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Syncthing

I was an early Dropbox user, but was never happy about using a "cloud" service. The "cloud" is just someone else's computer and I've always wanted to use my own computer. I used SparkleShare for several years, but there was never a client for mobile, which limited its utility. But recently, I found out about Syncthing.

Syncthing provides a web-based graphical user interface to set up end-to-end relationships among devices. It tries to be something a non-technical person could use, but I'm not sure there it's quite there yet. It's a somewhat uneasy compromise between the two: I sorta wish it just had plain-text configuration files that I could edit with vim. (Its configuration files are plain text, but XML). In the end, I found that the easiest way to configure things was to use an ssh tunnel so I could configure both ends at the same time in different browser tabs.

ssh [hostname] -L 8333:localhost:8384

I set it up among 4 devices: my Ubuntu server, a Mac desktop, a Mac laptop, and an android phone. I could install via packages on Ubuntu. Simple. On the Mac, I had to move files by hand and missed that I needed to edit one file before starting it. And then that I needed to replace more than one instance of USERNAME in the file. But eventually I got it working. You could fix the directions, but you couldn't fix my pattern of only reading the directions once everything else has failed. It was easy to get it installed on Android except for figuring out how to create folders in the file-system. I could see the DCIM, Music, etc, folders, but didn't see how to create a folder at that level. Eventually, I saw you could select the /storage/emulated/0 folder and THEN create the folder. Very tricksy.

I was worried it wouldn't work properly across my broken NAT gateway, but it was fine. It uses local discovery as well as a distributed network of "discovery" servers to exchange information about where nodes are. It's just a little creepy, but seems to work OK.

One thing Syncthing has taught me is patience. A couple of times, I would set up something at one end, go to the other end and try to set it up there too, only to (eventually) have Syncthing simply ask me if I didn't want to set it up, with the setup already done. Sometimes it takes longer than I think it's going to, but just a little patience—getting a cup of coffee—does the trick.

I still haven't figured out all the configuration options. My brain wants to think in client-server terms, but Syncthing is more peer-to-peer in orientation. But it is highly configurable. It has four or five different options for versioning, including an "external" option, so you can write a script to manage versioning just how you like it.

I still haven't used it long enough to be sure I'm ready to migrate away from Dropbox and Sparkleshare, but initial results are very encouraging—encouraging enough I've given them some money. Now I just need to persuade Phil to set up a peer so we can provide off-site backups for each other. I mean, he's got that Raspberry Pi JUST SITTING THERE…

Poem Window Prototype

I decided it was a Really Good Idea, having proposed to make infrastructure for the the Poem Windows, to try out the system to make sure it would actually work like I expected. I bought a Geeekpi 7" 1024x600 display with Acrylic Stand and assembled it.

It arrived without instructions of any kind. There were 5 acrylic pieces, a PCB, an LCD, and a bunch of little nuts and screws and other things. I went to the Amazon page, where there were several pictures that were actually sufficient for most of the assembly. I discovered the hard way that you needed to get all the cables connected before trying to assemble the stand, but I had only been hooking pieces together very loosely, so it was not much work to disassemble and then reassemble the stand after everything was hooked up. The only really frustrating part was trying to attach the ribbon-cable video connector, which was not described anywhere nor clearly visible in the video.

Eventually I got it assembled and was genuinely amazed when I hooked everything together, powered it up, and it lit right up. And then turned off. I checked the connections a couple more times and then logged into the pi via ssh and un-commented the safe_hdmi directive to see if that would make it work. And it did! So from that point on, it was just a matter of getting the HDMI configuration right. Eventually, I found that there was a page with configuration information. The magic recipe (from that page) was
hdmi_group=2
hdmi_mode=87
hdmi_cvt 1024 600 60 3 0 0 0
hdmi_force_hotplug=1

Poem Window Prototype

Voila! One Poem Window prototype, suitable for testing and display.

Google's App Specific Passwords in Calendar.app

At some point, the only way to use Google Calendar with Apple's Calendar.app was to set up two-factor authentication and then create an "app-specific password" to use in the application. On my laptop, running Mavericks, this quit working a couple of days ago. Trying to create and enter a new password didn't work either. Eventually, I used this as an excuse to install El Capitan where the Internet Accounts System Preferences now directs you to authenticate directly via Shibboleth to configure a Google Account. But I suspect this means that Mavericks (and previous) systems will find it hard to work with Google anything going forward and will need to be updated to Yosemite (or El Capitan).

ContactCon and conversations worth continuing

When I heard about ContactCon, I signed up almost immediately. The issues being raised have been of interest to me since I started using the Internet: how to make sure the net can be used for empowerment rather than oppression. The net is clearly useful for both, but the trend has been shifting in the wrong direction for years.

A corporation would have never made something like the Internet in the first place. When I was a kid, we still had The old AT&T and Bell Telephone network. You weren't allowed to own a telephone: you were required to rent one from the phone company. And everything was monetized. Now, I suspect that the most expensive thing about current cell-phone operations is the overhead necessary for administration, metering, and billing. And that's the direction we've been going: give users a dumbed-down box that only enables what the monetizers want you to be able to do.

There were a lot of interesting people at ContactCon most of whom I'd never met before. The demographic was mostly white, largely male, and somewhat younger than me. There were some folks my age or older, but we were the exception. Many were young entrepreneurs and freelancers looking to network to support their project. It reminded me of the luxury of my current circumstances: I have a steady job and don't need to spend half my time trying to market myself or bill people. I don't have to work on spec or limit what I do to what people are willing to pay for. I get to spend most of my time actually just working and being creative. I lament for this generation that is so circumscribed and limited in their choices -- and will probably end up permanently stunted by the economic conditions that have been imposed on us by the 1%. Or, if you prefer, that through my generation's lack of engagement, we have allowed ourselves to be disempowered.

I wore my "Official Red Hat" red hat and took my ubuntu netbook to demonstrate my free software street cred. I actually met the guy who'd ordered the stock of red hats when he worked at Red Hat in that time period. I had completely borked my install of Ubuntu a few days ago (or maybe the update from Easy Peasy never really worked right). In the event, I completely wiped the netbook the night before and re-installed everything. I've started using Dropbox to maintain the rough drafts of my writing, so it was easy to get my data back. I could have just taken my macbook, but it wouldn't have been as fun. In point of fact, I hardly used it, but it was nice to know it was there.

I met dozens of people, learned about many new projects, and also touched base with projects I've known about but haven't had time to explore. I've been interested in the Freedom Box since I first heard about it: it's consistent with my vision for people having their own server. And it's also the only way to have any assurance of privacy: you can't trust third parties not to reveal all of your private information to the government or corporations.

I organized a discussion about education and unschooling. It was a very receptive audience to the ideas and there were a number of people working on interesting things. The most interesting was probably Be You, but there were many, many others. ContactCon reminded me of what John Jungck used to say about the goals of BioQUEST: to begin conversations worth continuing. I suspect I will continue to interact with some of these people going forward.

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