Django and the localsettings anti-pattern

local_settings.py

In the Django web framework, the configuration happens in a file called settings.py. Often you want different settings for different versions of a site, e.g. a development branch versus the live branch. Thus far, I am always a lone developer or part of a small team, so usually a couple of branches is enough. However, maybe in a large organization, you might have several staging sites for various testers.

A common convention is to have a file called something like local_settings.py or settingslocal.py. This file is imported by the main settings.py file. Therefore the production and development sites have the same settings.py file (containing all the boilerplate) but different local_settings.py files containing the branch specific settings.

In this presentation, Jacob Kaplan-Moss calls this the “localsettings anti-pattern” (Slide 47). What he seems to be recommending instead is having a different a different WSGI file for each branch (Web Server Gateway Interface is the protocol that Python applications use to talk to web servers), each pointing to a separate settings file.

This moves the problem up a level, but does it really change anything? One of the reasons that people have the local_settings.py file is to have the database password not part of a public version control repository. I am not sure how much Jacob’s solution helps. Am I missing something? Now I have two pairs of files instead of one.

I know at least Bazaar has a shared repository feature, where you could conceivably have a secret branch and public branch with a single file tree, but setting that up is a lot of work just to version control a password and a few other secret settings.

Settings.py is the anti-pattern

This is just a symptom. The underlying problem is that settings.py itself is the anti-pattern. You might always need some kind of configuration file for database settings and other secrets, but the settings.py file mixes in a shopping list of other junk.

Most of them could be gotten rid of. Django should just set sensible defaults, and where the (minority) user wants to configure them, make the option a simple argument to whatever class, method or function is being used.

Contrib and third-party applications add even more settings which could be arguments or options in the database.

The whole advantage of Python is that it is an interpreted, interactive and dynamic language where you can change things at runtime. Having a load of hard-coded static global variables is not Pythonic at all.

When you use the admin site, you subclass admin.ModelAdmin for every model that you want to use:

from django.contrib import admin
from myproject.myapp.models import Author

class AuthorAdmin(admin.ModelAdmin):
    pass
admin.site.register(Author, AuthorAdmin)

Each ModelAdmin subclass configures what applications are used and how. You have imported your model (Author in the example above), and registered it using admin.site.register. That should be all the info the admin site needs to work.

This is object oriented and Pythonic. This is how things should work everywhere in Django. There is no need for a hard-coded global static INSTALLED_APPS setting.

So what now?

So I don’t really know what Jacob is telling us to do. I am sure someone will write in and tell me that my mistake is that I should have used Rails or some obscure web framework named and documented in Burgenland Croatian hidden somewhere on github!

Happy New Year!

Ubuntu 11.10 Review

Ubuntu is easy

Once upon a time, I used to be a Gentoo user and made it a hobby to tweak my computer’s operating system to be as minimalist and high performance as possible. It was great fun and I learned a lot about what was going on with my computer. I knew what each file on my system did because I had directly or indirectly chosen for it to be there. At one point I had five Gentoo machines compiling away.

In 2006, I found I didn’t have time for this any more, especially since I wanted to spent time honing my programming skills, so I reluctantly decided to limit myself to one Gentoo machine, and for the others I would use Ubuntu in the most default configuration possible. The idea being that I can take any new (or old) computer, and within 20 minutes be completely productive, having installed Ubuntu and the extra packages I need within that time.

Upgrade process

With Gentoo, the operating system just updates daily and becomes the latest version automatically, every system gets all the security and feature updates and the only supported version is the current version. No other staging points are required.

With Ubuntu, there is a new “release” every six months. Each release has two names, a cute alliterative animal name and a number representing the year and month of release, e.g. Ubuntu 10.10 – Maverick Meerkat was released in October 2010. Some applications can be updated within the six month period between releases, but the core of the system remains consistent. Some of these releases are designated ‘LTS’ (Long Term Support) and are supported for 3 years (on the desktop, 5 years on the server), so businesses who favour longer term stability over feature improvements can choose that release and ignore the six month releases.

Anyhow, as a normal individual user, when the time comes for the six-month update, you have the (modern) choice of upgrading the operating system in situ leaving your data, configurations and installed applications in place, or the (old school) choice of wiping out everything and having a fresh start.

Autumn de-clutter

I normally just upgrade as each version comes along. My main laptop and desktop had been upgraded many times already without issue.

However, all the programs I had tried out over the years were still there, alongside several hundred GBs of poorly organised data and unwanted bloat. Also this meant I carried on using the recommended applications of a few years ago, not what they recommend now.

On the 13 October 2011, the latest Ubuntu came out. I decided to reformat and reinstall in order to force some de-cluttering. I re-installed my old desktop first, then moved all the data from my laptop to the desktop and then re-installed my laptop.

The installer looks better and simpler than ever, I had to tell the installer very little indeed to get going. If you have a webcam it also offers to take a photo of you for your login picture.

Unity

Ubuntu 11.10 - note that Polly and Emacs are not installed by default

In the previous release, Ubuntu introduced a new desktop interface called Unity. I talked about that in the post “My first look at Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal“.

Unity was a departure from GNOME 2 which what most GNU/Linux based desktops have looked like since 2002. Unity has had a polarising effect – some people really like it, and some really really dislike it. I am in the former camp. I love the fact that the launcher is big and chunky, but it gets out of the way when I don’t want it. The application I am using at each point can use the whole screen without the desktop interface hogging areas of the screen as it did in GNOME 2.

I admit that as a new desktop interface, there were inconsistent parts where the new metaphor fell away – especially in some installed software which did not always works well with it. A good number of those rough edges have been tidied up in 11.10. Most importantly, Unity now has a 2D mode for old video cards, so all Ubuntu desktops now look similar rather than Unity on new computers and GNOME 2 on old computers.

Unity is starting to feel like the core of the desktop rather than a pretty but ill-fitting wrapper around an uncharged GNOME 2 desktop. In particular, the difference between Unity and the file-manager (Nautilus) looks slightly less jarring than before.

The Alt-Tab switcher is now much nicer (allowing you to also switch between instances of the same application) and the launcher seems a little more intelligent in when it decides to come and go, although there is still one problem for me.

In Ubuntu 10.04, they moved the close button on each window to the left hand side of the screen (bit like Mac OS X). However, with Unity, the launcher is fixed to the left hand side of the screen. Both of these auto-hide to get out of your way when you are not using them.

I find that when I have a maximised window, the close button and the unity launcher often end up in a race. When I move my mouse pointer to the top-left corner of of the screen, I am not entirely sure what I am going to get. Sometimes I want the launcher and I get the close button instead, sometimes I want the close button and get the launcher instead. That second that it takes me to get from the thing I didn’t want to the thing I did want does get a bit annoying the 500th time. You can avoid this by being really precise in your mouse gesture, but that is equally as distracting.

However, I have found that the key to surviving and thriving in Unity is using keyboard short cuts. Maybe I should one day write a whole post on that.

I still have mixed feelings about the scrollbar on native applications. It is nice that it hides but it does take me a few seconds to find it.

Software Centre and Settings

The Ubuntu Software centre is now starting to be usable.

Ubuntu Software Centre - with weird advert

Ubuntu Software Centre - with weird advert

The start screen of the software centre also has a big ugly advert in the window showing featured applications. At the moment it is rotating between one free application and one proprietary application. If it helps to pay for Ubuntu I suppose it is liveable but it is ugly.

One difference to Synaptic is that categories and search results are made less noisy by hiding low-level software libraries from the end user, focusing on high-level end-user applications.

Software Centre Search

Software Centre Search

However, developers can still find what they want without resorting to apt-get. For example, if I search for mysqldb I get one result – as shown above, but at the bottom right it says “Show 3 technical items”, and then I can find the package I want. Clicking it gives more results as shown in the image below:

Software centre - with technical results

Software centre - with technical results

One of my regular moans, the inconsistent settings tools on GNU/Linux desktops, is starting to be dealt with. Most settings can now be changed through a sort-of consistent settings application.

Ubuntu settings application

Ubuntu settings application

I can use this settings application because I have used Ubuntu for a long time and have a rough idea under which tool a particular setting will be. However, I wonder how easy it is for a new user to map their problem to a heading?

For example, changing brightness is not under ‘Appearance’ but under ‘Screen’. Changing the screen resolution is not under ‘Appearance’ or ‘Screen’ but under ‘Display’. On a Mac laptop I do not have a right mouse button, so I set the right “command key” to be right click. The settings for this is not under ‘Keyboard’ or ‘Keyboard Layout’ but under “Universal Access”. I could go on and on. This is fine for me but is arbitrary and undocumented to the new user.

On the Cloud of Unknowing

It seems the cloud service Ubuntu One is well integrated into everything, but I have not used that yet, I will try it and let you know in a feature post.

More Applications

Now I am using Banshee instead of Rhythmbox as my music player. Apart from a prettier look, Banshee seems pretty identical to Rhythmbox, except the delay between tracks appears to be a tiny bit longer. I already started using Shotwell in the previous release, and now I am using it for all my photos. Migrating all the tags and so on from the old computer to the new one was just a matter of copying the .shotwell folder from my home directory.

MP3 support, Flash and my webcam all worked out of the box. My printer did not though.

The end of Evolution?

Ubuntu now recommend Thunderbird instead of Evolution as the email client. I had put my toe in before, trying it with one out of three email accounts I use. Now I decided to finally make a proper test of Thunderbird using all my email accounts. I backed up my mail in Evolution and was about to follow a migration guide on the net – both programs use the same mail format so you just move the files into the correct place.

However, I realised that the Evolution mail data was mostly just locally stored IMAP mail, so by the time I had setup my accounts in Thunderbird, it had downloaded all the data again from the mail servers.

I haven’t looked into the calender side of things yet. People do invite me to meetings and things using Exchange’s meeting invite functionality which Evolution handles really well. We see if this and other reasons send me back to Evolution or not.

Conclusion

Unity is still not 100% perfect but the improvements have been steady and I think after another release or two, it will really shine. Overall Ubuntu 11.10 is a good release with no drawbacks for me personally over previous releases.

So they were my thoughts. How have you found it?

Birmingham Critical Mass – October 7th 2011

Last month I reported from September’s Birmingham Critical Mass bike ride and gave a longer explanation of what the event is about.

This time around, there was a lot of rain during Friday but the rain stopped just in time. I wore my rain gear but the weather held off, and I just got a little too hot. In similar conditions I might go with rain gear packed but not wearing it to start with.

In the background we can see the Library of Birmingham under construction

I was a bit late arriving in town and the ride had already set off. I reckoned that if I just sat still then the ride would come past sooner or later. However, I had come to ride. So to start with I rode around the city myself,

 

The current Central Library

Apparently when I was on my own getting lost, a random passenger got out of the back of a taxi and started ranting and being violent at a cyclist. Photos exist of this and will no doubt be on the web soon.

Council House

 

Town Hall

 

Iron: Man by Antony Gormley

New Street

I went north first out of the cathedral, and after finding no clues decided to turn around to see if they were around the Broad Street area. On the way there I went past Birmingham’s civic centre and took a few abstract photos.

Telephone Kiosks

Within about half an hour or something I had caught up with the ride outside New Street Station. So now onto the cycling photos:

Cycling 1

Cycling 2

Cycling 3

Now lets have some photos taken in a more traditional manner:

Outside the Mailbox

Outside the Mailbox 2

Cycling in the dark

 

Roundabout 1

 

Roundabout 2

Roundabout 3

 

Roundabout 4

Roundabout 5

Roundabout 6

High Visibility

Old Square

 

Pedals of Light

 

Red Bike

 

Stopping at a red light

St Chad's Cathedral

Another red light

Amber Light

Due to the threat of rain, there were slightly less cyclists, around 100. However, the cyclists didn’t bunch up often enough for me to get a cool photo. Mostly everyone was strung out into a long line. At the end, the group seemed to split into separate directions. I joined the largest group and visited the Spotted Dog public house.

Pingu has a very bad habit, bad Pingu

Bike Garden

 

Birmingham Critical Mass – September 2nd 2011

Critical Mass is a cycling event held in many cities around the world. Information about Birmingham’s event is currently available on this Facebook page, this Birmingham Cyclist group and this page on the Critical Mass wiki, but it is suitably disorganised so these may or may not be up to date when you read this page. You have to Google or search through Twitter or whatever yourself. There is probably a critical mass in your city too.

I have been to other communal events like the more corporate and organised Sky Ride, but I have been wanting to go Critical Mass for a while and finally on Friday I could make it. I meant to bring my camera but I forgot. However, other very nice people brought theirs, so I ended up with plenty of photos of me on my bike! These follow along with my normal rambling text about how having less cars and more flowers would make a better world.

Photo of a group of cyclists

I somehow managed to turn my head at the right time. Photo by TallBike.

Critical Mass is a scheduled but disorganised communal bike ride. There is no leader and no set route. The people at the front decide to go a certain route and the rest of the group might follow. Sometimes two people go different ways and each member of the group has to make a choice and vote with their feet, or more precisely with their handlebars. The group moves like a flock of birds, at any point there are individuals going in different ways but they turn around and re-join the swarm.

Photo of cyclists

Most people are wearing normal clothes, unlike me who is wearing hi-vis clothes. Cycling is normal, in a perfect world it should not require a special uniform.Photo by TallBike.

Famously in 2008, the Metropolitan police failed to ban the London critical mass due to the event not fitting the paperwork required for public events. Here is a link to the Guardian story and here is a link to the House of Lords Judgement – a fascinating and heart-warming outbreak of common sense. I personally cannot see why a bike ride needs to be policed, it seems like the police are just making work for themselves. I am sure there are crimes to solve or streets to patrol which would seem like a better use of their (publicly-funded) time.

In America and Latin America, the rides have encountered bigger problems than paperwork, with arrests, police brutality, politicians attempting to outlaw the rides, psychotic drivers ploughing through riders, infiltration by secret services and undercover police.

Why does a group of law abiding citizens going for a leisurely and fun bike ride cause such offence? Because the presence of bikes on the road exposes the hypocrisy and  illegitimacy of the ideology of the car dominated society.

Cyclists heading into Birmingham

Here we are heading back into Birmingham. A belt might be a good investment! Photo by TallBike.

Anyhow, back to Friday. I cycled to town and arrived just after six at Birmingham Cathedral. A few dozen cyclists were milling around the grounds but there was no particular obvious meeting point. However, in one group there was a guy with a trailer on his bike containing some kind of sound system; I concluded that he must be a regular.

I sat and chatted with that group and at half past six someone decided to set off. I followed along about ten bikes behind and as we went past the other side of the cathedral there was a huge number of cyclists that I had not noticed before. When they saw us coming they set off out the gate first and I was then in a large group which was later counted to be 134 people.

Another image of cyclists

A wider shot of us heading back into Birmingham. Photo by TallBike.

Due to the vast amount of traffic lights in Birmingham, it was not the fastest bike ride I have ever been on. However, it was fun to go through parts of Birmingham that I would feel intimidated to cycle through without the extreme visibility of another 133 cyclists around me.

Somewhere around Moor Street Queensway, the girl in the pink top above came from behind and clipped my hand with her handlebars, shouting ‘sorry’ as she sped off through a red light. Apart from that minor and insignificant clip, I managed to avoid smashing into my fellow cyclists. I thought about pictures of a Chinese cities and other places where the street is rammed full of bikes, people just manage naturally to keep in tune to the cyclist on the right and left of you. Even if you have the occasional brush, it is of little consequence. Unlike cars, bikes are not killing machines. We do not need lanes or lines to separate us.

A picture of me cycling from behind

Sometimes the group gets more spread out. This is another view of my pants. Photo by Inita.

The traffic lights and other street furniture cluttering up the environment is solely due to the morbid and destructive nature of car culture. The logical conclusion is that if there were no cars there would be no need for red lights and all these other rules, this much is obvious. Indeed the more cars there are, the more clutter you need to slow them down.

Therefore it follows that if we restricted car use to a far lower quantity of cars driven by more skilled and careful drivers, then a lot of this clutter could be removed, and the remaining cars and bikes would make much steadier progress freed from the traffic lights and clutter. All the traffic light poles, crossings, humps and signs polluting the urban environment could be removed and replaced with trees, bushes and flowers.

Stopping to smile outside Aston University. Photo by Inita.

Being in the open air, not wrapped inside an anti-social metal box, cycling is a very sociable activity, and many people chatted to me as we rode around. The ride ended at this pub on the Aston University campus, where I got to meet some of these people off the saddle.

End of the route, time for a pint. Photo by Inita.

I had a really good time, and hope to go again. Maybe it will finally help me learn how the mysterious inner and middle ring roads work. Thanks to Inita and TallBike for taking the above photos. Maybe there is a Critical Mass where you live?

al-Careda is a dangerous ideology

The ideology that accepts death, injury, pollution and sprawl caused by the car has been contrasted with the early-twentieth century Islamic terrorism. The latter, described under the term al-Qaeda, has led to a lower number of deaths but governments sprung to action launching two wars as well as spending billions in intelligence and security expenditure.

The former, which has been described as ‘al-Careda’, led to several order of magnitudes more deaths but no government really does anything significant and few people think about it. It is not a mainstream political issue, all the main political parties merely accept or actively promote al-Careda.

I am not sure who first used the term ‘al-Careda’, it is a pretty obvious verbal trick so probably lots of people have thought of it in parallel, Nick Currie’s long live journal article dates from 2004.

How they compare in numbers

In 2001, al-Qaeda organised the death of almost 3000 Americans on 9/11. However, al-Careda was over 12 times more successful, killing 37,862 Americans in 2001.

[That is only the people that immediately died. Al-Careda injured and maimed many times more than that and some of those prematurely died from these injuries and were not recorded in this number.]

Al-Careda is also consistent, managing this every single year. Between 2000 to 2009, al-Careda killed 371,104 Americans immediately, not including some of the maimed and injured who died a premature death.

In the 7th July 2005 London bombings, 52 people were killed by Islamic extremist terrorists following the ideas of al-Qaeda. In 2005, 3201 Brits were killed by al-Careda with 268,000 injured.

Al-Careda is also consistent in its UK terrorism too, causing 31,098 deaths in the decade 2000-2009 and 2,709,146 injured. Those injured from car deaths during the first decade of the 20th century would fill a city the size of Birmingham and central London combined.

During the decade, approximately 12 million people are recorded to have died across the world. World-wide, many deaths in poorer countries go unrecorded, so this number could be higher. Not exactly a like for like comparison, but to put this figure in perspective, this is roughly double the number of people who died in the Holocaust. Deaths are on the increase as car usage grows in the developing world. 50 million are injured each year.

Comparing the numbers is the obvious bit. What I want to do in future posts is look into how the ideology allows otherwise rational people to accept death, injury, pollution and sprawl caused by the car. I want to explore how the brainwashing process works. I want to know how humanity can move on from the al-Careda madness to a new sensible and safe situation.

The roots of the car ideology

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, a new technology called the automobile gained a productive role as a machine owned by business or the state: farm machinery, vans taking products to market, ambulances and so on.

In 1934, owning a car yourself merely for personal transport was still relatively rare. Aristocrats might own a car for this purpose, but would have a driver doing the dirty work. Middle class hobbyists bought cars also, but their number was insignificant compared to the pervasiveness of cars today.

The top speed of these cars was often around 45 mph, often much less was practical. Slow speeds and the relatively exposed and unprotected position of drivers, meant that the public dangers of driving these cars was far less than the modern death machines that we have on our roads today.

Photo of 1926 Bentley

The 1926 Bentley Speed Six Tourer - not designed for the school run

There were few suitable roads, meaning that cars used suitable routes, which would quickly become crowded. Less than one in fifty people owned a car, those that did buy a car, often did so for a clear business reason.

For everyone else, workers went to their factories and offices, children went to school and housewives went shopping, all without cars.

The urban and rural environment was car-free for the vast majority of the time, residential side streets were left unpaved. Children could play in the street, community and religious groups could parade and hold events in the street. Outside was a communal and social place, with people playing and gossiping, washing their clothes, hawking locally made goods, relaxing after a hard days work and so on.

It was Adolf Hitler who first tried to implement the idea of mass car ownership by the general public, that every true-blooded German would own a car that they could save up for and drive themselves.

Publicity poster for Hitler's People Car offering

Hitler turned to Ferdinand Porsche to create slave labour factories producing unimagined quantities of cars. Due to the war, military vehicles required a lot of the capacity. After the war, the military production stopped due to restrictions on Germany, but the mass production of private cars increased dramatically, finally fulfilling Hitler’s dream of mass car ownership.

The point I am trying to make is that the rise of mass car transit did coincide with the rise of the totalitarian state across the world. Whether that is the Nazi party in Germany, Stalinism, McCarthyism and so on. Even though these parent ideologies were discredited due to world events, the motivation to convert the nation into a car dominated society remained as a hang over.

Therefore, the governments of many European countries encouraged and financed their own car companies, and production boomed throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

This was matched by a massive infrastructure project that completely changed the nature of cities and towns. Over the twentieth century, across the whole of Europe, millions of trees were felled, front gardens shrunk, public squares, common land and other previously open space was turned into roads and the open outside society began to wither and die.

Tram and railway infrastructure that took a century to build was quickly dismantled in order to make more room for private cars. In more recent times, the developing world has looked to the west and copied this model of an all pervasive road network.

The public was never asked whether gaining the road infrastructure was worth the sacrifice of community, safety and open green common space. There was never an asphalt party or concrete party, there was never a vote on this fundamental change in human society. It just happened as special interests lobbied local and national politicians for more and more of the country to be paved over with road, it was just an headlong match towards ‘progress’, without asking where we want to progress to.

Mass car ownership can never fulfil its ideals of every family in the world owning a car and moving around freely and safety. Every new driver on the road makes conditions slower and more dangerous for existing drivers. Mass car transit is costly, dangerous and requires a higher level of physical and mental ability than many people have. Therefore, private car transport has never achieved the level of participation that the previous tram and bike infrastructure had. So now in the 21st century this public infrastructure is often being put at many times the original cost of building it the first time around.

In the UK, a third of households do not have a car at all, it urban areas the rate is higher. In the developing world, the vast majority of households still do not have a car, if the rate of car owning families in the developing world rises to the level of the west, the environmental consequences of the car will be six times higher than it is now. That cannot be allowed to happen. The whole system has to change.

Cycling in Finland is fun (and weird)

Image of Finnish cyclists

Tourist Information shot of Finnish cycling - no driveways in this photo

I just spent a few weeks in Finland, and I had access to an old bicycle which, after some minor repairs, I rode around merrily enjoying the beautiful scenery.

Getting bike supplies in Finland is simple as proper bike shops are easy to find, also supermarkets and DIY shops seem to have low-end bicycle equipment. I went into some kind of low-end Finnish supermarket and bought two outer tires made of nylon for 12 euros and new inner tubes. Obviously these are lower quality compared to what I use in England, but they did the job. It was not worth spending more because the bike itself was of questionable quality. From a DIY shop I bought some chain lube (which was more expensive than the tires).

Instead of a handlebar operated rear-brake, the bike has a back-pedal brake, where you pedal backwards in order to brake. The result is that you have to think carefully about pedal position while stopping, otherwise it would be very annoying when you next start, because there is no way to rotate the pedals to a comfortable starting position, something you just do instinctively on a regular bike. If you forget then you have to kick off with your feet or perform a standing start. As well as the potential annoyance, the rear-brake is pretty useless, the quickest way to stop was to put my foot on the floor.

It was (in theory) a three-speed, but the gears were too slow to be of any use. I had not been on any of the routes before so I could not predict very far in advance when I would need to change gear. By the time the gears had responded I would be long past the hill already. I just ignored the gears and pretended I was a trendy fixie rider.

However, despite all that, I bonded with the old rust bucket and had a nice holiday romance with the old girl. Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos because I tried to keep things rather minimal in case I ended up walking the bike home.

Finland is a rich country so you see some very nice bikes in Finland, but you see an equal amount of grandpa bikes like mine. There is no shame in riding a really shoddy looking ‘veteran’ in the summer sun.

There is a lot of provision for cycling in Finland, but like everything else in Finland, there is a set of authoritarian rules of questionable quality that you have to follow which partially undermine the whole thing.

The cycle paths in Finland are mostly just regular footways (pavements/sidewalks) with blue signs indicating that it is shared space, these signs were provided in most urban streets that I rode through. Rather problematically, you have to use these ‘cycle paths’ where provided, it is compulsory.

Basically it is the complete opposite of England where cycling on the footways is illegal. You basically just cycle on the footways all the time.

Unlike in England, Finnish pedestrians are used to seeing cyclists pass them on the footway, so there is no issue about sharing space. However, Finnish cars come out of their driveways really fast, so at the moment you see a car coming to your right, it feels a bit like Russian roulette, not knowing whether they have spotted you or not.

There is also the problem of losing speed every time you cross a minor street, and the inherit risk of being hit by a car as you ride across. This article from the Helsinki City Planning Department explains that “cycling on cycle paths along streets” i.e. using the footway, is far more dangerous in Finland than cycling on the road.

I wonder if you just ignored the compulsory cycle paths and cycled on the road, would anyone really stop you?

In general cars seem to travel a lot faster in Finland. Many of the roads seem massive for such a small population, far emptier than in congested England, and every Finnish driver seems to think they are a rally driver and goes as fast as he/she can.

There are also compulsory cycle helmets, although you do see a lot of people without them. This is not a problem for me as I always wear the expensive piece of polystyrene on my head anyway (even though I doubt its usefulness).

When you are not praying for your life, cycling in Finland is fantastic: fresh air, open roads, wooden houses, tall trees, forest paths, lake views, drinking a light beer from a roadside kiosk, dodging mosquitoes and even mooses…

Well the beware of the moose signs promise mooses, but I have not seen any yet, which is probably for the best.

I increased my distance each ride as I got more confident about Finnish conditions and next summer I would like to have another go at cycling in Finland.

Hello world!

Hello again!

In my day job I am a programmer and wanna-be academic at the University of Birmingham. However, this blog is not about that, this blog is my personal site.

I am in to computers (especially Linux and Python), cycling, beer and politics. I have a couple of other blogs already, and a few Twitter accounts. They are aggregated on this site. On this site I will put content that does not fit in the above sites.

Please say ‘hello’ in the comments. Also please let me know the kind of things you want me to write more about.

Linux and multi-form factor platforms

Six months ago (crickey where does the time go?), I wrote "Is the Linux Desktop Distribution war over?" where I claimed that among GNU/Linux-based systems statistically only Ubuntu and Android matter in terms of usage and prospects for growth. Since then we have seen several developments.



Apple VS Android



Apple and Google have both made good steps forward as cross-form factor operating systems. Apple have gone patent nuclear against Google, so Google bought Motorola's phone business and its pile of mobile phone patents which it can use to go back on the offensive.



WebOS – WebWhat?



HP's GNU/Linux based WebOS mobile operating system was quite highly rated by developers; however HP seem to have decided that the competition is too hot and have made a sharp exit. Regular (non-Android) Linux is now not a smartphone platform for the immediate future.



Nokia exists the software business



Nokia made a half-hearted cancellation of its Meego efforts. Meego was supposed to be a combination of Nokia's Maemo and Intel's Moblin. However, like most mergers, it didn't seem to work out, and Nokia have given up making their own software platforms and thrown their lot in with Microsoft, getting a billion or two in Microsoft cash in the process.



Intel have re-grouped and made a push with hardware vendors to load Meego onto tablets and netbooks. Intel however have their fingers in many pies (including Android), so we will see for how long and how deep their commitment to Meego to goes.



Despite having bought some of the best technology groups in the world, Nokia haven't really managed to speak with one voice and create credible developer and user stories. The Trolltech acquisition was a master-stroke and Nokia had an open goal, QT as a developer platform is fantastic and adopting it as the primary development platform could have generated a massive amount of applications.



Meanwhile Microsoft's mobile efforts over the last 20 years have not been very successful either due to varying amounts of dithering and fear of mobile platforms competing with Windows PC OS.



My opinion is that putting together two losing companies will result in four times the mistakes and lost opportunities. Unless Nokia's shareholders/board have a change of heart and sack the new ex-Microsoft CEO Stephen Elop, I fear it is the beginning of the end for Nokia.



Nokia are bringing out one Meego phone, the N9, but they trying their best to make sure no one buys it, in case it is successful and outsells their forthcoming Windows mobile phone.



ASUS new netbooks



As explained in depth at Linux devices, ASUS have a range of three new netbooks (which according to the article all are available in Germany at least). Eee PC X101 which comes pre-loaded with MeeGo, Eee PC R011PX which comes preloaded with Ubuntu 10.10 and EeePC R105D which comes with Windows.



There have always been boutiques like the Linux Emporium doing important selfless work providing Linux powered laptops with little margin (so do buy your stuff from there). However, alongside this, what we Linux users have been campaigning for the last 15 years is a fair competition, i.e. a diversity of consumer choice on generic hardware. Furthermore, we do not want to be forced to pay for a Windows licence we will never use.



On to the machines themselves. In my opinion, ASUS really need some help with making some sexier names (ASUS, if you are reading this, call me!).



The MeeGo laptop is really slim, while the Ubuntu laptop is slightly bigger but higher spec. Ubuntu has 2 GB of RAM instead of 1 GB. Ubuntu machine has a 320GB hard drive instead of a mere 8 GB of solid storage in the MeeGo. The Ubuntu machine has a VGA port and an extra USB port.



The Windows machine's specs are between the two.



Why settle for less than Ubuntu?



In my opinion, Android, Meego and WebOS are impressive but a big compromise compared to a full Linux distribution such as Ubuntu, Gentoo, Debian, etc.



The ways that Android, Meego and WebOS differ from a standard Linux distribution add nothing to the user experience but have been done for internal corporate reasons.



Ubuntu Unity shows that you can do an interface suitable for desktops, netbooks and tablets without throwing away user configuration and access to the tens of thousands of packages in the free/open source desktop universe.



GNU/Linux as an operating system allows complete freedom for developers to use any toolkits, libraries and languages you want. It is a 'big tent' operating system.



There is a lot Ubuntu can do to simplify the interface and provide a recommended development environment without losing the bazaar festival atmosphere.



Lets make up an example, lets pretend that Ubuntu provides a default development environment of Python, PySide (QT), Webkit, Jquery and Django. These can be in the default install of the phone/tablet/netbook/desktop etc, and applications written in that environment are small and easily installed.



That does not stop someone using apt-get or whatever to install a standard Ubuntu package which will pull in all the required dependencies.



One unanswered question is can hardware manufacturers become more lean and speedy to keep up with Ubuntu releases. The Ubuntu six-month release cycle provides a wealth of improvements and the rate of change has been speeding up rather than slowing down.



Mass market uses do not want to be doing system administration, they want to buy a device with the latest Ubuntu and a year or two later, buy another one. So tighter integration and communication between Ubuntu and hardware manufacturers needs to happen.



Dell made a big noise about selling Ubuntu laptops. However, whenever you actually tried to buy one, you would find that "Dell recommends Windows XP" and Ubuntu is currently unavailable.



What we need is at some point, some manufacturer, possibly ASUS, to commit fully to selling an Ubuntu machine and sorting out this problems. Due to past hardware projects coming to nothing, the Linux user community is sceptical. However, if ASUS or another manufacturer can commit to selling Ubuntu machines, then this will thaw.



When potential Ubuntu users ask existing users, and the reply comes back "just buy an X, and it will just work" then Linux will have finally broken through as a mass-market alternative to the proprietary systems.



Lets hope it does not take another 15 years.

This Week – joining the horde

Welcome back to my irreverent and regular(-ish) look at what I have read online lately.



Evolution is over – F.A.B.



I used to use a highly optimised and customised Gentoo install on all computers, which was really fun and I learned a lot about how a GNU/Linux system operates, but eventually I found I did not have enough time for it. So for my work computer and for computers for members of my family, I install Ubuntu and use as many of the defaults as possible. This way I can get productive on a new computer straight away.



It is also about joining the horde, if enough people use the same applications on the Free desktop, then there will be a critical mass which will lead to new benefits.



For example, it will be easier for hardware vendors and other services to support the Free Desktop. Another example, things potential new users need will become available such as books, advice, web tutorials and so on.



This does not mean that individual choice is removed, it also does not mean that the best of breed cannot rise to the top. For example, in Ubuntu 11.04, they replaced Rhythmbox with Banshee as the default music player, but I have not got around to trying Banshee or moving my music across yet.



Reports claim that Thunderbird will (perhaps) replace Evolution as the default mail client in Ubuntu 11.10.



I am interested to see how this works out since I use Evolution quite a lot these days.



Evolution is pretty feature complete, but does sometime randomly decide to be slow in retrieving messages and in performing searches.



One big difference between the two applications is that Thunderbird is an email client, while Evolution is a personal information manager. Email is one of the major features of evolution but there is also a calendar, task list, memos and and so on.



Personally I use the email, calendar and tasks. However, I have not used the memos since started I use Tomboy. Yes I have given up my strike against Mono applications, Tomboy is really good.



Mozilla has a calendar application. It is available in two forms, a stand alone application called 'Sunbird' and a Thunderbird extension called 'Lightning'.



It remains to be seen if Ubuntu include this as the default calender in Ubuntu, or whether Ubuntu will contain a default calender at all. I hope so, as a calender is a useful application to have.



Evolution is plumbed into GNOME applications and frameworks quite deeply, so such a change if it happens could lead to further consequences in the future.



Thunderbird is (un)branded as 'Icedove' in Debian, which sounds rather cool.







Will Gwibber Wibble faster?



Talking of getting rid out slow apps, Gwibber, the social networking client that I use (and is the default), has been rewritten, and from the sounds of it, it sounds like a new codebase with the same name. Also being planned is Google+ support.



Confession Time



I have four pieces of proprietary software on my system: Nvidia driver, Broadcom driver, Flash and Skype. I am hoping they all go away eventually.



On the topic of Flash, Adobe now offers a 64-bit Linux Flash client again with its newly released version 11.



More Love, More PuTTY



As regular readers will know, my favourite Windows program is PuTTY. I use it to quickly access a Linux machine from any arbitrary Windows computer. PuTTY has its first new release in the last four years. New features are listed here.



How long to prepare a talk?



Rusty Russell has a useful article about how he prepares his conference talks and how much time they take. This kind of experience based post is useful for others who may want to give talks in the future.



Let the grass grow



Forbes reports that US government subsidies to give a rural home broadband costs between two and four times as more than the house is worth.



The fact that the government is laying the cable is because rural broadband is not commercially viable.



A farmer has every right to live in the country, and a case could be made to offer him an internet connection of some sort, perhaps based on cheap and efficient mesh networking.



However, the government has no role in subsiding "executive homes" for commuters which encourages wasted carbon emissions. City dwellers should not be forced to subsidise environmentally unsustainable lifestyles.







Other interesting stories



Hostage taker Jason Valdez is reported to have updated his Facebook profile during a siege and chatted with his friends via Facebook messages. The police are now investigating whether any of his Facebook friends should be arrested.



A couple of interesting parallels:



The FBI is rounding up crackers to act as informants, which is how Bradley Manning was caught. Meanwhile of 95% spam relies on their ill gotten payments being processed by just 13 banks. So Soldiers who whisteblow are held in solitary confinement, while banks who make their profits from spam are left alone.



The Economist claims that al-Qaeda is starting to run out of stream and willing volunteers, meanwhile the earth has entered the age of man, where the planet itself is being reformed according to our (unconscious perhaps) plan.