Lars Wirzenius: April, 2005


Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Debian: Packaging tutorial

I have a tutorial on making Debian packages to three friends of mine. I had made some slides, which probably aren't useful without my handwaving, however. We had a bit of a timing problem, so we didn't get quite far enough to try our hand at making packages, and will do that later, maybe next week.

It was fun. Maybe I should offer to give the tutorial to, say, prospective Finnish Debian developers at Debconf5?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Anecdotes: -bash: cd: /home/liw: No such file or directory

Public confession of the embarrassing things you do is good for your soul and builds your character.

I have a chroot environment in /srv/chroot/sid for testing various things in. It's something where I can mess more freely than what pbuilder allows. Today I wanted to clean it up, so I figured I'd remove it and start from scratch: rm -rf /srv/chroot/sid. Unfortunately, I had forgotten I had bind-mounted /home inside the chroot, so I managed to remove my home directory as well. Oops.

Luckily, I only use the machine for testing and compilation, so nothing important was actually lost. A few directories with unpacked and built source trees for some packages that will take a few hours to rebuild, such as glibc, but the machine can just do that on its own while I, for example, sleep. Still, I should have been more careful.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Wishlist: Generic syntax checker

Every so often I find myself wishing for an easy to check the syntactic validity of some kind of file. For example, a mail file (RFC822), debian/control, a Python "sprintf" template string, an md5sum.txt checksum file, or a wiki ad hoc markup file. Such tools exist for HTML and XML. For example, I write this web log as an XML file, with a custom DTD (syntax rule file), and use rxp to check that the XML file follows the DTD. What I want is a tool that lets me easily describe the syntax of non-XML files and check the syntax.

For example, I might write the following file (as debctrl.syntax):

control-file = (block "\n+")* block "\n*"
block = logical-line+
logical-line = first-physical-line continuation-line*
first-physical-line = "[A-Za-z0-9][A-Za-z0-9-.]*:.*\n"
continuation-line = "[ \t].*\n"

Then, I could give the following command:

syntax-checker debctrl.syntax debian/control

If there is an error, the tool would give me the line number and character offset where the error occurred, and the syntax rule that failed to match. This would, I think, make it much easier to verify that files are of the correct format.

I don't want to write yacc files and build binaries to do this kind of checking. That is too tedious.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Random thought: Man dates not a problem in the US

My "man date" entry from yesterday has sparked an unprecedented flood of feedback: two mails. Both indicate that the homophobia in the article is in fact only something that applies to the author of the article, or possibly the New York Times, or at the very worst, to newyorkers. Most of the rest of the country, especially the west coast, is sane.

I should have known that as soon as I find something tangible about the US to mock, it turns out I am just being silly. Ah well.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Rant: Man dates

The New York Times has recently had an article on man dates (hopefully that link will work for you).

Simply defined a man date is two heterosexual men socializing without the crutch of business or sports. It is two guys meeting for the kind of outing a straight man might reasonably arrange with a woman. Dining together across a table without the aid of a television is a man date; eating at a bar is not. Taking a walk in the park together is a man date; going for a jog is not. Attending the movie "Friday Night Lights" is a man date, but going to see the Jets play is definitely not.

Not unsurprisingly, this seems to be a controversial issue for American men.

The concern about being perceived as gay is one of the major complications of socializing one on one, many straight men acknowledge. [- - -] Mr. Kim, 28, who is now married, was flustered in part because he saw someone he knew at the Italian restaurant. "I was kind of worried that word might get out," he said. "This is weird, and now there is a witness maybe."

I find this level of homophobia really funny. It is ridiculous to be so afraid of being thought homosexual that you won't have dinner with a friend in a nice restaurant. It is ludicrous to think that two men having dinner together must be gay. It seems it isn't just dinners, either. Anything two men do together that isn't about business or sports is a "man date", and people will think they are gay.

Isn't it time for the US culture to grow up, stop fearing people who aren't strictly stereotypically mainstream?

On the other hand, this will give me a further dimension to appreciate US entertainment: I can start looking for further silly clues about homophobia.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Enemies of Carlotta: 1.1.5 released

I made development release 1.1.5 of Enemies of Carlotta, my mailing list manager. It had been quite a long time since the previous one, but after today's work, I think we're about ready to release a new stable version 1.2. Translations of the manual page and the message templates needs to be done first, however. Anyone wanting to translate to Spanish, French, Swedish, or Finnish please mail please. Any help would be appreciated.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Random thought: On the Internet, it is easy build a new mill

The Finnish word "talkoot" describes the situation when people work together without direct compensation to help someone out (e.g., to help a neighbor build a barn), or to achieve a common goal (to build a mill for the village).

You won't get paid for a talkoot event. There might be food and drink, but no salaries or wages. You might participate because the end result might be beneficial to you: you get to use the mill. You might participate because it helps build loyalty within the community: if you help your neighbor today, your neighbor will help you tomorrow. Or you might participate because it is simply the right thing to do: helping someone in need even if they won't ever be in a position to help you.

There is a fairly strong emotional factor involved about a talkoot event being fair, that no-one should exploit it. For example, if all the village participates in building the mill, they should not have to pay for the use of the mill. If the mill needs some income to cover running costs, it is fine for the villagers to have to pay for those, but turning the mill to a commercial enterprise and maximising profits is going to tarnish everything. The villagers built it. If you exploit them commercially, they are going to be less enthusiastic about the next talkoot event.

Many things that have been enabled by the Internet could be described as talkoot. For example, the CDDB database was originally created by people adding what CDs they had into a shared database for the benefit of all. Then, at some point, the database was so useful to so many it could be turned into a business. And so it was. This made many people quite sour. Luckily, on the Internet, it is easy build a new mill. As a result, we now have FREEDB, an explicitly free replacement of CDDB.

Many people work on free software in the spirit of talkoot. They will happily build software with other people, and let anyone use the software for free. It is even fine for people to use the software to make money using the software, as long as the software remains free (in the "free speech" sense; see here).

If, however, someone wants to profiteer on the software, to take a piece of free software and turn it into a piece of proprietary software, things get sour quickly. For example, the Linux kernel is used in many embedded devices, and some manufacturers have decided to violate the GPL license by not giving their customers the full source code, or any source code. Many people, especially the developers, dislike this. See, for example, the site for an example of a reaction.

This entry was sparked by my introspection about the strong reaction I had about a fairly minor event in the Finnish web log scene. Some years ago, Sami Köykkä set up in his free time a web service to track when web logs were updated. Then, and still, many web logs are just plain old HTML pages, with no RSS feeds, and so most aggregators don't work for them. This one did, since it checked whether the page changed at all. It was a nice service, simple to use and worked well, so it quickly gained much popularity. All was well.

Earlier this year, the service moved to a dedicated domain and had been rewritten. It now requires registration and has advertisments. Then, this week, the service was sold to an investment company.

On the one hand, since all the implementation was done by the one person, in his free time, it is nice to see him get compensation. On the other hand, I feel that the new situation is somehow similar to the village mill turning into a commercial enterprise. This feeling is a bit strange, since I did not participate at all in the building of the service. I did, however, participate by writing a web log: without me, and the thousand other web log writers, the service would not be a success. Thus, on a silly emotional level, though it is hard to explain, I feel I have been part of a talkoot event. A very small part, though. Almost all the hard work was done by that one person.

Therefore, my reaction to this chain of events was the following: I am glad, and very satisfied, that Köykkä got paid for his work. In fact, it makes feel the world is a better place. At the same time, I don't want to participate in the spirit of talkoot in a commercial enterprise. The new service is clearly commercial. I don't know how they intend to make money out of it, but I don't want them to use my pulpit, my opinions, without compensation. Therefore I asked them to remove my log from their web log list, which they promptly did.

Of course, since I seem to have had only a couple of dozen readers via the service, it was easy for me to drop out. Most of my readers come via Planet Debian and that is also the audience for I most write for. I have not been much involved in the Finnish web log scene.

At the same time, I have also stopped using the service myself. At best I think I had around twenty logs there, but when I discovered rss2email, thanks to Joey Hess, I have moved to using that almost exclusively. I only had three more logs remaining at Köykkä's service and checking those manually won't be much of a hardship. I have a dozen other places I check daily (web comics and such), three more won't make a difference.

I wish Köykkä and the new commercial Finnish web log list all the best, even though I won't be participating, either as a writer or a reader.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Random thought: GNOME loving

On IRC, in the midst of a random discussion, someone made references to George Orwell's 1984, and the "ten minutes of hate" sessions in the book. I suggested that doing "ten minutes of love" would be more constructive, and then proceeded to express my positive feelings towards GNOME for ten minutes. Below is what I wrote.

<liw> I *like* the fact that GNOME concentrates on being simple and that it tries to "just work"; I have a couple of decades of tweaking experience and I don't want to tweak things that could work without tweaking

<liw> I like Nautilus; ever since they went spatial, I have felt it to actually become usable

<liw> I *love* metacity, or whatever the window manager is called; it is never in my way, I never notice it, and it never disturbs me

<liw> Sound Juicer is the best thing that ever happened to my music listening, it is simple, it does exactly what I want it to do, and it *just* *works* (well, modulo a couple of bugs I've reported :)

<liw> GStreamer is not strictly GNOME, but it is *awesome* nevertheless; I've played with a number of file format reading, writing, converting, and general manipulating tools over the years, and GStreamer makes things almost as simple as netpbm did, but is more powerful

<liw> I am quite happy with Evolution, and have been, ever since it stopped crashing on me every hour; it is pretty much the mailer I wanted to write in 1997 or 1998 or so

<liw> and I *love* Totem, it makes watching movies *simple*, which neither xine nor mplayer nor ogle nor any other tool I have ever tried has done

<liw> totem is almost as good as a good dedicated dvd player box, and that is pretty damn good

<liw> there, that was ten minutes of GNOME loving, someone else's turn now

Friday, April 01, 2005

Debian: BTS readability

Wrote a patch to debbugs, the Debian bug tracking system software, to make the pages it outputs use CSS for formatting (colors, spacing) instead of raw HTML. This makes it easier to modify the way the pages look. Also made a CSS file to add some spacing between bugs in the package bug list page. This was the original reason I started caring about how the pages look at all: I read quite a lot of bugs for all sorts of packages and reading long lists of bugs was tedious. With a bit of extra space, things are much more readable, I think.

See #228972 for more information, including the patch after the bug tracking system has processed the mails.

There's plenty more that could be done to improve the readability of BTS pages, even without redesigning everything. For example, there's no point in displaying most e-mail headers normally. My Perl skills aren't up to the task of fixing that, however.