Keeping a ride together – follow the leader

Everyone loves the cornerman system, which is explained both in great depth and with much convolution on most motorbike forums. But I quite like playing follow the leader, and much as it’s probably how you ride anyway, sometimes people ask how a ride is going to work. Here’s what I call ‘follow the leader’ and some other people call ‘the buddy system’:

  • You set off in a line, and maintain that order. No overtaking each other.
  • You pause at corners to wait for the guy behind you. At the beginning of the ride you agree on how he’ll signal that he understands where to go – I always suggest a wave since that’s really hard to accidentally do, but some people like headlight flashes.
  • As you’re going along, you keep an eye in your wing mirror for the guy behind you, if he disappears for a while you stop and wait, eventually going back if the guy in front of you comes back for you (he having waited a while).
  • If you get to a corner and you don’t know where to go you stop. Eventually the guys in front will be back.


Why I won’t be mirroring Wikileaks

I have a fair amount of ‘spare’ server space, and some very understanding service providers, and so it makes sense for me to mirror things in general, which I do. So when Wikileaks went down, mirroring it seemed quite a natural response. They need mirrors, and I have a mirror. I’ve been looking for something to do with my domain for a while, and this seemed like a good bet.

Also in favour is the fact that Wikileaks is being a bit of a pain to a few institutions (well, governments) that annoy the crap out of me; I’d not mind being part of that. In addition, the huge majority of the released cables appear to be of no interest whatsoever, and the large governmental opposition to them has only served to increase the perception of their importance. I’d like as many people as possible to be able to read them such that they can judge for themselves how interesting they are. The point appears to be less what’s been found out and more that anything has at all.

But I have concernes, too. Firstly, these cables were all sent on the basis they were confidential, so they naturally contain the sort of information that neither end wants made public. I’m already livid at the apparent acceptance of just anybody being able to subject me to surveillance, and I don’t see why embassy staff should necessarily be treated differently. The argument that they work for the government is moot – millions of privately-employed people do work for the government, and they also should have a right to an expectation of privacy. I honestly have no problem at all with governments talking to each other in privacy, it seems to be quite a natural way of working and is not at all contrary to the idea of an open government.

Second, and of more concern than that, is the sort of things these people are likely to be sticking down encrypted tunnels. I don’t want to inadvertently find myself hosting a document that results in an informant being tortured or killed. I don’t really want to be party to releasing information that only serves to embarras or otherwise compromise someone. I don’t want *anyone* to do that, but I’ve only got control over my servers.

That’s all well and good, you say. Wikileaks are sifting through these and specifically redacting anything they deem not fit for release. That’s some hubris right there.

And here’s the difference. I trust the Debian project, and Canonical, the Perl foundation, Zend and the like, to not put things I disagree with on my server. I do not trust Wikileaks in this respect at all.

The whole ‘Collateral Murder‘ release is a great example of Wikileaks not releasing information for the sake of it being free, but releasing specifically compromising information, with a decidedly skewed context, in order to further some particular viewpoint. That video, or perhaps its commentary, removed the bulk of my respect for Wikileaks. Why on earth would I assume they’re not going to similarly skew the releases here also? Wikileaks does have a stated aim they’re pursuing with all the leaking; it’s not just because they feel information should be free.

So, it’s not that I’ve got some opposition to the leaking, or feel that it shouldn’t be mirrored. It’s just that I don’t feel I can trust Wikileaks to only publish what I think should be published, and picking-and-choosing which bits to host is not how a mirror works.

Why I like plain text email

Firstly, this isn’t an attempt at conversion. It’s here becaue I keep getting asked why I tend to send and prefer to read mail in plain text. I don’t really mind what you send mail in, so long as you accept that I’m not near an html-capable mail reader very often and if there’s no plain text part I’ll just not read it until I am, and that I treat html email as I do websites – if I don’t like the look of it, I don’t read it.

When you send me an email, all I want is the words. I’ve spent much time experimenting with different fonts, point sizes and colour combinations and I know what works for me. It is ~7pt white monospace on dark grey. I don’t particularly like having to read emails in other formats, particularly not the current vogue of sans-serif black on white, and if I’m honest I don’t see why I should – I’ve don’t recall ever recieving an email where the font face or colour scheme bore much of an effect on my understanding of the contents beyond my ability to read it comfortably.
Similarly, I accept that you probably don’t want to read your emails as if it’s some kind of inverse midget typewriter, and I will never send you an email that requires you to. If I send you an email, I will send you nothing more than a string of words, and leave it entirely up to you (and the configuration of whatever you choose to read your mail with) do dictate what it looks like when you read it.

Much as there is an html standard1, there are several differences in its implementation; formatting a mail message in HTML will only ever create an email that renders as you designed it in some fraction of mail clients. Microsoft are the traditional champions of standards deviation, and they also produce what appears to be the most populous mail reader. Creating an html email in whatever you use to write emails is therefore unlikely to render in mine in the same way, and neither needs to be particularly incorrect for this to happen.
This makes sense, though. Email has never been a means of sending beautiully typeset documents – it’s for exchanging messages. If the formatting of a document is of particular importance, it should be stored in some format that always renders correctly, something like pdf or DjVu.

Plain text is substantially smaller than HTML. While I’m not on a limited mobile broadband contract, I’m still subject to the relentless advance of technology in the UK, and as such rarely come close to the 3mbps that T-Mobile promise me. HTML email takes longer to download than plain text, because it takes a whole bunch of characters to document the layout. Since I’m going to do my best to ignore these in any case, I’d rather not download them.

Plain text email doesn’t feature images and obsfucated links – a URL in a plain text email can only possibly be a link to the url displayed, since there is no way of encoding it otherwise.

Finally, I like the convenience of being able to use a plain text mail reader. Wherever I am, if I want to read my mail I can log in to my mailserver, fire up mutt and read the mail. In plain text.

  1. OK, there’s a few of them – that’s the nice thing about standards. But there is at least a standardised way of declaring which standard you are following, and most accurate interpreters of one are good for all earlier ones []

Why I use Linux

This is one of those things that’s always difficult to explain. The bits of Linux that I miss on other platforms are not things that you immediately see as being of particular importance. The best example of this is the freedom – why would I care that I’m free to do as I please with this software? I’ve no idea, if I’m perfectly honest. But what follows is a list of the things I miss the most when I find myself on something else (most often WinXP):

With very little in the way of limitations, I can make it look and behave how I want it to. Most obviously, I can customise the taskbars and notification areas, add monitoring icons, change colours, configure keyboard shortcuts and the like. But I can also tear out bits of the system that I don’t particularly want, optionally replacing them with options I prefer. Or just use daft keyboard mappings where every key acts as if it was three to the left or something.
The important bit is that my Linux PC works in the way I want it to. When I’m on a Windows box, I must work in the way it wants me to.

Two Clipboards
In xorg, the most prolific window server on Linux, you have two clipboards. One is the ‘normal’ one which you manually insert stuff into through <ctrl>+<c> or <ctrl>+<shift>+<del> and pasted with <ctrl>+<v> or <ctrl>+<shift>+<ins>. The other is automatically populated by highlighting text with the mouse cursor and pasted with the middle mouse click. It’s a fantastically quick way of copying and pasting.

Multiple Workspaces
If you’ve used them, you’re probably nodding in agreement, if you haven’t, it’s difficult to explain. The best way I can think of is to imagine a KVM switch, but where all the monitors you switch between are those on a multi-monitor display. If anyone’s got any better ways of explaining it, please let me know so I can stick it here.

Always On Top
I know Windows Task Manager can do it, but that’s about the only window I’ve never wanted to keep on top of the others.

Text Based
Linux is mostly text-based in its configuration, and is generally blessed with at least three sets of wonderfully powerful text processing tools (the shell, Perl and Python). This means that batch changes to configurations are really easy, as is exporting particular bits of configuration and importing them to somewhere else. Also, the fact that the shell is as powerful as the clicky interface means that pretty much anything you might want to do can be automated. Which brings me on to:

Windows in particular seems to have a bit of an aversion to automating things. I don’t know if it’s just the Windows environments I’ve found myself in, the fact that most tasks are substantially easier (if more time consuming) with a mouse than on the command line, or because the batch file setup is crap, but there seems to be something about a Windows environment that lends itself very well to the pointless replication of manual work.
Linux practically forces you to automate things. Typing commands into a shell, while easy and quick, isn’t particularly fun. And it’s so obviously easily automatable that, well, you might as well.

If I want a gopher client, I open up my repository client, search for ‘gopher client’, read the descriptions of what it shows up, download what looks best and start using it.
This software has come from the same place as the operating system, so I can trust that it is not malware, that the description is accurate and that it will be compatible with my system. It will also be upgraded when I update the system.
It’s easier, more secure, faster and more convenient than the Windows way of trawling the net and trying to work out on what basis to judge the trustworthiness of a particular application. Though if I’m that way inclined, the repository system doesn’t stop me doing that.

Hardware Compatability
Maybe I’m just unlucky, but most times I’ve installed Windows, I’ve then spent a couple of hours visiting manufacturer’s websites trying to find drivers for my hardware so I can get anything at all working. Sometimes on a fresh install I have a working network, but generally I’ve needed to find graphics, wifi, usb, audio and various chipset drivers at the very least, quite often ethernet ones, too. It’s not helped by the fact that Windows is apparently completely unaware of what hardware’s in the box until you’ve installed the correct driver for it, which makes working out which driver you need more a game of chance than a methodical process.

Modular and integrated
The unix philosophy is for software to be small, simple and have a single well-served purpose. This is generally adhered to in the free software world, mostly because it’s a pretty good approach.
For example, I have aspell installed. It’s a spellchecker and it checks spelling. It does so in my web browser, mail client, IM client and office suite. If i typed in anything else, it’d probably work there, too. This means I only ever need to add words to the dictionary once, and it’ll be considered valid everywhere. It also means that the people who develop my web browser and mail client can concentrate on developing good web browsers and mail clients, and leave the spell checking up to the people who develop spell checkers.

The Community and its support
It’s massive. Or, perhaps rather, they’re massive. And useful. I’m on a number of mailing lists and forums dedicated to sharing tips and helping people with free software. If I’m having trouble with anything Linux based, there’re three or four pools of several thousand enthusiasts who are not only likely to know or be able to find an answer, but will probably enjoy doing it. And they run across the spectra of difficulty, use cases and user stupidity.
I’ve spent a long time trying to find similar for Windows, but there appears to be a jump from free home user level support to pay-for business use support.

No Marketing Department
One fantastically huge advantage of free software is that there’s no incentive to make it popular. In contrast to commercial software where the aim to sell as many licenses as possible, the only possible aim of free software is to produce the best software possible. Any large free software project has this aim, since there is no other way to be popular.
This is brilliant, for several reasons. Firstly, the software tends to turn out pretty good. Secondly, marketing teams don’t get anywhere near it, so design and feature decisions tend to be founded in reality. There’s no 3d accelerated solitaire (to my knowledge), but there’s the above list of features. Thirdly, upgrades are non-compulsory. You’ll never have version 1.4 stop working because 1.5 is out. You might well find that security updates are no longer released and so you’re advised to upgrade, but if you *really* like 1.4 you can hire a developer to patch the security holes and develop it in the direction you want it developed.