) and sometimes abruptly (RubyForge).

This is a problem that does not only involve services provided by for-profit companies. Sunsite, RubyForge and Berlios didn’t really have companies behind, and that last one is probably one of the closest things to a Free Software co-operative that I’ve seen outside of FSF and friends.

There is of course Savannah, FSF’s own Forge-lookalike system. Unfortunately for one reason or another it has always lagged behind the featureset (particularly around security) of other project management SaaS. My personal guess is that it is due to the political nature of hosting any project over on FSF’s infrastructure, even outside of the GNU project.

So what we need would be a politically-neutral, project-agnostic hosting platform that is a co-operative effort. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon. The main problem is that project hosting is expensive, whether you use dedicated servers or cloud providers. And it takes full time people to work as system administrators to keep it running smoothly and security. You need professionals, too — or you may end up like lkml.org being down when its one maintainer goes on vacation and something happens.

While there are projects that receive enough donations that they would be able to sustain these costs (see KDE, GNOME, VideoLAN), I’d be skeptical that there would be an unfocused co-operative that would be able to take care of this. Particularly if it does not restrict creation of new projects and repositories, as that requires particular attention to abuse, and to make good guidelines of which content is welcome and which one isn’t.

If you think that that’s an easy task, consider that even SourceForge, with their review process, that used to take a significant amount of time, managed to let joke projects use their service and run on their credentials.

A few years ago, I would have said that SFLC, SFC and SPI would be the right actors to set up something like this. Nowadays? Given their infights I don’t expect them being any useful.

Can you run a brick and mortar store on Free Software?

I have written before about the CRM I wrote for a pizzeria and I am happy to see that even FSFE started looking into Free Software for SME. I also noted the needs for teams to develop healthy projects. Today I want to give an example of why I think these things are not as easy as most people expect them to be, and how many different moving parts exist that are required to align to make Free Software for SME.

As I’m no longer self-employed, and I have no intention of going back to be a MSP in my lifetime, what I’m writing here is more of a set of “homework pointers” if a community of SME-targeted Free Software projects would be formed.

I decided to focus in my thoughts on the need of a brink and mortar store (or high street store if you prefer), mostly because it has a subset of the requirements that I could think of, compared to a restaurant like the pizza place I actually worked with.

These notes are also probably a lot more scattered and incomplete than I would like, because I have only worked retail for a short while, between high school and the two miserable week of university, nearly fifteen years ago, in a bookstore to be precise.

For most of the people who have not worked retail, it might seem like the most important piece of software/hardware for a store is the till, because that is what they interact with most of the time. While the till systems (also called POS) are fairly important, as those are in direct contact with the customer, they are only the tip of the iceberg.

But let’s start with the POS: whether you plan on integrating them directly with a credit card terminal or not, right now there are a number of integrated hardware/software solution for these, that include a touchscreen to input the receipt components and a (usually thermal) printer for the receipts to be printed on, while sometimes allowing the client to be emailed the receipt instead. As far as I know, there’s no Free Software system for this. I do see an increasing number of Clover tills in Europe, and Square in the United States (but these are not the only ones).

The till software is more complicated than one would think, because in addition to the effects that the customers can see (select line items, print receipt, eventually take payment), it has to be able to keep track of the cash flow, whether it is in form of actual cash, or in the form of card payments. Knowing the cash flow is a requisite for any business, as without that information you cannot plan your budgets.

In bigger operations, this would feed into a dedicated ERP system, which would often include an inventory management software — because you need to know how much stock you have and how fast it is moving, to know when to order new stock.

There is also the need to handle invoices, which usually don’t get printed by the till (you don’t want an invoice printed on thermal paper, particularly in countries like Italy, where you’re meant to keep the original of an invoice for over ten years).

And then there is the filing of payable invoices and, well, their payment. This is part of the accounting procedures, and I know of very few systems that allow integration with a bank to the point of automating this part. PSD2 is meant to require financial institutions to provide APIs to make this possible, at least in Europe, but that has been barely received yet, and we’ll have to see what the solution will be.

Different industries have different expected standards, too. When I worked in the bookstore, there was a standard piece of software that was used to consult the online stock of books from various depots, which was required to handle orders of books for people looking for something that was not in the store. While Amazon and other online services have for the most part removed the need for many to custom order books in a store, I know still a few people who do so, simply to make sure the bookstore stays up. And I assume that very similar, yet different, software and systems exist for most other fields of endeavour, such as computer components, watches, and shoes.

Depending on the size of the store, and the amount of employees, and in general the hours of operation, there may also be need for a roster management software, so that the different workers have fair (and legal) shifts, while still being able to manage days off. I don’t know how well solutions like Workday work for small realities, but in general I feel this is likely going to be one area in which Free Software won’t make an easy dent: following all the possible legal frameworks to actually be compliant with the law is the kind of work that requires a full-time staff of people, and unless something changes drastically, I don’t expect any FLOSS project to keep up with that.

You can say that this post is not giving any answer and is just adding more questions. And that’s the case, actually. I don’t have the time or energy of working on this myself, and my job does not involve working with retailers, or even developing user-focused software. I wanted to write this as a starting point of a project if someone is interested in doing so.

In particular, I think that this would be prime territory for a multi-disciplinary university project, starting from asking questions to store owners of their need, and understanding the whole user journey. Which seems to be something that FSFE is now looking into fostering, which I’m very happy about.

Please, help the answer to the question “Can you run a brink and mortar store on Free Software?” be Yes!

Two words about my personal policy on GitHub

I was not planning on posting on the blog until next week, trying to stick on a weekly schedule, but today’s announcement of Microsoft acquiring GitHub is forcing my hand a bit.

So, Microsoft is acquiring GitHub, and a number of Open Source developers are losing their mind, in all possible ways. A significant proportion of comments on this that I have seen on my social media is sounding doomsday, as if this spells the end of GitHub, because Microsoft is going to ruin it all for them.

Myself, I think that if it spells the end of anything, is the end of the one-stop-shop to work on any project out there, not because of anything Microsoft did or is going to do, but because a number of developers are now leaving the platform in protest (protest of what? One company buying another?)

Most likely, it’ll be the fundamentalists that will drop their projects away to GitHub. And depending on what they decide to do with their projects, it might even not show on anybody’s radar. A lot of people are pushing for GitLab, which is both an open-core self-hosted platform, and a PaaS offering.

That is not bad. Self-hosted GitLab instances already exist for VideoLAN and GNOME. Big, strong communities are in my opinion in the perfect position to dedicate people to support core infrastructure to make open source software development easier. In particular because it’s easier for a community of dozens, if not hundreds of people, to find dedicated people to work on it. For one-person projects, that’s overhead, distracting, and destructive as well, as fragmenting into micro-instances will cause pain to fork projects — and at the same time, allowing any user who just registered to fork the code in any instance is prone to abuse and a recipe for disaster…

But this is all going to be a topic for another time. Let me try to go back to my personal opinions on the matter (to be perfectly clear that these are not the opinions of my employer and yadda yadda).

As of today, what we know is that Microsoft acquired GitHub, and they are putting Nat Friedman of Xamarin fame (the company that stood behind the Mono project after Novell) in charge of it. This choice makes me particularly optimistic about the future, because Nat’s a good guy and I have the utmost respect for him.

This means I have no intention to move any of my public repositories away from GitHub, except if doing so would bring a substantial advantage. For instance, if there was a strong community built around medical devices software, I would consider moving glucometerutils. But this is not the case right now.

And because I still root most of my projects around my own domain, if I did move that, the canonical URL would still be valid. This is a scheme I devised after getting tired of fixing up where unieject ended up with.

Microsoft has not done anything wrong with GitHub yet. I will give them the benefit of the doubt, and not rush out of the door. It would and will be different if they were to change their policies.

Rob’s point is valid, and it would be a disgrace if various governments would push Microsoft to a corner requiring it to purge content that the smaller, independent GitHub would have left alone. But unless that happens, we’re debating hypothetical at the same level of “If I was elected supreme leader of Italy”.

So, as of today, 2018-06-04, I have no intention of moving any of my repositories to other services. I’ll also use a link to this blog with no accompanying comment to anyone who will suggest I should do so without any benefit for my projects.

The importance of teams, and teamwork

Today, on Twitter, I have received a reply with a phrase that, in its own sake and without connecting back with the original topic of the thread, I found significant of the dread I feel with working as a developer, particularly in many opensource communities nowadays.

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.

I’m not going to link back to the tweet, or name the author of the phrase. This is not about them in particular, and more about the feeling expressed in this phrase, which I would have agreed with many years ago, but now feels so much off key.

What I feel now is that programmers don’t make things work the way they think they should. And this is not intended as a nod to the various jokes about how bad programming actually is, given APIs and constraints. This is about something that becomes clear when you spend your time trying to change the world, or make a living alone (by running your own company): everybody needs help, in the form of a team.

A lone programmer may be able to write a whole operating system (cough Emacs), but that does not make it a success in and by itself. If you plan on changing the world, and possibly changing it for the better, you need a team that includes not only programmers, but experts in quite a lot of different things.

Whether it is a Free Software project, or a commercial product, if you want to have users, you need to know what they want — and a programmer is not always the most suitable person to go through user stories. Hands up all of us who have, at one point or another, facepalmed at an acquaintance taking a screenshot of a web page to paste it into Word, and tried to teach them how to print the page to PDF. While changing workflows so that they make sense may sound the easiest solution to most tech people, that’s not what people who are trying to just do their job care about. Particularly not if you’re trying to sell them (literally or figuratively) a new product.

And similarly to what users want to do, you need to know what the users need to do. While effectively all of Free Software comes with no warranty attached, even for it (and most definitely for commercial products), it’s important to consider the legal framework the software has to be used on. Except for the more anarchists of the developers out there, I don’t think anyone would feel particularly interested in breaching laws for the sake of breaching them, for instance by providing a ledger product that allows “black book accounting” as an encrypted parallel file. Or, to reprise my recent example, to provide a software solution that does not comply with GDPR.

This is not just about pure software products. You may remember, from last year, the teardown of Juicero. In this case the problems appeared to step by the lack of control over the BOM. While electronics is by far not my speciality, I have heard more expert friends and colleagues cringe at seeing the spec of projects that tried to actually become mainstream, with a BOM easily twice as expensive as the minimum.

Aside here, before someone starts shouting about that. Minimising the BOM for an electronic project may not always be the main target. If it’s a DIY project, making it easier to assemble could be an objective, so choosing more bulky, more expensive parts might be warranted. Similarly if it’s being done for prototyping, using more expensive but widely available components is generally a win too. I have worked on devices that used multi-GB SSDs for a firmware less than 64MB — but asking for on-board flash for the firmware would have costed more than the extremely overprovisioned SSDs.

And in my opinion, if you want to have your own company, and are in for the long run (i.e. not with startup mentality of getting VC capital and get acquired before even shipping), you definitely need someone to follow up the business plan and the accounting.

So no, I don’t think that any one programmer, or a group of sole programmers, can change the world. There’s a lot more than writing code, to build software. And a lot more than building software, to change society.

Consider this the reason why I will plonk-file any recruitment email that is looking for “rockstars” or “ninjas”. Not that I’m looking for a new gig as I type this, but I would at least give thought if someone was looking for a software mechanic (h/t @sysadmin1138).