Mastodon: Because life’s too short for imbeciles

Federated social media has been around since 2008 and I have been bouncing around various federated networks (with a couple of hiatuses) since the end of that year. The idea behind federated networks is that, rather than having to rely on a single large server to control all your messages, lots of smaller servers achieve the same result by talking to each other. The obvious analogy for this is email: if I want to send a message to someone, all I need is their email address and, thanks to the magic of open standards, any message I send will be correctly delivered.

The federated network that everyone is talking about at the moment, of course, is Mastodon.

I had signed up to Mastodon a while ago, to a smaller instance that is no more and when I returned to the network I was quite interested in the idea of running my own server. Being lazy, however, this led to a bit of procrastination on my part until I came across masto.host, which really does provide the best of both worlds: Everything on the server is under my control, while, for a small monthly fee, I can leave someone else to look after the server and software maintenance.

And when it comes to managing what I do and don’t see on my timeline, the tools provided by Mastodon are really rather good.

On a personal level, I can block and mute any obnoxious types I happen to bump into, and I can also filter out specified words and phrases if I want to ignore a particular conversation (always useful during bug sporting events). I can even block whole domains if I decide that I just don’t want to deal with anyone from a specific instance, all I need is a single click.

The site moderation tools are equally well designed. Obviously, with only one user on my own instance, I haven’t had much need to use these, but I do like the fact that I can also silence other instances if I really don’t want to deal with them.

Overall, I do like Mastodon and it has proven to be a very comfortable place to return to. I do like its decentralised nature and the fact that both the developers and the various communities are keen to encourage this.

You can find out more, including a video explainer and a list of available servers at Join Mastodon and, if you ever find yourself looking for someone to follow, you can find me @Paul@social.lightlyseared.online.

FD Computers and the Joy of Linux

With William and Alexandre going up a school in September, we found ourselves in the market for two new laptops. They have both been using Ubuntu for quite some time and, given how stable and reliable it has proven to be, I was keen to keep them on the same OS. I was also quite keen on the idea of having everything pre-installed for them, mainly because I’m lazy.

When we were looking for a new laptop for Macsen, Dell were selling Inspirons with Ubuntu pre-installed. They appear to have stopped doing this now, for Belgium anyway. You can still buy Ubuntu laptops from Dell, but only if you want to shell out for a very powerful and incredibly expensive Data Science Workstation. So that was off the table.

Looking around, however, I discovered that there’s a shop in Belgium, FD Computers, who not only sells laptops with the Linux distro of your choice pre-installed, but also has a webshop. After a short phone call to availability and delivery times, we placed an order.

The laptops turned up exactly when promised and we are very happy with them.

The laptops themselves are light but have quite a robust feel to them and they certainly look like they will handle being lugged around by a pair of teenagers. And having Ubuntu pre-installed, along with all of the applications they are likely to need, is a definite bonus.

I would certainly FD Computers and, possibly more tellingly, would quite happily go back to them when we are in the market for more hardware.

Having used several desktop operating systems over the years (DOS, Windows, OS/2, AmigaOS), I have to say that the Linux desktop really is the best of the best.

People like to say that Linux is difficult to use, but it really isn’t. Granted, some distributions are aimed at a more technical crowd, but you don’t have to make things difficult for yourself. Go with Ubuntu or something similarly user friendly and the experience is, if anything, better than using Windows.

You don’t even need to install it yourself these days. Plenty of retailers will do this for you, even if you don’t live in Belgium.

Compared to Windows and MacOS, Linux is much more secure, and a lot easier to manage. Installing applications, and even upgrading the OS, can all be done with a couple of clicks of a mouse. And the software is all free (gratis), and centrally managed — you don’t need to deal with ads or endless pop-ups telling you to upgrade to the paid version, just install the application and off you go.

Ultimately, with a Linux laptop, I can leave an eleven-year old in charge of his own computer without having to constantly be watching what he’s doing. This is not something I can say about Windows.

Digital Nostalgia

While clearing up a bit, I recently discovered a whole stack of 3.5 inch diskettes. Many of these were blank and had never been used — with my usual sense of great timing I bought a stack of 20 of the things, and a large case to hold them, just as they started to go out of fashion.

Of the ones that weren’t blank, most contain files and documents that I last looked at in the 1990s.

And then there were all the freebies that I had accumulated. Disks that had been mounted on magazine covers, stuffed with free and demonstration utilities for DOS or even Windows 3.1. Some of these I even remember. Most, however have been completely forgotten and none of them has been looked at since 2004 (or earlier).

One thing I do remember is OS/2. Not the disk so much as the actual operating system, which I used at work somewhere around the mid-1990s. We had a development tool that couldn’t run on Windows because… well, Windows wasn’t very good and this meant that the development team (me and one other person) had to dual boot between OS/2 and Windows 3.1.

I really liked OS/2 back in the day. It was stable, reliable and worked really well — which was quite a revelation when compared to Windows. And while the operating system never took off, it did manage to build a community of users which survived well into this century.

Time has, of course, moved on and I suspect that I doubt that it would stand any comparison with the operating systems of today, but when I was using OS/2 I did appreciate it.

As for the disks, I don’t have anything that could actually read them and doubt that any of them contain anything of more than passing interest, so into the bin they all went.

Mageia

Back in the mists of time we acquired a second-hand laptop and I installed DouDouLinux on it.This is a Linux distribution aimed at young children and it does achieve its aim of enabling young children to find their way around a PC without needing constant parental supervision. But time moves on and the boys are older, all have their own laptops now and the old laptop hasn’t been looked at for a couple of years.

So, over the holiday period, I started looking around for a distribution that still supported 32 bit architectures and discovered that Mageia still has a 32 bit edition which I immediately downloaded. It’s rather nice.

As with many — probably most — Linux distributions these days, the installer is graphical and takes you through the installation process quite painlessly. The only choice I really had to make was for the desktop environment, which was easy for me because I always go for Gnome. Once everything is installed, you are led through a configuration process which involves setting a root password and a main user profile, and then clicking through and accepting all of the defaults.

The installer is a little different to ones I am more used to, but it all proved to be a very painless process and one that worked well.

Many distributions now are providing a welcome screen when you boot your PC and Mageia is no exception. In this case, it’s reasonably nicely done and provides an easy way to quickly find your way around the operating system. Of course, once you have finished looking around this screen, it’s easy to disable by simply unchecking a box.

Mageia comes with a wide selection of applications that cover all of the obvious uses, and then some. While I can see that having everything available as soon as you start is useful, I have picked up my own preferences which I keep falling back to. So, helpful as all this software is, I know that I will end up replacing it with the applications I’m already used to.

And then there’s the Mageia Control Centre. This handily brings all of your administration tools together into a single application and is something about which I am still a bit ambivalent. One one hand, I can see that having everything managed by a single application is convenient. On the other hand, I have gotten used to doing things differently and, for me, the control centre feels a bit like reinventing the wheel. This is all down to personal preference, though, and I strongly suspect that, if Mageia had been the first distribution I had used, I would think it’s wonderful.

In fact, the only real gripe I have is that I had to tell the control centre not to look for CDs when doing updates. And this took all of one click.

Overall, Mageia strikes me as a solid, if unspectacular, operating system with several helpful touches. More importantly, it has helped me to revive a very old laptop.

Now all I need to do is figure out what I want to do with it.

Scratch

A few weeks ago, William told me he wanted to make his own computer game. So I installed Scratch on his laptop and told him to see what he could do. It turns out he can do quite a lot.

Scratch is a visual programming language. While it has all the features you would expect, the programming itself is done by dragging and dropping blocks rather than typing text. This makes for a very intuitive interface which allows you to get up to speed very quickly. Well, William did.

After a couple of pointers from me about loops and variables, he was off and now has a working game in which teleporting monkey has to collect various objects.

He then discovered that there is an online editor and a collection of tutorials and, after two weeks, he’s probably a better Scratch programmer than I will ever be. If he carries on like this, it’s not going to be long before he has a better handle on event-driven programming than I do.

As someone who makes a living as a developer, I’m not sure whether I should be proud or embarrassed.

Either way, Scratch itself is proving a very effective way of enabling kids to not only build their own applications, but also understand the underlying principles. The visual interface allows them to focus on developing applications, rather than having to worry about syntax, and the development environment provides instant feedback which encourages them to try things out and see what happens.

I am very impressed.

Emergency Upgrades

Macsen informed me yesterday that there was something wrong with his laptop so I went to take a quick look. Issues with kids and laptops are generally easy to resolve and I assumed that this would be another five minute job.

It wasn’t.

This time all he had was a screen informing him that something had gone seriously wrong and he should contact the system administrator. The system administrator in this house, as ever, is me.

It turns out that he had attempted to upgrade his laptop and something had happened and now it doesn’t work, which is a surprisingly complete explanation for a 13 year old.

All credit to him for noticing that an upgrade was available and realising that it should be done, and I can’t really blame him for what happened next, because I still don’t know what was the something that happened. That said, it looks like he’d started a distribution upgrade without realising.

Of course, turning the thing off and on again didn’t help. Something has gone seriously wrong and re-installing is the only way out of this. But first, the data.

Actually, the first step was to download and create and Ubuntu Live USB and, once I’d remembered to change the boot options on the laptop, I was able to boot from the USB and find the home folder on the laptop. This, I could then copy to a portable disk drive.

Once this was done, and after the kids were home from karate, Macsen and I sat down together to verify that all of the documents had been backed up correctly. I may be exaggerating slightly here, but the file he was most concerned about was his desktop background.

The installation went as smoothly as you would expect from Ubuntu, so I was able to start the restore of the data just in time for dinner.

After dinner, we completed the updates and initial configuration so that everything that needs to work today, is now working.

Other software (games mainly), we have agreed to sort out at the weekend and then we had a bit of a conversation about why we always do upgrades at the weekend.

I have to say that Macsen was remarkably calm at the prospect of being unable to boot or use his laptop for the foreseeable future. I have, in the past, seen people go completely to pieces for much more minor issues.

So now Macsen has the latest and greatest version of Ubuntu. I’ve only managed a very brief look at it so far, but it is remarkably pretty.

Facebook threatens to stop spreading conspiracy theories if they can’t spy on their users

Back in July, the court of justice of the European Union ruled that companies like Facebook could be prevented from sending data back to the US because they don’t have enough protections against snooping by US intelligence agencies.

The ruling didn’t immediately end all transfers, but does place a requirement on national data protection authorities to vet the sending of any new data to ensure that any personal data complies EU’s GDPR data protection rules.

And so to Ireland, where Facebook’s European operation is located and, therefore, responsible for enforcing this rule.

On Tuesday Facebook tried to strong-arm the Irish data protection commissioner by threatening to pull out of Europe if forced to comply with the law.

We live in hope.

I was going to go on a rant here, but then I noticed that the satirists at NewsThump have already been there: Facebook threatens Europe with fair elections decided by well-informed voters. What a prospect.

Of course, they’re bluffing and, by Wednesday Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for justifying Zuckerberg’s tantrums, and former UK deputy prime minister1 was frantically backpedalling.

I find his arguments (as reported) more than a little disingenuous. He’s eliding personal data (which is covered by the GDPR) and data in general (which isn’t) and claiming that having to keep up with ever changing rules (they aren’t) is impossible (it isn’t).

Realistically, Facebook isn’t going to go anywhere. They might thrash around for a bit but, ultimately, there is too much money in spreading hate speach and algorithmically promoting conspiracy theories and the Zuckerborg will comply with whatever rules are imposed.

But imagine being able to go online without being endlessly monitored, and not having ever more extreme content pushed at you.

The technology exists. It’s called RSS and Daniel Miessler thinks that it’s time to get back into RSS. Personally, I never stopped using RSS — my reader of choice is Newsblur — and I can’t imagine not having a single place to find pretty much everything I have chosen to read or watch online.

Footnote

  1. Of course Liberal politicians end up working for surveillance capitalists. It’s 2020.

Kobo Hacks: Extracting Annotations

A lot of the reading I do takes place on my Kobo eReader these days and, while reading yesterday, I came across a line that was eminently quotable. So I highlighted it and created an annotation, which is not something I’ve actually bothered to do in the past.

Then I wondered how I was supposed to get the annotation out if the eReader. Not easily appears to be the answer.

Obviously, a one-line quote could easily be retyped, but I’m too lazy to want to type stuff, which is why I ended up spending most of the evening poking around at the innards of the device.

Plugging in a USB cable and displaying the hidden files and folders reveals that there is a folder called .kobo on the device and, when I go into that folder I find, among other things, these:

  • BookReader.sqlite
  • KoboReader.sqlite

The sqllite suffix tells me that these are SQLite databases, and that looks like a very promising place to start. So I copied both to my PC and started poking around.

BookReader.sqlite, it turns out, isn’t a database — or not one that I can access using the sqlite3 — but KoboReader.sqlite proved to be a lot more promising.

Finding your way around a database when you have no documentation can be a bit of a challenge, but I do know that this:

select distinct b.ShelfName, c.BookTitle, a.Text, a.Annotation, date(a.DateCreated), date(a.DateModified)
from Bookmark a
left outer join ShelfContent b on b.ContentID = a.VolumeID
left outer join content c on c.BookID = a.VolumeID
where date(a.DateCreated) = '2020-09-21';

Returns this:

ReadingList|Radical Uncertainty|And any bar-room conversation, or presidential tweet, will remind you that the degree of confidence with which a proposition is expressed is not the same as the probability that the proposition is true.|Quote of the day|2020-09-21|2020-09-21

Three hours to generate a two sentence blog post probably isn’t a hugely effective use of my time, but I am now wondering what else I can extract from this database…

The joy of upgrades

I upgraded my PC at the weekend.

Being a Manjaro user, operating system upgrades are frequent, simple and speedy. Most of the time.

Because I never learn, I keep on buying HP computers.

In general, I like HP devices. They tend to be solidly constructed and nicely reliable. But the company does have a habit of using components — like network cards — that are not as well supported as they could be.

There was quite a lot to upgrade on Sunday, including a new Linux kernel. Upgrades tend to be simple and speedy these days, so I launched the upgrade, twiddled my thumbs for a couple of minutes and rebooted the PC.

No Wi-Fi Adapter Found

Yep. I managed to break my internet connection, much to the amusement of the rest of the family.

This hasn’t happened after an upgrade before but I did remember, from when I first set the thing up, that the problem is the Realtek wireless card. I just need, therefore, to identify the card, hop onto the Arch Wiki to determine which package and I need to install, and install it and the problem will be fixed.

Identifying the card is easy enough, but I will note it here for future reference: $ lspci -k | grep 'Wireless Network'

Getting to the wiki, and installing the package, is more problematic because I need an internet connection for this.

No Wi-Fi Adapter Found

Did I ever mention that the PC I have is a mini-tower with a massive monitor? It’s also in a different room to the modem and, as I discovered, I no longer have (or could find) a cable capable of reaching from one device to the other.

This is why I ended up spending a sizable chunk of my Sunday disassembling the PC, lugging it from one room to the other, and then putting it all back together again. This would have been annoying enough but, since we use Wi-Fi everywhere, the modem is neatly tucked away behind the TV. So I had disconnect all the devices attached to it in order to pull it out of it’s alcove and put it on the floor while not tripping over the cat.

Reinstalling the driver took less than five minutes and, after a quick reboot to confirm that all was okay, it was time to put everything back together.

This is the point at which the real crisis began. My partner realised that I’d managed to unplug (and lose the cable to) the set-top box.

We found it in the end and, for my next task, I need to relocate the stupidly long Ethernet cable that I used to keep around for situations such as this one.